Below are some customs, which you may witness when paying a Shiva call.
Shiva is the seven-day period of mourning following the burial. During this time, it is customary for friends and family to comfort the mourners by paying a Shiva call to the house. While Shiva, (derived from the Hebrew word for seven) traditionally lasts seven days, families may sit shiva anywhere from 1 to 7 days. Be sure to check when an appropriate time to pay your respects would be.
• When returning from the cemetery to the Shiva house, a bowl of water is may be placed outside the front door for people to wash their hands before entering the house. This is a symbol of the ancient custom of purification after contact with the dead.
• When returning home from the cemetery, a meal of condolence is often served. Friends of the mourners traditionally provide this meal.
• A candle is lit when returning from the cemetery; it will burn for seven days. There are many explanations for the candle. One is that the candle symbolizes the human being. The wick and flame symbolize the body and soul.
• The mirrors in the Shiva home may be covered. There are a variety of reasons as to why this practice occurs. Click Here to read up on this and other traditions.
• Flowers and gifts are traditionally not given, rather, it is suggested that you make a donation to the synagogue or a charity of the family’s choosing in honor or the deceased.
• In the evening, there is commonly a service in the Shiva home where the Kaddish (a memorial prayer) is recited. A minyan (a group of ten people – ten adult men in Orthodox communities) is required in order for this service to be conducted.
• The mourner be wearing a piece of black cloth on them or, in more Orthodox families, may have a torn piece of clothing.
• The mourners may sit on stools or low benches. This is symbolic of the physical adjustment to ones emotional state, by lowering the body to the level of one’s feelings.
Other questions and answers that may be of help...
Q) What does Shiva mean?
A) Literally it means seven; shiva refers to the seven days of intense mourning following the funeral. During this time the family is said to be “sitting Shiva” or “observing Shiva.” In modern times there is a great deal of variability in how long this period is.
Q) What should one expect at the home of someone sitting Shiva?
A) In the Jewish tradition, comforting the family of the deceased is a community responsibility. Family and friends come to the Shiva home to extend their condolences and support the family. Therefore, unless otherwise stated, you do not need an invitation to attend. Find out in advance if there are certain times the family wishes for visitors to attend. You may want to bring food, or make a donation in memory of the deceased (depending on the family’s wishes).
Q) What is the purpose of the eulogy?
A) The eulogy is intended to praise the deceased for his or her worthy qualities, as well as express the grief and sense of loss experienced by the mourners and the entire Jewish community.
Q) Why do mourners shovel earth into the grave during the funeral?
A) Shoveling of the earth is considered to be a personal goodbye. Also, covering the casket with earth is a symbol of finality, and helps the mourner accept the death.
Q) How should one act while at the cemetery?
A)One should show the same respect as one would show at a synagogue. This means that one should not eat or drink while at the cemetery, as well as that appropriate attire should be worn.
Q) How can you help someone who is grieving?
A) Everyone experiences grief differently. You may be (understandably) uncomfortable as well. Although it may not be what you need, try to take a cue from the family of the deceased. If the family member does not want to talk, respect that. You can tell them you are available if they need you. Some people may want to talk. Let them say as much or as little as they want. Often, the family of the deceased has tremendous support during the Shiva, but the weeks and months following can be lonely and hard. This may be a good time to offer to help them through prayers or other services.
Q) At the cemetery I noticed people placing a rock on peoples graves. Why is this done?
A) Leaving a pebble is a way of erecting a small monument to honor the deceased. It is also a symbol that someone came by to visit this grave.
Q) What is the Kaddish?
A) The Kaddish is a prayer, which displays the vigorous declaration of faith. It transfers the inner gaze of the mourner from the departed to the living, from despair to hope, and from isolation to the community.
Q) What is the Yahrzeit?
A) The Yahrzeit is the anniversary of death. It takes place exactly one year after death has occurred. Mourners often light a yahrzeit candle and attend Shabbat services on the Shabbat closest to the anniversary of death to hear the name of their loved one read.