Sitting Shiva is a time-honored tradition in the Jewish faith whereby close family members of a deceased loved one follow specific practices of mourning for a period of what is usually seven days (“Shiva” means “seven,” hence the seven days’ mourning).
Those who sit Shiva cannot:
· Enjoy most forms of entertainment
· Get his or her hair cut
· Bathe, except for sponge baths necessary for strict hygiene – and then, bathing should be done with cold water
· Wear clean clothes, unless changing is absolutely necessary for hygiene purposes
· Wear leather shoes
· Read the Torah (except for specific parts related to grief and mourning)
· Use anything that might support vanity, including cosmetics, oil, lotion, perfume, etc.
· Have physical relations with one’s spouse
Behavior during Shiva is also important. Those who sit Shiva cannot use the normal “lighthearted” greetings or expressions like “Hi,” “How are you?”, “Good morning,” or even, “Shalom.” In fact, the mourner does not offer any sort of greeting, in general, although he or she may nod his or her head in recognition if a greeting has been offered by someone who doesn’t know that the mourner is observing Shiva.
If you’re visiting someone who is sitting Shiva, you may certainly offer your condolences, although you should not expect much more than a “thank you.” Oftentimes, those sitting Shiva do talk – but they usually talk about the deceased, memories of the deceased, and other conversation related to mourning.
What about work?
We in Western society are so used to having the need for a paycheck circumvent just about anything else that it seems odd that those who sit Shiva won’t work during that period – but indeed, this is almost always done unless the person sitting Shiva is the sole breadwinner for him- or herself or family. During Shiva, work is considered a distraction from mourning. It’s generally even true that if someone owns a business, he or she must close it while sitting Shiva — even if there’s a partner who won’t be sitting Shiva during the time. If extreme financial need requires that a business be open and no one else is there to run it, then and only then can someone work during the time of mourning, and then only as much is absolutely necessary.
There may also be times in professions where the work at hand takes precedence over Shiva. A doctor, for example, may still practice medicine during Shiva if necessary, and other exceptions also apply. If one must attend to young children or elderly parents, for example, this is also allowed.
Chores, too, can be done – although it’s advised to have others do this during the time of Shiva so that again, mourning remains the sole focus.
Entering and leaving the Shiva house
The Shiva house is the place where the mourners and visitors gather to remember the beloved deceased. Usually, but not always, this is the deceased’s home. Those who are sitting Shiva are not allowed to leave the Shiva house during the seven days of mourning, except on Jewish holidays and on Shabbat. If one must leave the house, it has to be done after dark. If going out during the day is an absolute necessity, it should be at least avoided for the first three days of mourning.