The word "shiva" (pronounced SHIHvah) is derived from the Hebrew word sheva which means "seven." Sitting shiva means that the family of a loved one usually reserved for the family of a deceased spouse, parent or child gathers in that loved one's home for seven days. Friends and family visit to support the family as they take time to mourn, and to remember the life of the deceased. While they may not observe the more orthodox practices outlined below, many Jewish families retain the spirit of the tradition in the form of an extended wake, in which friends and family stop by to share memories and grieve together.
Members of the immediate family sit on chairs that are low to the ground historically they used to sit on the ground and wait as friends, family and acquaintances visit to pay their respects. A memorial candle is kept lit for the duration as a symbol of the deceased's eternal soul. Mirrors are covered to remove emphasis from the physical self and turn the focus to the soul, prayer, and God. Mourners also observe a number of other traditions as a symbol of their renunciation of vanity and physical comfort during the mourning period, such as refraining from wearing shoes, makeup, new clothes, getting a haircut, washing clothes, and sexual intimacy.
After the burial and before entering the shiva house, anyone who attended the burial pours water over their hands, usually from a pitcher and bowl by the door, as a symbol of life. For the first meal after returning from the cemetery the mourners may consume foods that are round, such as hard-boiled eggs, lentils, and round vegetables. Symbolically these represent the cycle of life. Those who are visiting the mourning family bring food, as mourners are expected to refrain from cooking and other mundane tasks. There are protocols recommended for those who wish to visit the mourning family, called making a shiva call, about when to arrive, how to dress and comport oneself at the shiva home. Learn more about making a shiva call.
Many modern Jewish families do not practice sitting shiva in the strictest sense. Which was why Mort Foxman's last request was such a shock to his 21st Century family of mostly non-practicing Jews. Reform and other Jews often shorten it from seven days to three, or even one. Orthodox authorities, however, naturally frown on such shortcuts and feel it dishonors the deceased as well as shortchanging grieving family for whom seven days of healing from the loss is considered beneficial. There may be something to that since for Tropper's Foxman family, at least, the experience proved a life-changing watershed event.
This article was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the
July 2010 paperback release.
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