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Judaism-Sitting Shiva Essay, Research Paper

When a loved one dies, it is common for the mourners to immerse themselves in their particular religious traditions. From Buddhism to Christianity to Hinduism, dealing with death and the existence or nonexistence of an afterlife is a fundamental issue that ties people to their faiths. Often the rituals and traditions surrounding death offer insight into other parts of the religion. Blu Greenberg writes in How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, “No matter what, each one of us will die, and just as there is a way to live as a Jew, there is a way to die and be buried as a Jew.” (287) The custom of sitting Shiva is one part of dying and being buried as a Jew.

Judaism considers two basic principles when the laws of death and mourning apply (Kolatch 49). The first consideration is the principle of kevod hamet, which instructs people to treat the deceased with reverence and respect (Kolatch 49). A second principle places concern on the welfare of the living. This principle is called kevod hechai (Kolatch 49). Included in the Jewish laws of burial is a look of disfavor upon embalming and cremation (Kolatch 49). To Jews, blood is regarded as part of the body and should not be removed (Kolatch 52). Cremation is not allowed because of the biblical idea that the body should go back to its original state in the earth (Kolatch 49).

The Jewish funeral and burial is quick, modest, and full of tradition. A simple pine casket is required by Jewish law to relieve the family of the task of choosing a casket style (Greenberg 288). The Cherva Kadisha, who are the sacred burial society, wash the body from head to toe and dress the deceased in a simple white linen shroud (Greenberg 288). If a person was injured, and there is blood on his or her clothes, they will be buried in the same clothes because of the significance of blood to Jews (Greenberg 288).

After the funeral service, it is customary for friends of the mourners to prepare the seudat havra’ah, the meal that begins the process of healing and repair (Greenberg 293). This meal usually consists of bread, hard-boiled eggs, chickpeas and bagels (Robinson 190). The hard-boiled egg symbolizes fertility and reminds the mourners that death is a continuation of the natural cycle (Robinson 190). The other foods are also circular, showing the cycle of life and death (Robinson 190). The seudat havra’ah begins the formal mourning process, called Shiva, which takes its name from the Hebrew word for the length it lasts, seven days (Robinson 190).

As with most Jewish customs, sitting Shiva has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Establishing the first seven days as the most intense stage of mourning is based on an interpretation of a verse in Amos (8:10):

And I will turn your feasts [which usually lasted seven days] into mourning, and all your songs into lamentations; and I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning for an only son; and the end thereof is a bitter day. (Kolatch 63)

Since feasts were celebrated for seven days, this scripture passage suggests that Shiva must last seven days as well (Kolatch 63). Jews also sight Genesis 50:10 which tells of Joseph mourning for his father, Jacob, for seven days (Kolatch 63).

Jews follow very specific religious laws during shiva. “A mourner may not leave the house, perform manual labor, conduct business, cohabit, or perform any act of personal adornment,” explains Helen Latner in The Book of Modern Jewish Etiquette (333). Male mourners are required to recite Kaddish, the mourners prayer, each day (Latner 333). Kaddish can only be said when a minyan, or quorum of ten, is present (Latner 333). Therefore the mourner may attend synagogue if there is no minyan to pray with in the house (Latner 333). Alfred J. Kolatch, in his book, The Jewish Book of Why explains the significance of the Kaddish as, “an expression of the mourner’s praise for God and acceptance of His will, even while the mourner finds himself in great pain, unable to rationalize his [or her] tragedy.”(50)

In the house of the mourners, the mirrors are either covered or are “smoked” with soap (Greenberg 293). There are many proposed reasons for this practice. The most prominent idea is that during a period of mourning, one should not be concerned with how he or she looks (Kolatch 64). Another proposal suggests a primitive fear that since one’s reflection is a projection of the soul, the recently deceased may be able to snatch it up (Robinson, 190). Some mourners have covered mirrors because prayer services are held in the home during Shiva, and it is against Jewish law to pray in front of a mirror (Kolatch 64).

A special Shiva candle is lit that will burn for the entire seven day period (Greenberg 293). The flame of the candle represents the soul and reaches upward relentlessly (Kolatch 65). It is believed that keeping the candle burning during the entire Shiva period will aid the journey of the soul toward heaven (Kolatch 65). The custom of burning the mourning candle originated in thirteenth-century Jewish literature (Kolatch 65).

