The Origins of Shiva
The practice of sitting shiva is almost as old as Judaism itself, with the first reference to it likely coming in Genesis 7:10 and the following passage:
“And it came to pass, after the seven days, that the waters of the Flood were upon the earth.”
Those “waters” refer to the famous story of Noah’s ark and the 40 days of rain, followed by 150 days of flooding. However, more important to the concept of Shiva is the mention of “seven days.” The Rabbis of the Talmud contend that this was the mourning period for Methuselah, with God only delivering the floods after those seven days had passed.
The Concept of a “Shiva House”
Building from the Biblical concept of seven days of mourning, Jewish people adopted the custom of the sitting Shiva. Mourners stay in the deceased’s home for seven days, though more modern variants allow the mourner to remain in their own home, especially if they lived separately from the deceased. The key is that the mourning family stays together in one place – wherever that place may be – and typically follows these practices:
- Covering all mirrors – Mirrors reflect a human image back to the viewer. They’re covered in a Shiva house to reflect that the death of the owner has disrupted the connection they had to life. Being unable to see yourself in a mirror also allows you to reflect fully on the loss of your loved one.
- Wearing torn clothing – Mourners may wear torn clothing – again a reflection on the loss of connection with the deceased – or a torn black ribbon for the entire seven days.
- Sitting on low stools or pillows – Another symbolic gesture, sitting low to the ground symbolizes the mourner’s bereavement and could perhaps be seen as a way to feel more “grounded” during their time of grief.
As previously mentioned, mourners typically avoid pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, and abstain from daily tasks, including conducting business and shaving. It’s also not uncommon to burn a candle – called a yahrzeit memorial candle – for the entire seven days. Interestingly, some Jewish people also forgo wearing leather shoes due to the comfort they provide. Bathing is also restricted, though mourners can take care of their basic hygiene requirements.
Finally, Shiva ends early if one of the following holidays occurs while the mourners are sitting Shiva – Yom Kippur, Shavuot, Sukkot, Passover, or Rosh HaShanah. Shabbat is an exception. Sitting Shiva is paused for Shabbat, but resumes upon the conclusion of festivities. Furthermore, mourners will continue to sit Shiva throughout any Jewish holidays besides those mentioned.
When Does Shiva Take Place and Who Observes It?
Sitting Shiva is far from the only mourning ritual to take place in the deceased’s home. In Irish wakes, mourners will “sit with the body” for several days before the burial takes place. That’s not necessarily the case with Shiva. Instead, Shiva begins immediately after the funeral takes place, with Jewish custom stating that the funeral should occur within 24 hours of the deceased’s passing.
As for who observes the ritual, it’s typically reserved for close family members, such as spouses, children, and parents. Others may visit the Shiva house during the mourning period – many families leave their doors unlocked to welcome visitors – and some families keep condolence books through which visitors can share meaningful messages about the deceased. As a visitor, your focus remains on observing the customs inherent to sitting Shiva while in the home. Taking business calls could be insulting – doing so removes your attention from the deceased – and acting in anything other than a solemn way defeats the purpose of Shiva.
How Shiva Ends
Shiva ends on the morning of the seventh day spent in the Shiva house. It’s typically accompanied by a symbolic “getting up” action, in which mourners physically rise from the stools or cushions on which they were previously seated and leave the home. However, that custom can vary depending on the mourner’s branch of Judaism. For example, Moroccan Jewish people have a different way of observing the end of Shiva. They’ll often eat a meal together – sharing an important activity with their loved ones – before engaging in a period of study named “mishmara.”
It’s also worth noting that Shiva isn’t necessarily the end of the Jewish mourning period. Most mourners follow Shiva by taking part in sheloshim, a further 30-day mourning period that offers more freedom to engage in everyday activities while reflecting on the deceased. For the children of the deceased, sheloshim can extend until the end of the first year following their parent’s passing.
Begin Shiva With a Ceremony at Beth Olam
Shiva begins with the burial of the departed, with the concept being part of an extended and dignified farewell to somebody who left a mark on your life. If you wish to conduct the burial at Hollywood Forever, the Beth Olam Jewish Cemetery offers several dedicated spaces, including:
- The Hall of David and the Hall of Solomon, the latter being Beth Olam’s oldest mausoleum
- The newly-constructed Garden of Israel
- Lawn plots for those who don’t wish to be buried in a mausoleum
Hollywood Forever is committed to offering a respectful setting in which Jewish mourners can pay their respects to their loved ones before they begin shiva. If you’d like to learn more about our cemetery services, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our dedicated team.