What is Sitting Shiva?

Death is a difficult yet inevitable part of life. No one wants to deal with it, but it’s something we must do. And when we experience the death of a loved one, such as a parent, spouse, sibling, or child, life can come to a grinding halt. 

Therefore, it’s critical to have ways of coping with this loss and moving on. Not doing so could dig you deep into a depression and make it hard to keep living life.

Almost every culture around the world has a different tradition or custom for dealing with death. 

For Jews, this is known as shiva, or “sitting shiva.” It’s an important part of Jewish life, but it’s not always known, even by Jews. Here’s everything you need to know about sitting Shiva.

What is Sitting Shiva?

The word “shiva” derives from the Hebrew word for “seven” and it refers to the seven-day mourning period that close relatives of someone who has passed are “required” to observe. 

These close relatives include the parents, siblings, spouses, and children of those who have been lost.

Of course, we’ve put “required” in quotes because it’s not like there is some shiva police force out there making sure you follow this tradition. But according to traditional Judaic laws, this is what you’re supposed to do.

How is Shiva Observed?

During this time, those observing shiva are meant to remain at home so that friends and relatives can come visit them and offer them support and condolences. It is typical to bring small shiva gifts, such as food, to the house when you visit someone sitting shiva. 

In some Jewish circles, those who are mourning wear a black cut garment at the funeral and throughout the entire shiva period as a symbol for what they lost. 

What is the Purpose of Sitting Shiva?

The purpose of sitting shiva is twofold. First, it is a time to honor the person who has died. We so often move on from loss without taking time to pay our respects to those who have gone. Shiva is an attempt to fight against this. 

However, shiva’s other purpose is to help the survivors move on and reintegrate back into society. Death is a difficult subject, and in order to keep going, we must face it and allow ourselves the time to grieve. Shiva is a quasi-mandated version of this. 

But shiva goes one step further by bringing the friends and relatives close to the person who has experienced loss. These individuals are meant to open themselves up and allow the bereaved the chance to process their grief and return to a place of balance. 

Seven days is often not enough for this process to fully play itself out. But Shiva is meant to help it along by giving people the dedicated space and time they need to start the process of carrying on with their lives.

Special Rules and Tradition Regarding Shiva

The basic customs behind sitting shiva include staying at home and welcoming visitors. But there are a few other rules or stipulations. 

First, Shiva does not start until the moment the grave is fully covered with dirt. This is because the family members of the deceased must first see to their proper burial. But once this happens, the mourning period begins and lasts for seven full days.

Another special rule is that if the person who died is less than thirty-years-old at the time of death, it is not required to sit Shiva. This is not to say that such a death is less traumatic than others, but Jewish laws don’t require this official mourning period for such tragedies.

Lastly, if someone dies before a major Jewish holiday, such as Rosh Hashanah, Passover, or Sukkot, then the mourning period only lasts until the holiday begins. It is not necessary to continue the shiva period during these special holy occurrences.

On Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, mourning continues but only in private. Friends and relatives are not supposed to enter the home of the bereaved and are instead meant to observe Shabbat on their own. However, when Shabbat ends, the mourning period continues as normal. 

Sitting Shiva Helps Us Move On

Hopefully, you will never have to worry about sitting shiva. But since death is a fact of life, it will probably happen. However, now that you know its true purpose and how it is observed, you can use this special period of observance to grieve the loss of a loved one, honor them, and start to move forward with life, which is truly the best way to keep our lost loved ones alive.