Judaism holds numerous traditions to mark the ebb and flow of life, and the death of a loved one is not left out. In fact, marking the passing of a loved one is seen as a vital part of life for both the mourner and their community.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Shiva Call?
- What Goes on During a Shiva Call?
- What Should You Bring to a Shiva Call?
- What Should You Wear to a Shiva Call?
- What Should You Say at a Shiva Call?
- What Should You Do If You Can’t Attend a Shiva Call?
Shiva, sometimes known as sitting shiva, is a sacred time that allows mourners to acknowledge their loss and for the community to gather around and show support, love, and care. If you’re preparing to attend a shiva, this article will explain everything you need for a successful visit.
What’s a Shiva Call?
In Jewish tradition, death is taken seriously, and mourners are given specific periods to express their grief and have their loss validated. A shiva call is an essential part of Jewish funeral customs for both the mourner and their community.
Shiva is a seven-day mourning period that begins immediately after the funeral concludes. The word shiva means ‘seven’ and signifies that the mourner will grieve for a specific seven-day period. During this period, friends, family, relatives, acquaintances, and strangers may visit the mourner and perform a shiva call.
While the act of sitting shiva allows the mourner to express grief and mourn their loss, a shiva call enables the community to gather around the family of the deceased loved one and express their love, concern, and connection with them. Those who perform a shiva call don’t need a specific connection with the deceased to call. Even perfect strangers are welcome to perform a shiva call.
In the Jewish faith, a shiva call is a “mitzvah” or a good deed. Calling during shiva isn’t a mere suggestion, but rather a necessity as part of the Jewish community. Those who perform a shiva call are there to genuinely acknowledge the loss, validate the mourner’s pain, and let them know they aren’t alone.
Sitting shiva gives mourners the freedom to mourn and a safe space to express their grief without any social obligation. Mourners will not change their clothes, wear makeup, shower, or serve food.
Shiva calls are not so the caller can feel good about themselves. Many times, shiva calls are uncomfortable and awkward. No matter how uncomfortable you may feel, remember that you’re performing a shiva call for one primary purpose - to let the mourners know they are not alone.
What Goes on During a Shiva Call?
Right about now, you’re probably wondering what to do during a shiva call. How do you act? When should you visit? What do you wear? These traditions have been around for years, and the details have been collected for everyone to learn what happens during a shiva call.
Start of shiva
Shiva officially begins as soon as the funeral is concluded. A loved one, friend, or neighbor does not call on the mourner to perform a shiva call at any time before the funeral.
When the burial concludes and the period of shiva starts, shiva calls may begin.
Visiting times, days, or hours
Often, the mourner and their immediate family will set specific hours when shiva calls may be paid. Defining visiting times ensures that the family can carve out time to rest and mourn in private. If particular hours and days have not been announced, call a close friend of the family ahead to find out about the best times to visit.
There are certain days when shiva is suspended or canceled altogether. On these days shiva calls are not made, and they include:
Sabbath - from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday
Rosh Hashana - shiva is concluded
Erev Yom Kippur - no shiva call
Sukkot - shiva is concluded
Chanukah - no shiva call
Purim - no shiva call
Passover - shiva is concluded
When shiva falls during Sabbath, the Sabbath is observed, and shiva calls may continue after Sabbath concludes.
When shiva coincides with the above holidays, shiva is usually concluded altogether unless there was no chance to mourn. If shiva has not been held, it will begin after the Jewish holidays.
Symbolic washing of hands
In many observant Jewish homes, you’ll see a bucket of water outside the door to perform a symbolic washing of hands before entering.
While the interpretation varies, the traditional understanding of this act is to cleanse oneself before entering the mourner’s home.
When you call during shiva, there are a few specific points to keep in mind.
First, the front door will probably be left unlocked, and you can let yourself in. Shiva callers shouldn’t knock or ring the doorbell, as this may disrupt the mourners or conversations taking place.
When you walk in, you may seat yourself or stand, but you don’t address the mourner. This gives the mourner time to acknowledge your presence without distracting from a conversation or period of weeping.
When the mourner acknowledges you, it will usually be with a head nod or a similar greeting. The mourner will not get up from their seated position, but this isn’t a sign of rudeness - it’s a way to continue acknowledging their loss.
Conversing with the mourner
Speaking with a mourner during shiva is likely to be an unusual experience. The often ingenuine, “Hi! How are you? I’m okay,” banter is entirely removed from the mourner’s household.
As a caller, you may feel the urge to say something to lighten the mood or distract from the uncomfortable feeling of dealing with death and grief. However, shiva is meant for this level of discomfort. It’s a time to acknowledge the pain and loss a mourner is experiencing.
When you visit in traditional homes, you’re expected to remain silent until spoken to. When the mourner acknowledges you, you can then talk with them. Remember to allow the mourner to direct the conversation. They may ask about your family, but you should take care and only respond about your life briefly.
The shiva caller should allow the conversation to be directed by the mourner. They decide what to talk about and how the conversation should go. The mourner might need to talk about their loss, bring up memories of their loved one, or simply sit and weep. Your role as a visitor is to discuss what is on their heart and listen. If they want to weep, sit with them and weep.
Again, the importance of a shiva call isn’t to converse or try and make the person feel better. It’s to simply show that you’re there in support of the mourner and to help them see that they aren’t alone.
Conversing with others
When you visit, you’ll probably see friends and neighbors you know, some of whom you haven’t seen in years. While it can be a tempting opportunity to catch up, you shouldn’t distract from the real reason for your visit.
If wanting to converse with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, quietly plan a time to meet up later. A shiva call is not the time or place to make light conversation with other callers.
How long to visit
Shiva calls are short, usually twenty to thirty minutes in total. The purpose of a shiva call isn’t to pay a social visit—it’s to physically demonstrate that you’re available for the mourner. Twenty to thirty minutes is usually enough to demonstrate this sentiment. Short visits also allow the mourner to rest in between visitors.
Additionally, you should not expect to eat anything during your visit. You may, if you desire, but food is primarily for the mourner and their family. Since shiva visits are so short, there should be no need for shiva callers to eat.
How many times to visit
You may make as many shiva calls as you like. Close friends, neighbors, and family members often visit daily. There is no limit on the number of days you can pay a shiva call.
Times of prayer
According to Jewish customs, mourners will pray three times a day. This is called the Kaddish and is an essential prayer that both acknowledges the mourner’s pain and God’s goodness in the midst of their trial.
If you experience this while present you may participate in reciting the prayer with the mourner. You might hear other Jewish funeral prayers spoken during your visit, as well.
When you leave a mourner’s home, you don’t say goodbye. Instead, you offer a traditional phrase such as, “May God comfort you” or “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The mourner is not required to acknowledge your departure and remains seated.
What Should You Bring to a Shiva Call?
The mourner is required to abstain from cooking, serving, cleaning, and performing daily tasks, so it's always nice to bring something to shiva. It’s a time set apart for mourning and should be supported by the community.
Because of this focus, it’s helpful when callers bring food items for the mourner and their immediate family to eat.
Food to bring
When bringing any food, be sure you’re aware of dietary restrictions in addition to making sure the food you bring is Kosher. You can bring items such as:
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Cut up fresh fruit
- Finger foods
- Challah bread
- Baked goods
- Frozen meals
Food to avoid
A good rule of thumb is to never bring anything that requires a significant amount of prep work. You should also avoid non-Kosher items.
Even if the family does not follow Kosher rules, some visiting guests might.
Other items to bring to a shiva call
While food certainly ranks as the most popular item to bring to a shiva call, you might want to consider taking a few other things with you, including:
- Prayer book and shawl: If going straight to the synagogue after your visit or if you'll have an opportunity to pray while visiting, make sure you have both of these on hand.
- Pictures and stories: Bring along a few pictures of the deceased and a story or two to share with loved ones. If there’s an appropriate opening, you can share more than food.
- Tissues: Whenever attending any type of gathering for the grieving, tuck a pack of tissues in a pocket or purse. Even if you don’t need them yourself, you’ll likely find a grateful recipient if someone forgot theirs.
- Flexibility: Making a shiva call means being present to support the family members. Be flexible and willing to listen to their stories, offer a few of your own if asked, or simply sit in silence with the hurting family.
Other items to avoid bringing to a shiva call
What not to bring is often overlooked but is just as important as what you should take with you. Take a look at a few items to avoid at all costs:
- Flowers: Though many cultural traditions support flowers sent or given to grieving families, shiva is not one of them. Do not bring flowers or send flowers to the family during this time.
- An agenda: Shiva is all about the grieving family. Go with a willingness to simply be there for the family and respond to their needs. Be ready to share stories if the opportunity arises but also be okay with saying nothing at all. Go with an open mind and no agenda.
- Complaints: This isn’t the time to share complaints about the deceased. Conversations and stories should always respect the deceased person. As the old adage goes, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
What Should You Say at a Shiva Call?
When sitting shiva, you’ll have numerous opportunities to interact with the family and other guests in attendance. Let this guide you when figuring out what to say.
What to say to the deceased’s family
During shiva, you’ll likely have opportunities to speak with the deceased’s family. During this time, you can share stories about their loved one or offer a simple message of condolence, depending on how well you knew the person.
For a close friend or relative: “My heart aches with yours at the thought of Aaron no longer being with us. Our family grieves with yours during this time.”
“I have so many fond memories of Bubbe Jenny. She and I used to eat ice cream together on the back porch during the summer. She had such a good, long life. I was blessed to know her.”
For someone you don’t know extremely well: “I am so sorry for your loss. Mendel will be missed.”
“We all loved Todd so much. He will forever be missed by us all at the office.”
“I'm here for you. Your loss is our loss, too.”
When saying goodbye: “My heart aches with yours. May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
What to avoid saying to the deceased’s family
You should avoid saying a few things when speaking with the deceased’s family. Some of these phrases are often spoken because guests aren’t sure what else to say. If at all possible, avoid saying these things. If you can’t think of anything else, simply offer a hug or handshake and your silent presence.
“It’s all going to be okay. Time heals all wounds.”
“My mom had the same kind of cancer your mom had. Thankfully, my mom’s is in remission and we hope it stays that way.”
“We just lost my dad a year ago and it was so hard to get through the days afterward. We understand exactly what you’re going through.”
“How did your [relative] die?”
“I was so scared we would lose my brother two years ago when he was diagnosed with the same illness as your cousin. Thankfully he’s here and alive today.”
In general, always avoid platitudes or telling the mourner that “it’s going to be okay.” For someone who lost a loved one, it may not feel like they'll ever feel happy again. And that’s what shiva is all about. Shiva is a time for friends and relatives to validate the feelings of those in mourning. Never compare their loss to yours, express relief that their loss isn’t yours, or try and gloss over what they are feeling.
What to say to other people at the shiva call
Sitting shiva is something you do to support the mourners. It’s not a social engagement, nor is it an opportunity to connect with old friends. If quiet conversation is made with another guest, it should be about the deceased. Never talk about the game, your weekend plans, your children, or anything other than the person who passed away.
“Abram was such a loving grandfather.”
“Jenny was a wonderful cook and an excellent seamstress.”
“I’ll miss Tim’s funny jokes.”
“It’s hard to imagine a world without Bob in it.”
You may want to ask guests how they are and what they’ve been up to if you haven’t seen them in a while. You’re not there to catch up with old acquaintances or ask about a picture they posted on Facebook. Keep conversation to a minimum and always centered around the deceased and their family.
What Should You Do If You Can’t Attend a Shiva Call?
Keep in mind that most shiva calls should be kept to a visit of no more than five to 15 minutes. These short visits show your support to the family and don’t need to be overly long.
If, however, your schedule doesn’t permit you to attend within those seven days, you can do a few other things you can do instead.
Virtual attendance to events such as funerals has increased exponentially in the past few years. If virtual attendance is an option, then schedule a time with the host to join through a digital platform. Someone will coordinate virtual visits including your request to speak with a family member. Once you pay your visit, use the chatbox to say goodbye and log off.
Dress appropriately, eliminate distractions and background noise, and keep the reason for your visit in focus. You will virtually enter into a house of mourning and your attitude and attire should reflect this fact.
Write a letter
Write a letter or send a card expressing your sympathy, a message of condolence, and the reason why you wish you could attend but cannot. Explaining your lack of presence is always a good idea and sharing a message of condolence goes a long way in conveying your love and support during a time of mourning.
Or send an email
If you don’t want to send snail mail, then write an email instead. Make sure your email contains all the elements that you would place into a card or letter.
Your email should be more than a simple, “Sorry I can’t make it” message. Share a memory of the person’s loved one, express your sympathy, and explain your absence.
And call (a few weeks later)
Mourning doesn’t stop when the week of shiva concludes. The time after mourning can be an especially difficult time since guests stop coming and the mourners are expected to pick up with life again.
Call them a week or two later to check in on them and see how they are doing. Offer condolences and sympathy, share a story or two, and listen to them if they need to share, cry, or simply sit on the phone with you.
What Should You Wear to a Shiva Call?
As with any event centered around mourning, your clothing should be modest and appropriate.
Men’s attire can be simple. Oftentimes, you will want to wear long pants and a nice button-down shirt. Think business appropriate.
For women, it is encouraged to wear a skirt or dress with a hem below the knees. You may want to err on the more conservative side in general, as some families may be Orthodox. The same thing goes for a woman’s top. Usually having something that covers the arms fully helps. A nice blouse with a cardigan in muted colors, like dark blue or grey, is a good way to go.
A Shiva Call is All About Support
When paying someone a call during shiva, you’re taking time out of your day and week to show them that you’re there for them and not only that, but that you recognize and validate their loss.
This act reinforces their right to mourn and grieve, in addition to showing them that they are not alone. If there is one thing you can do to support a mourning Jewish friend or neighbor, pay them a shiva call. They will remember the kindness and support.
- Slochower, Joyce. “The Theraputic Function of Shiva.” Tikkun, Tikkun Magazine, May-June 1993, tikkun.org.
- Popovsky, Mark. “Jewish Ritual, Reality, and Response at the End of Life.” Duke Institution on Care at End of Life, Duke University, May 2007, divinity.duke.edu.
- Kaplan, Arielle. “The Best Foods to Bring to Shiva.” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Nosher, July 31, 2019, jta.org.
- Goldstein, Zalman. “The Rules of Shiva.” Chabad, Chabad, February 19, 2014, chabad.org.