Guide to Sitting Shiva for Non-Jews: Etiquette & What Happens

End-of-life care educator and grief worker

Published on:

Jewish traditions embrace death as a part of life. Judaism also teaches that it's natural to grieve the loss of a loved one. There are five stages of mourning that begin at the time of death in traditional Judaism: aninut, shiva, sheloshim, yud-bet chodesh, and yahrzeit.

Jump ahead to these sections:

You may be most familiar with — or you might have at least heard of — shiva. This is the mourning period that begins on the day of the burial and is also known as “sitting shiva.” Here’s what you need to know if you’re not Jewish.

What’s Sitting Shiva?

Traditionally, shiva lasts for approximately seven days and begins on the day of a Jewish funeral or burial. In this day and age, however, shiva lasts at least three days.

This type of structured mourning provides the family with time and space to mourn the loss of the deceased. The shiva period is announced at the funeral service. This allows community members and friends the opportunity to plan their visit. 

During shiva, close family and friends gather to grieve. This ritual dates back to biblical times and the word shiva comes from the Hebrew word shiv'ah. The practice of sitting shiva is a dedicated time to mourn and experience grief. 

The Torah mentioned the first Shiva was held when Methuselah, the oldest man in the world, died and that he was mourned for seven days. 

ยป MORE: Are you helping someone through a loss? Make sure you're on the right track with this post-loss checklist.

 

Sitting Shiva Protocol and Customs

Shiva takes place in the home of the spouse, parent, sibling or child of the deceased. The mourning family opens their home and invites family, friends, and community to meet them in their grief. Though shiva is a religious event, any non-Jews are welcome to this event. 

It’s customary to make a shiva call before visiting a family during shiva. This call is to remind mourners that they're not alone. You are encouraged to listen and be compassionate support during the call. Mourners are welcome to express sadness and heartache.

When you approach a home that's sitting shiva, you're invited to walk right in. As shiva is observed, the mourner’s home is open to the community and everyone is welcome.

Shiva is a time to meet the mourners, to share memories and stories about the deceased. It's a time to honor a mourner's grief process without trying to correct or fix it, as the focus is on giving space to mourn without constraint.

Your job as the visitor is to let mourners know you are there as unconditional support and presence. Many cultural societies do not offer opportunities to grieve as a community, often leading mourners to grieve alone and try to hide their grief from everyone. Jewish culture is unique because it embraces community grief. This includes the tears, anger, sadness, and shock that may arise during the period of immediate loss of a loved one.

Mourners are encouraged to continue conversations about the deceased, and shiva creates a safe space for people to grieve without being rushed along in the process. It is recommended to spend no longer than an hour when visiting to sit shiva with friends or family, so the deceased's family doesn't become too overwhelmed or tired.

Designated prayer times are often arranged in the shiva home or synagogue. A rabbi will assist in the coordination of prayer wherever it takes place, and a rabbi is also available for guidance and one-on-one conversation during shiva. 

Rules for Sitting Shiva

There are certain rituals and practices to follow that vary, depending on each home.

The lighting of the memorial candle. This candle is lit as soon as the mourners return home from a burial. Some families may recite a prayer in Hebrew and others might remain silent. The candle is called a ner daluk in Hebrew and it’s lit for the entire shiva.

Mourners sit low to the ground to signify grounding into their grief. Sitting low also parallels any low feelings and depression they might feel.

Mirrors and reflective TVs and devices are covered. This encourages inner reflection and stillness and reminds guests that it's a time of mourning.

Kaddish is recited. Kaddish, pronounced: KAH-dish, is a Jewish funeral prayer recited during this time, where you mourn the dead. It’s often referred to as the mourner’s kaddish. A presence of 10 adult males is required to recite this prayer — the 10 adults indicate that it’s a minyan.

This prayer can take place up to three times a day, depending on the male visitors present at the time. Taking part in this prayer is a high honor.

Shoes and socks are not worn. Sockless, shoeless feet signifies humility. You may also pass a bowl of water on your way into the house in order to wash your hands before entering. The cleansing ritual signifies a transition from honoring the dead to accompanying the mourning.

