Interview with Batya about Managing a Shiva House

Batya MedadBatya Medad lives in Shiloh, Israel and writes Shiloh Musings and Me-ander. She has written about helping with shiva, making shiva calls and managing a shiva house on her blogs, so I asked her if she would answer a few questions for mine. Batya is also the manager for the Kosher Cooking Carnival, and she is always looking for new hosts.

How does it get decided in your community who will set up a shiva house?  Food, chairs, mirrors?
Generally the family’s close friends come in a “take charge” when they hear that the entire family is sitting shiva.  Unfortunately, we’ve had quite a few cases due to murderous terror attacks, or death of a parent or child from illness or accident.  When a non-shiva sitting relative comes to help, they generally thankfully accept the community’s help and work together.
In those cases when the entire family is sitting, we make up two sets of “help” charts, meals for the mourners and “shifts” so a person (or two) to be there at all times, from early in the morning until bedtime.

In our community, a chesed committee affiliated with the shul often helps with arranging the shiva.  Does it work differently in different communities in Israel?
I only know what happens here in Shiloh, but my guess is that most communities do something similar, sometimes more and sometimes less.  When the son of a friend in Jerusalem was killed in an accident, I got the impression that their friends were helping out, just the way we do.

In Israel, shuls aren’t always as community minded as abroad.  Each shul and community are different.  Here our shuls are neighborhood and “eidah,” like Ashkenaz or Yemenite, while friendships are more across the board. Some north African Jews serve festive meals through the shiva or just the last night (Leora’s note: we went to a shiva recently in Highland Park of Jews originally from north Africa where a festive meal was served on the last night), and that community helps each other more with the special foods. 

What kind of difficult situations have you come across in trying to help out with shiva?
“difficult?”  I’ve never sat shiva, so I don’t know what it’s like to be on that side.  May my parents live to a 120, the same for my husband and children.  Helping mourners must certainly be less “difficult” than being one, but…

I’m the type who isn’t comfortable doing anything in someone else’s kitchen, but when helping in a mourner’s home, that’s what I have to do.  Since my kids are grown, I’ve taken “early shift” many times and frequently I have “first morning.”  After the unpleasant sampling salt when looking for sugar and being terrified of traifing (making non-kosher) up someone’s kitchen, the first thing I do is look for someone who isn’t of the shiva but close to the family and we try to label the kitchen.  I once cut out “meat” and “dairy” out of contac paper and pasted the labels on each side of the kitchen cabinets.  If a stranger ever has to help, at least there are easy clues.

A mourning youngster who can’t sit still, under Bar/Bat Mitzvah but old enough to know the kitchen is sometimes perfect for helping with the labeling. 
Generally mourners have a few hours or even a couple of days between notification and burial.  You can check with a rabbi, but labeling the kitchen may be just the task for someone in hyper-mode desperate for something to do.  Another, very different, advice for the mourner is make sure that the clothing you’ll be wearing for “kriya,” ritual ripping, can be ripped.  Lycra/polyester isn’t a good idea.  Some knit fabrics are too strong and don’t cut easily.  In Israel the custom is real ripping of the clothing.  Layered outfits are good.  Many women use a safety pin to preserve modesty after the ripping. In Israel it’s not customary to wear black, nor suits to funerals.  We don’t dress up like for a church service.  Yes, black isn’t a Jewish custom.  I once had one of those tragi-comic experiences trying to make the cut in a friend’s outfit.  I was afraid I’d stab her, since the cloth was so strong.  Female mourners shouldn’t wear skirts that will ride up when sitting, not very comfortable or modest.  Long and loose are best, so you don’t have to worry about what shows or keeping your knees together.

Can you give advice to someone who wants to help?

  • There should be one person in charge to coordinate. 
  • Ask the mourners about food preferences, diet, allergy, kashrut supervision etc.  Do they want a rest break in the middle of the day?  When will bedtime be?  When will pre-Shabbat Mincha and other davening (prayer) times?  At what time to close before Shabbat?
  • If the community has an email list, publicize the schedule plus name and number of those who are in charge of food and help. 
  • Have a sign up of davening, rest and bedtime on the door. (Leora’s note: One can post the visiting times on the front door – this is what my father did recently when he sat shiva for his brother, and it helped him out a lot).
  • Keep a running shopping list and have a person in charge of shopping daily, marking off what has already been bought.  Clarify payment with the family or any charity fund.
  • Request that whenever possible food be brought in disposable pans.  It’s a nightmare to return things.  If not disposable, then make sure pans are labeled, meat, dairy, parve and name of owner.
  • Make sure the family eats and drinks and takes medicine.  A diabetic friend dropped dead of a heart attack about a week after getting up from sitting shiva for a sister.
  • When there are young children, it’s permitted to launder their clothes etc.  Find out what their rabbi says.

We don’t serve the morning minyan. I was horrified when a friend returned from the states after sitting shiva for a parent and discovered that he was supposed to wine and dine the men who showed up in the morning. Halachikly that’s forbidden. Mourners are supposed to be cared for not run restaurant services.

In Israel it’s common to set up outdoor “mourning tents” or shade for extra space. 

If you’re the relative running shiva, like when I ran it for my husband and his sister both times they sat, you can ask for help of the community if needed.  When their mother died, very unexpectedly, the funeral was a Thursday or Friday and I welcomed the community’s offering of food.  There was just too much for me to do to get the house ready for everyone who would be over for Shabbat.  Never be shy about asking for help.  It’s a mitzvah to help a mourner and many people are willing when they know you need some assistance.

Read more about shiva on Batya’s posts on this topic:

•  •  •

Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I will make sure Batya gets the question.

See also How to Pay a Shiva Call: A Guide for non-Jews, non-observant Jews, and anyone else who wants to learn the laws of shiva.

16 thoughts on “Interview with Batya about Managing a Shiva House

  • Very complete and informative interview!

    RE: wearing layers as the kri’ah outfit –
    I believe that when one is sitting shiva for a parent specifically, the (general? universal?) custom is that the tear has to be on all the layers – including the one closest to the skin.

    Besurot tovot!

    • no, that isn’t the case here. When the rabbi came to me and asked my sister-in-law to tear, he’d said, oh, good, I had another layer underneath. Modesty I believe is the reason.

      I think it’s a beautiful thing how the community, without it being a formal committee, comes to help the mourner. The other “job” that is greatly appreciated, is making phone calls to let other people know about the shiva.

      Even with all our beautiful customs, it is still a very difficult experience to go through. Thank G-d for friends and community.

    • As a friend pointed out, all shiva rules are custom, so each family/rabbi makes different decisions. It is a very difficult experience, losing a loved one, so however the rules are, they are, and if one needs to make an exception, remember that they are all customs…

  • Batya, I admire so much what you do for your community. Thanks for sharing your suggestions. As Hannah said, may we no longer know the sorrow of mourning the young.

  • I left out how we use the community’s email list (yahoo group) to get information out. There’s also an emergency beeper which although is supposed to be for security, it’s also used to announce deaths and funerals. This is very necesary, because in Israel the custom is immediate burial, within hours. Even if it means a midnight funeral.

    It’s a “nes galu’i” very obvious miracle that dozens and frequently hundreds of people manage the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to his/her grave.

    I have some extraordinary neighbors who are experts at organizing food and helpers. They always check if the will be needed and help in all ways.

  • Having recently sat shiva for my father, A”H, I saw firsthand how the community (both in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn and Modi’in, Israel) took care of us. It was a huge comfort and very touching to me.

    May we only share b’sorto tovot…

    • I’m glad that despite the sorrow and the loss, you can say beautiful things about both communities. I found it healing (still do) to make shiva calls to others, even if all I do is listen.

      Happy Occasions!

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