During Shiva, mourners are required to sit on low stools in accordance with ancient custom (Kolatch 64) Scholars believe this to be based on the Bible’s description of Job (Kolatch 64). While Job suffered his misfortunes, he sat with his friends on “the earth” (Kolatch 64). Jewish law today does not require mourners to sit on the ground, but as close to the earth as possible to symbolize that the mourner is aware that life has changed (Kolatch 64). Sitting close to the ground also helps mourners stay close to the earth where his or her loved one is buried (Kolatch 64).

Jewish traditions place restrictions on hygiene and comfort for the mourners during Shiva. Shaving and haircuts are not allowed during Shiva because remaining unshaven is a sign of social withdrawal and an expression of one’s grief (Kolatch 65). Bathing is restricted to basic cleanliness, and it is considered improper to bathe for pleasure (Kolatch 65). Should urgent business require mourners to leave the house for a short time, mourners will often place sand or earth in their shoes to remind them that they are still in mourning and to return to the house as soon as possible (Kolatch 65). Leather shoes are equated with luxury and comfort and should not be worn during Shiva. This denial of pleasure is an expression of grief (Kolatch 65).

Once the family has had time together for mourning, usually one to three days, it is customary for visitors to pay condolence calls (Robinson 190). The community comes together during this time to help remember the departed loved one and help the family with cooking and other tasks (Robinson 190). The men of the community come together in order to have a minyan so the mourners can say Kaddish (Greenberg 297).

Visitors are often concerned about the initial conversation with the mourners. A normal greeting of shaking hands and saying hello is considered awkward and inappropriate (Greenberg 295). The custom of the visitor saying nothing until spoken to first by the mourner makes it easier and at least slightly less awkward (Greenberg 295). When an initial verbal greeting is made, it will usually be, “Ha-Makom yinakhem otkha b’tokh sh’ahr avalei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” translated as, “May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” (Robinson 190).

It is considered poor taste for visitors to take flowers, candy, or gifts to the Shiva (Greenberg 295). A visitor may bring a gift of prepared food for the mourners to relieve the stress of cooking and cleaning (Lanter 340). It has become customary to contribute to a charity in the name of the deceased instead of bringing elaborate gifts (Lanter 340). A simple act such as going to the supermarket or doing the laundry can be much more helpful than expensive gifts (Lanter 340).

The seventh day of shiva is only a few hours, often ending before noon (Greenberg 295). Jewish tradition considers one hour of a day equivalent to a full day (Kolatch 69). Generally, on the seventh day, the mourners will sit on their stools after the mourning service while those present offer their consolation (Kolatch 69). At this point, it is customary for a close friend or the rabbi to escort the mourner outside for the first time in a week (Robinson 191). Some mourners will take a walk together around the block to symbolize their return to the real world (Kolatch 69).

Judaism recognizes that mourning does not cease after seven days. The continued mourning time extends for the remaining thirty days after the burial (Robinson 191). During this time, called sheloshim, the restrictions on mourners are reduced somewhat (Robinson 191). After this thirty-day period, mourning for spouses, children and siblings is officially over (Robinson 191). It is considered customary, however, for children to continue mourning for a deceased parent for a full year (Greenberg 297). During sheloshim and the continued mourning period for the loss of a parent, the mourners will not shave or cut their hair unless it is necessary (Robinson 191).

From the moment of death to the end of the formal mourning process, Jews take extreme care to ensure the departed loved one is respected and treated with dignity. It is an important part of Judaism to have respect for the dead and accept that even though the death may be difficult to understand, it is part of the perpetual cycle of life and death. Each particular custom related to sitting Shiva has developed out of tradition to help the mourners grieve their loss. Jewish traditions are full of laws, customs, and rituals to help Jews celebrate, marry, live, mourn, and die like a Jew. Shiva is a necessary custom for Jews to focus their energy on their departed loved one, and to remember their relationship with God.


Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. New York: Simon and Schuster,1983.

Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publisher, Inc., 1981.

Lanter, Helen. The Book of Modern Jewish Etiquette. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

Robinson, George. Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

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