Men do not shave and women do not wear makeup. Mourners do not indulge in superficial beauties or any luxury grooming rituals. They are able to focus on the life and death of the deceased by taking the focus off their daily routines.

The immediate family might wear torn clothing (right above their heart) to signify their loss. This is a time to stay humble and show on their outside appearance that they are in mourning. The attire worn at a shiva should be simple and modest.

Food is served throughout shiva. Friends and neighbors bring food as a sign of comfort. Mourners usually don't take much time to eat during shiva, but the food is a symbol of nourishment for the soul. Friends will often bring round foods, like bagels and donuts, to signify the circle of life. You may also see traditional Jewish foods like babka, challah, and rugelach. 

Wine and hard liquor are usually available, along with soda and juices. 

You might consider bringing a basket of food or snacks. Read our guide on shiva baskets for some ideas.

A guest book is placed for visitors to sign. The Jewish culture has also adapted this tradition and a condolence book is set out. This book is an invitation for people to write a note of hope and support to mourners.

Immediate family does not work or engage in entertainment. This reflective period is for processing the loss and holding space for the soul that has passed. Mourners’ worlds have stopped — instead of breezing past death and grief, they stop to mindfully mourn it. 

Share your final wishes, just in case.

Create a free Cake end-of-life planning profile and instantly share your health, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions with a loved one.

Important Things to Remember at Shiva

It is important not to bring up conversations about how the person died. If the immediate family wants to discuss this topic, they will bring it up to you. Shiva is a time to remember the deceased and provide family members a shoulder to cry on.

It is suggested to allow people to grieve on their own terms and at their own pace. Each shiva can feel different, whether it’s a family member’s first shiva or their fifth — each shiva can feel like it’s the first. Be open and warmhearted and practice your listening skills. Encouraging deep listening is a compassionate gift you can provide to nurture the quiet reflection of the shiva.

Be intentional when you make your shiva call. It is important to recognize that the person you are calling might be really buried in his or her grief. Meet him or her where he or she is and allow him or her to lead the conversation.

If you are a couple, it is important that you both make a shiva call. Each shiva call is intended to be a one-on-one call between a mourner and a family member or friend. Try to avoid making group shiva calls out of respect for the family and the deceased.

Attending a funeral or making a shiva call does not replace attending a shiva in person. If you live in the same state, it is customary to attend the funeral, make a shiva call, and attend the shiva. This shows the family and your community that you are present in times of suffering.  

What Happens After Shiva? 

When visitors leave the Shiva house, they recite a Hebrew prayer: “Hamakom yenakhem etekhem betokh shaar avelay tziyon viyrushalayim,” which means, "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Shiva ends on the morning of either the third or seventh day. At the conclusion of Shiva, the mourners take a walk to symbolize moving forward. The next stage of grief in Jewish tradition is sheloshim. This word means 30 in Hebrew and this period lasts for 30 days. Unlike shiva, sheloshim is much more informal. Mourners can return to work and resume all other activities.

Transitioning from shiva to sheloshim can be challenging — it can seem abrupt to re-engage with the hustle and bustle of life after intense grief and loss. Some mourners in transition might consult a rabbi for support.

Unlike many other traditions, Jewish culture discourages frequent visits to the gravesite. Instead, there are designated times when visiting a grave is acceptable. This includes early mornings and afternoons and on certain Jewish holidays.

On the whole, sitting shiva is a unique opportunity to engage in different cultural traditions that ultimately support the outpouring of grief. In particular, showing care to the families of the deceased during their mourning periods by coming to listen to their emotions and grief over the loss of a loved one is an encouraging focus on feelings that spring up after this particular type of trauma. Participating during a shiva period may offer new ways to reflect on sadness, and give a new softness to the experience of loss and grief.


Sources

  1. Abramowitz, Jack. Customs Observed in the Customs House, OU Torah. https://outorah.org/p/36028
  2. Reyim, Adat Congregation, A Guide To Jewish Mourning Laws and Practices, Shulcoud, http://images.shulcloud.com/618/uploads/PDFs/mourning5.pdf

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.