What to Expect

Traditionally, a shiva home is a solemn place. Friends and family gather in a central location to visit mourners throughout the shiva period. It is important to check with the family to see what time of day the mourners are receiving condolence calls.

Atmosphere
When one arrives at the home, the front door is usually unlocked in order to allow visitors to enter quietly without ringing the doorbell or knocking. Once in the presence of mourners, it is customary to wait until the mourner speaks before greeting the mourner.

Making a shiva call brings comfort to the mourners and helps them fulfill their religious obligations during mourning. Therefore, although we see at times a festive atmosphere, a shiva home should be subdued. In nontraditional homes, dress is usually casual, but should be appropriate for attending a religious ritual.

Mourner’s Dress and Appearance
A mourner will usually wear a torn black ribbon on his or her clothing. This ribbon, known as a keriah (torn) ribbon, symbolizes the tear in the mourner’s heart for his or her loss. In traditional communities, people's clothing may be torn near their hearts. Visitors may also see that mirrors are covered. Although there are many explanations for this practice, the most accepted one is that a mourner should not be concerned with his or her personal appearance at this time. In addition, when in mourning, some people will not wear makeup or new clothing, and men won’t shave. For the same reason, some people will not wear shoes. 

Prayers and Services
A minyan or prayer service is held for the mourners every day during shiva. Traditional Jews may hold a morning and afternoon/evening service. Mourners are comforted by family and friends who participate in this prayer service. The Kaddish prayer is recited at the conclusion of the service in memory of the deceased.

Cleansing
Upon returning to the cemetery there may be a pitcher of water outside the front door to wash one’s hands. This custom has many sources, but the most common reason is to symbolically wash off any impurities associated with the cemetery and death.

Sitting on a Low Chair
Mourners may be sitting on low stools or boxes as a means of expressing grief.

Burning a Candle
A tall candle burns in the shiva home for seven days as a memorial. 

 

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