Preparing the Shiva House

There are many traditional rituals and customs of Jewish mourning and sitting shiva. Some people, however, may choose to observe only those traditions which are meaningful to them and may be less traditional in the customs they decide to follow. In preparing the shiva house, it is important to understand what is meaningful to you or the deceased and the level of observance desired. 

Front Door
In preparing the shiva house, the front doors are left unlocked to avoid the noise of doorbells or knocking, and allowing visitors to enter peacefully and quietly without distracting those in mourning.

Burning Candle
The family in mourning lights a candle upon returning from the cemetery, and it burns for the traditional shiva period of seven days.

Seudat havra'ah or the Meal of Consolation
The first meal (“Seaudat Havra’ah”) served to the mourners upon returning home from the cemetery is the condolence meal. Traditionally, foods associated with life are served, such as hard boiled eggs. The family’s tastes should be considered in preparing a meal. Friends may bring food for the shiva house to demonstrate care and concern for the mourners.  

Covering Mirrors
Before a mourner returns from the cemetery, a friend or family member covers all of the mirrors in the house which remain covered during the shiva. This is intended to evoke a period of self-reflection.  At this time mourners do not worry about their look or appearance. In fact, mourners generally do not wear make-up, shave or wear certain clothing items, including leather.

Cleansing 
Upon returning from the cemetery, those preparing the shiva house will generally have a pitcher of water waiting outside for the mourners and visitors to wash their hands. This traditional cleansing occurs before anyone enters a shiva house and is the ritual which distinguishes a mitzvah (worthy act) of honoring the dead from the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved. 

Shoes
The mourner typically removes his or her shoes and refrain from wearing leather shoes.

Sitting Low to the Ground
The process of mourning is difficult, painful and grief stricken.  As part of the mourning process mourners traditionally sit on small chairs, stools or benches that are very low to the ground and noticeably uncomfortable. This is symbolic of being “brought low” emotionally by the passing of a loved one. A visitor, meanwhile, can sit on the furniture or other chairs made available. 

The aforementioned items help show that in a traditional context the mourner is uncomfortable and honors the significance of the loss.

 

Suggested Books:
A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort by Ron Wolfson 
Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning Edited by Jack Riemer & Sherwin B. Nuland 
The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm