Rabbi Maurice Lamm describes shiva as “the seven days following burial … During this time, the mourner emerges from the stage of intense grief to a new state of mind in which he is prepared to talk about his loss and to accept comfort from friends and neighbors.” One sits shiva for a mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife.
Shiva usually lasts for seven days starting from right after the burial, but a holiday can shorten the period of shiva. Mourners do not sit shiva on the Sabbath; however, certain mourning laws still do apply. You should be able to find out the details of the shiva (where and when) by contacting your friend’s synagogue.
What do I do when I get to the door?
Often the door to a shiva home will be unlocked (unless this is impossible for security reasons). Walk in the door, find the room with the mourner(s), and take a seat on an empty chair. The short, close to the ground chairs are for the mourners.
Your friend will be wearing clothes with a rip. This is called kriah. A mourner rips one’s clothes at the beginning of the funeral. And the same clothing is worn for the seven days of shiva. Also, your friend will probably not have taken a shower during shiva as well (exceptions sometimes apply).
Listen carefully to what is being said. Let the mourner speak first. One does not ask the mourner, “how are you?” It is OK to encourage the mourner to talk about the deceased relative. You might ask the mourner to show you a picture of their loved one.
The short answer is no. If you want to bring something or otherwise help out, ask a friend, a family member not in mourning, a neighbor, or the rabbi if you happen to meet him. If your mourning friend specifically asks you for something, by all means, help out.
How long should I stay?
Some of the books I read suggested twenty minutes. I find it is easiest to leave when there is a break in the conversation.
At the end of a shiva call, visitors say to the mourner: “HaMakom yenacheim etchem betoch sha’ar aveiliei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” — May the Almighty comfort you among those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
Why is there a candle on this post?
The candle is called a yahrzeit candle. Every year on the anniversary of a parent’s death, one lights such a candle. In a shiva house, a longer candle that can burn for seven days is lit.
For more information:
- Aish: one page primer on Practical Guide to Paying a Shiva Call
- Aish: 15 Lessons from Shiva
- Aish: Shiva and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
Books and pamphlets:
- The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Rabbi Maurice Lamm