Is the Tradition of the Shiva Visit Disappearing?

by Susan Dvorkin and Harold Lipton

(Calgary) – One of two cardinal principles that underlies Jewish end of life practice is nichum aveilim – comforting the mourner. There are various customs and traditions that comprise provision of comfort to mourners. All are designed to express to the bereaved that they are not alone. Perhaps the most widely known is the shiva call.

The “schedule of mourning” prescribed by Jewish tradition has been brilliantly designed to facilitate a gradual return to routine living for the bereaved.  The first period is called shiva which literally means seven, and is the first week of mourning following a funeral. It is often during this time when grief is at its most intense level and the bereaved withdraw from most usual activity. Mourners closely following tradition do not even leave their home during shiva, unless it is to attend services to say Kaddish. Those wishing to comfort the mourners visit the house where shiva is being observed. Often the bereaved family will establish preferred times  for visits in order to permit the family time to have meals or resting periods. These times should be respected. If a shiva visit is not possible, a phone call is appropriate to offer comfort to a mourner, though it should be understood that some mourners may not take calls during shiva.

Many of us have unfortunately had the experience of both sitting shiva and visiting a shiva house. Anecdotally, we know that sitting shiva can be exhausting, and making a shiva call can be a source of discomfort for those who are unsure of what to say or how to act. Witnessing another person in pain can be unsettling. Dealing with a passing can compel us to confront our own mortality. Other circumstances can also pre-empt the shiva call, such as the recent restrictions caused by COVID which only added to the isolation the bereaved were already feeling.

It should be clear that the focus of the shiva visit is on the mourner. Visitors are coming to provide sympathy and support to the bereaved, and to remember the deceased. The bereaved should not be expected to greet or entertain visitors. The shiva gathering is not intended to constitute a social gathering. The shiva experience can be draining for mourners, and responsibility to host visitors should not be added to this stress. Various customs are followed that emphasize this. The door to the shiva home is left unlocked during those times when callers are expected to come by. Callers simply enter and drift towards the mourner as soon as possible. Classic expressions of sympathy are given, but any other conversation is left to the bereaved to initiate. Reminiscing about the deceased is encouraged. Trite expressions that seek to minimize the death (e.g. it’s a merciful ending, the suffering is over, etc.) are avoided. It is appropriate, even if anxiety producing, to sit in silence for periods of time. The presence of the visitor is, by itself, a sufficient expression of support, and there does not need to be constant chatter to fill the time. Loud conversation, joke telling, and raucous laughter should be avoided.

Any food brought to the shiva house should be for the consumption of the mourners as they traditionally do not cook for themselves during this period.  A common practice is to order shiva meals from caterers for the bereaved family. While some refreshments may be made available for callers, visitors are not served as that should not be the purpose of the visit. Elaborate tables of food, pastries and drinks diminish the reason for the visit and can elicit an inappropriately upbeat and cordial environment. To that end, the meal of condolence, regardless of where it is provided is a more appropriate way to provide for the mourner and acknowledge their loss. Bringing liquor, candy or flowers is not generally done during the shiva period.

A recent trend in our community is for the mourners to attend synagogue for services twice a day and to invite people to offer condolences at the synagogue. While this may alleviate the pressure of having so many people in the home and helps to assure that there will be a minyan, the same level of decorum applies as it is not a social gathering.

If services are being held in the shiva home, it is desirable to make a shiva call to coincide with the service so that the bereaved are assured of a minyan to say Kaddish. This may be more critical during the latter part of the shiva week when visitations may be ebbing.

If more shiva callers are expected, it is considerate to keep the shiva visit short so as not overwhelm the mourners. A half hour is often considered to be a recommended limit to the visit. If there are other callers arriving, avoid monopolizing the mourner’s time so everyone has a chance to offer comfort. For many, the mitzvah of the shiva call is simply the attendance to give consolation. If there is an abundance of people in either the home or synagogue and there is little time to offer your sympathy to the mourners, the mere act of being present is comforting.

When it is time to leave, offer a comforting farewell to the mourner, e.g. good health, long life, no more sorrow, etc. It is always appropriate to offer the standard phrase “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Susan Dvorkin and Harold Lipton are board members at Calgary Chevra Kadisha. 

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