In the Jewish tradition, sitting Shiva is done when one’s close family member dies. It’s a time to mourn and grieve openly, but away from both the prying eyes of the public and away from the chores and cares of daily living, as well. When one sits Shiva, he or she is not to do anything else – or at least to do as little as possible.
Sitting Shiva takes place at the Shiva house, usually the residence of the deceased. It’s highly desired but not absolutely necessary to have all members who are sitting Shiva to stay the Shiva house during the time of Shiva. However, if it’s not possible to house everybody at the Shiva house during Shiva, family members who sit Shiva arrive at the Shiva house before sunrise and leave after sundown.
A complete dismissal of worldly cares
As much as is possible, this time of Shiva is a complete dismissal worldly cares. As little as possible is done in this regard. Those who sit Shiva usually do not go to work or school. Mothers, of course, may still need to take care of small children, but chores, too, are ignored as much as is possible. Friends and family who are not actively sitting Shiva step in to take care of these things.
If you want to help someone sitting Shiva
If you’re not actively sitting Shiva yourself but you want to assist someone who is, you don’t even need to be part of Jewish tradition, necessarily. Ask the rabbi or a close family friend or family member (who is not sitting Shiva) for advice on this. You may be able to run errands or to help with chores like cleaning or cooking as a means of support. Such efforts are generally welcomed, although they shouldn’t simply be done without permission. Ask first, and don’t simply go barging in and announce your presence.
Visiting or making the Shiva call
Although sitting Shiva is a time of isolation, reverence, self-reflection and “aloneness” for those who observe it, it’s also a time of gathering around those who sit Shiva. Therefore, those outside of the Jewish tradition are usually entirely welcome to make a Shiva call; in fact, this is seen as a great honor. If you wish to make a Shiva call, of course you should ask if this is something that would be welcome before you simply pay a visit (again, ask the Rabbi or a family member who’s not actively sitting Shiva).
Once you arrive for your Shiva call, you do not have to announce your presence and should simply be able to walk into the Shiva house without special invitation. Once there, simply sitting with the bereaved and offering quiet words of condolence is enough. Sometimes, words are not necessary in that simply being there is enough. Sit with the bereaved and let him or her talk about memories of the beloved, or simply sit in companionable silence; let the bereaved determine how the visit will go, in other words.
Once you’ve spent about 20 minutes at the Shiva house, you may take your leave if you wish; follow others’ lead and stay as long as you see other visitors staying.