The Purpose of Sitting Shiva
Shiva is the Jewish period of mourning observed the first week after the funeral of a parent, spouse, sibling, or child.
From the time of death until the conclusion of the funeral, the primary focus and concern is on the care of the deceased and the burial preparations. Once shiva begins, the focus shifts to the mourners. Shiva is a time of reflection, meditation, contemplation and spiritual healing. The difficult process of mourning begins when pain, loss and sadness are expressed. The purpose of shiva is to acknowledge these feelings, not suppress them.
“Sitting shiva,” is intended to be an emotionally healing time where the mourners may dwell together and have friends and loved ones come to support them. The home of a direct mourner is said to be filled with the spirit of the loved one who is now gone. Memories will come easily there, and part of the comfort of shiva is remembering the deceased by sharing stories of his or her life with friends and family. Shiva is a very difficult time that can be physically draining as well. Mourners experience a week of intense sadness, with family and friends giving love and attention to their needs. Judaism teaches us that when a member of our community feels the heart-wrenching pain of grief, we should be there to comfort and console.
It is important to know that all Jewish people do not mourn alike. Some may choose to meticulously observe the traditional rites and customs of mourning while others may be more relaxed in their observance. Some families sit shiva for a day or more and others not at all.
Many mourners will not go to work during the shiva period, run errands outside of the house, or turn on a TV or radio. Some will avoid any type of entertainment or distraction in order to fulfill their need to grieve.
It is considered a great mitzvah (act of kindness) to visit someone “sitting shiva.” A house of shiva is typically well stocked with food and desserts, intended to sustain and celebrate the on-going cycle of life.
The following explains the meaning of customs practiced while sitting shiva.
The Water Pitcher
It is believed that water is the source of all life, therefore when one has come in contact with death, it is proper to pour water over each hand three times (alternating hands each time) in order to focus on life.
The Memorial Candle
The candle, reminds us that our loved one’s soul is eternal. A person’s soul is compared to a flame, since each person brings light into the world. And just as one can take from a flame to light more candles without diminishing the original flame, so too a person can give of him/herself, touching many lives, without ever being diminished.
Mirrors may be covered, as tradition suggests that mourners need not be concerned about their personal appearance. Jewish mourning is introspective, dwelling on one’s personal loss. Covering mirrors symbolizes this withdrawal from society’s gaze. Another explanation is that Jewish tradition dictates that there may not be a mirror in a room where people pray. When praying, Jews are directed to focus on God and not on themselves. Thus, the Prayer services which are held in the shiva house, should not take place in a room with a mirror.
The Black Ribbon -Keriah
Mourners wear this ribbon for the week of mourning as a symbol of their broken hearts- many continue wearing it for thirty days.
Jewish mourners may sit low to the ground, on cushions or very low chairs, on the floor, or on special benches provided by the funeral home, bringing them closer to the earth in which they just buried their loved one. This practice symbolizes being struck down by grief.
Wearing Socks or Slippers
Jewish mourners may remove their shoes when they return home from the funeral and refrain from wearing leather shoes in the shiva, which is considered a sign of being humbled by their loss.
The Meal of Condolence – Seudat Havraah
The first meal after returning from the cemetery is called the “the meal of healing.” It is the responsibility of the community and visitors to ensure that there is enough food for the mourning family and well-wishers. When food is provided by others, the mourners are encouraged to eat, reinforcing the belief that that “life must go on.”
Shiva Prayer Services
Prayer services are held in the shiva house, rather than in the synagogue to insure that for the week of shiva, the mourners do not have to leave their home.
The theme of Kaddish is the Greatness of God. We are asked to view the passing of our beloved from the perspective that his/her soul was gathered in, so to speak, by the One who originally created it. Its purpose is to reaffirm our faith at a time when we are especially vulnerable to turning away from God.. In this prayer, we pray for peace – peace between nations, peace between individuals, and peace of mind.
Righteous giving is an appropriate way to honor one’s memory. Contributing money, time and effort to organizations and causes that were important to the deceased keeps their beliefs alive and active. Tzedakah connects the living and the dead in the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Jewish tradition views charity as the strongest force in the universe… even greater than death.
More information about sitting shiva can be found at http://www.ShivaConnect.com – a free service to help Jewish mourners and those wishing to express their condolences. Visitors can create a “Shiva Registry” to email funeral &shiva details to friends and family, request a Yahrzeit Reminder, send food, gifts & donations, and find helpful resources.
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