jewish Funeral Guide

Jewish Mourning - the first Week

The House of Mourning

The preferred location to sit Shivah is at the place where the deceased lived before passing away. This is where the departed soul dwells for the first seven days after death to mourn for its body, as alluded to in the verse, “His soul mourns for him / ונפשו עליו תאבל” (Job 14:22). If possible, all the relatives who are sitting Shiva should do it together in the same house. It brings comfort and satisfaction to the mourners when the whole family unites in the face of death. However, if one of the mourners wants to sit Shiva individually, it is permissible. Sometimes a parent’s home is far from where the mourner lives and far from the friends who wish to pay their condolences. In such cases, a common compromise is to split Shivah by spending the first days at a parent’s home and the last days at home.

Leaving the house. If there is not enough space in the house for all the mourners, some of them may sleep elsewhere, provided that they leave the house after dark and come back very early in the morning. Otherwise, the mourners should not leave the house where they sit Shivah, unless it is an emergency situation. The following reasons are also considered important:

  • a mourner may go to the synagogue to say Kaddish / קדיש, if for some reason it was impossible to organize the prayer services in the mourner’s house
  • upon consultation with a qualified rabbi, a mourner may attend his or her child's wedding, circumcision or redemption of the firstborn ceremony
  • a mourner may go to the doctor even when there is no danger to life
  • a mourner may attend a funeral for one of his or her closest relatives and, after the first 3 days, a funeral for a relative that is not closely related

Covering mirrors. It is customary to either cover or overturn all the mirrors in the house. Fogged spray may also be used. Mirrors reflect our vanity and may cause joy, which has no place in the house of mourning. In addition, people come to pray in the mourner’s house and it is forbidden to pray in front of a human image. Some say, that this custom comes from an ancient ritual of overturning the beds (Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 15a), which is not practiced in our time. Instead we overturn the mirrors. For the same reasons, some also cover any pictures of people. Those who have TV sets should cover them as well.

Memorial candle. A candle should be lit at the moment of passing. It is kept burning for seven full days from the start of Shivah, even when Shiva is terminated early. It is preferable to light with olive oil, although wax and paraffin candles may be used as well. If the only option is an electric memorial light — it is permissible to use it. One candle is sufficient for each house of mourning. In some communities, especially among Sephardim and some Chassidim, the memorial candle is kept burning for the entire 12 months of mourning.

The candle and light symbolize the body and soul, as it is written in the Book of Proverbs 20:27“Man’s soul is the Lord’s candle / נר ה' נשמת אדם”. The flame is the soul that rises up, while the candle is the body that the soul is attached to. The candle supports its flame until it burns out, thus fulfilling their mutual purpose. Some mourners light five candles that represent the five mystical levels of the soul. Maharil / מהרי"ל — Rabbi Jacob Moellin, who lived in fifteenth-century Germany, explains that the word Ner / נר — candle, can be construed as an anagram of the words Neshamah / נשמה — soul and Ruach / רוח — spirit. Gematria / גימטריה — the numerical value of the word Ner / נר is 250, which corresponds, according to Jewish tradition, to 248 limbs of the body plus 2 spiritual components: Neshamah / נשמה — soul and Ruach / רוח — spirit.