How to Plan a Shiva

The shiva begins upon returning to the home from the cemetery after the burial of the loved one. Immediately following the passing of a loved one, in the midst of grief and the beginning stages of the mourning process, there are a number of decisions made relating to the coordination and planning of a shiva. There are several items that should be taken into careful consideration when organizing a shiva, to provide comfort for the mourning family.  The guidelines below are tailored to assist the family and their designated shiva coordinators or personal representatives through the planning process.

The Basics of a Shiva
Shiva, the traditionally seven day mourning period for immediate relatives of the deceased, is the first part of the structured grief periods in Judaism. Following directly after the funeral, shiva is meant to provide an environment of comfort, structure, and community to the mourning family. Shiva is an invitation to the family’s community to mourn with the family and to honor the memory of the deceased. Specific observances will vary depending on the beliefs of the family and the Jewish community, so it is important to consider these beliefs when planning the shiva and only include traditions that apply or are appropriate to the family.

Designating a Family Representative
A family representative, or shiva coordinator, is the designated individual that will do the majority of the planning and organizing for the shiva. It is customary for the family to select a shiva coordinator in order to allow the family to focus on their mourning, rather than becoming distracted and frustrated with the many aspects of shiva planning. The coordinator is generally not an immediate family member of the deceased (a parent, child, sibling, or spouse), but may be an extended relative or close friend to the family. Generally, the family selects someone who is close to the family, who knows very well what the family’s preferences are, including the beliefs and level of observance of Jewish traditions. The coordinator is the point person for making all arrangements and is responsible for notifying friends, coordinating meals, and even collecting contributions in the form of checks, cash and credit cards from those contributing to a shiva.

Setting the Length of the Shiva and When to Accept Visitors
Traditionally, shiva is observed for seven days, beginning directly after the burial of the deceased. However, depending on the level of observance and many modern considerations the length of the shiva varies based on many factors. Most importantly, when deciding how long to sit shiva or helping to plan the shiva it is essential to take into account the mourning family’s preference and what the family deems appropriate. Once the length of the shiva is decided, the family and the shiva coordinator will select times when the shiva home will be open for the community to call and when the services will be held. Typically this will be in the evening hours, between the hours of five and nine, with the minyan service scheduled towards the end of the shiva.

Announcing the Shiva Details
Once the calling hours are decided upon, it is important to announce the shiva details to the community. There are many mediums for distributing information about the funeral, burial and shiva. Many use technology and the Internet as a common way to circulate this information including obituary and online resources to serve as a centralized location for dissemination of information. It is also customary to include a small handout for those attending the funeral service to take with them. This hand out includes the location of the shiva home, the dates and times of the shiva, as well as any special instructions for the shiva. For example, if the family would like contributions to the shiva, or donations to be made in memory of the deceased in place of condolence items, this information can be included there.

Coordinating Food Contributions
Arranging and putting together food contributions from multiple sources can be the most stressful part of the shiva planning. Some making a shiva call will bring traditional Jewish food items to the shiva, but a vast majority of others will send their condolences in the form of a contribution, shiva food basket or platter. It is hard to gauge the amount of food that will be brought in by the community, but it is important to ensure that food is provided to the family for the entire length of the shiva and additionally that there is not a large surplus of food that the family will have to dispose of at the end. Often, shivas are catered by delicatessens or restaurants that are familiar with shiva and Jewish mourning traditions. To help simplify this entire process the organizer may collect contributions from those seeking to offer condolences and work directly with the deli, restaurant or caterer to ensure the shiva family is comforted and the process is more streamlined.  Depending on the geographic location of the shiva, there are varying traditions for sending food. It is now very common to announce and request either in the obituary, through a mass email or by other means that all contributions should be made to a single person or resource.  The coordinator can then be relied upon for selecting the food for the shiva.  The name and contact information of the individual or company that is collecting contributions for the catering of the shiva can be disclosed at this time. A coordinator can also use’s Planning Services that can assist with the entire process.

The First Meal during Shiva
The seudat havara'ah, or meal of comfort, is the first meal eaten by the mourning family directly after the burial service, upon returning to the shiva home. The seudat havara’ah is traditionally a private meal for those sitting shiva-- the immediate family of the deceased. Depending on the level of observance and in modern times, this has become a large gathering of extended family and close friends who also partake in the meal, which should be considered when planning. There are some symbolic items generally present during this meal including peeled hard boiled eggs and lentils. While traditionally the food for this meal is prepared entirely by the community, today, it is common for the family representative to ensure that this meal is properly choreographed (i.e., the food is delivered and set up in the shiva home at the appropriate time).

Preparing the Home (Traditional Items, Rental items, Materials)
When preparing the shiva home there are two levels of decisions to be made. The first considerations and preparations are those relating to preparing the home for the mourning family. This requires a discussion with the mourning family or understanding of the level of observance desired.  There are many traditions that can be followed for preparing a shiva home, so the mourning family or representative will need to decide which traditions to follow and to what extent.  The plans for obtaining some of the traditional materials, including low chairs or cushions for the mourning family, prayer books for services and kippot, or head coverings may require coordination with a synagogue or the funeral home. 

In addition to preparing the shiva home for the religious customs, there are logistical preparations in line with hosting the community that the organizer should also consider.  This list is more exhaustive. It includes ordering folding chairs, tables, paper goods, garbage bags, refreshments and coffee, along with professional services or staff that assist during the shiva.  Lastly, a few other helpful preparations to consider when organizing the shiva are creating a door sign to place on the front door of the shiva home with visiting hours and setting out photo albums and other family mementos of the deceased in an open area where the mourners will sit. 


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