Drawing of a collection of bagels and cookies and napkins on a table
Dead Serious

Tips and tricks for non-Jewish people at shiva

Dead Serious

Tips and tricks for non-Jewish people at shiva

Etiquette and what to expect when visiting a family sitting shiva

The United States is getting more diverse. According to the 2020 US Census, people who identified as Hispanic, Asian, or mixed-race accounted for larger shares of the population. With more diversity, it’s likely we’ll all interact with someone of a different race, ethnicity, politics, or religion. That’s why it’s important to be respectful when interacting with groups different from your own. For example, what if you were invited to a household sitting shiva? Are there right and wrong things to say? How should you conduct yourself? What do you have to do as a guest? These are important questions to ask. So we’re going to look at some shiva protocols for non-Jewish people.

  1. What is shiva?
  2. Shiva etiquette for non-Jewish people

What is shiva?

Shiva is an important part of the grieving process for Jewish families. It’s the seven-day mourning period that starts immediately after a Jewish funeral. During the seven days (or three days for Reform Jewish communities), mourners avoid doing certain tasks like working, leaving the house, preparing food, or wearing makeup. This is done so that the grieving family can mourn without having to worry about social obligations. Sitting shiva is a time to let the loss of a loved one be felt fully.

When sitting shiva, a family will invite members of the community to the home to offer condolences. Family, friends, co-workers, even strangers, can visit a home sitting shiva to express their condolences. The important part is the community coming together for the wellbeing of the mourners.

Shiva etiquette for non-Jewish people

When someone of the Jewish faith dies, those of different religious beliefs can still show their support to the grieving family. Being there for those in mourning is an important part of the healing process. If you’re not Jewish, but are still invited to visit a family sitting shiva, you can and should be a part of that healing process. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Three circles representing the things to keep in mind for visiting a family sitting shiva; bring food, with someone holding bagels, dress modest with a person wearing a sweater vest, and be supportive with two people holding hands.

Shiva call

A shiva call, or a “paying a condolence call,” is made during the seven-day mourning period. During this, the mourning family sets times for family, friends, or even co-workers and members of the community to visit the home. Those who do a shiva call are there to acknowledge the loss and provide support during the difficult time.

When should I make a shiva call?

Families will often establish visiting times when visitors are invited to the home or during the funeral. They may also list times in the obituary for the deceased loved one. As a guest, it’s proper shiva etiquette to visit during the set hours to respect the family’s grieving process.

Can non-Jewish people sit shiva?

There aren’t rules prohibiting non-Jewish people from sitting shiva. If you have a Jewish relative who has passed, it may be appropriate to sit shiva to honor their memory. Or, if you’re in a relationship with a Jewish partner and a member of their family has died, it may be helpful to sit shiva with them through the difficult period.

What should I bring?

For a lot of cultures, offering flowers at a funeral is a way to show sympathy. However, for Jewish people, flowers are not to be used at funerals, shivas, or any other funeral events. There are a number of reasons for this. One, funerals are somber affairs and flowers are to represent joyous occasions. So the addition of flowers would be seen as inappropriate during a period of grief. There are also  several other reasons to avoid flowers, but the tradition has been around for a while.

Instead of bringing flowers, it’s better to bring food to the family. During shiva, mourning families are supposed to grieve fully and not work, food preparation included. So leave the flowers at home and bring food dishes so the family can eat during the shiva period. Food that doesn’t have to be prepared is best; things like cookies, nuts, soups, and salads are all great ideas.

What should I wear?

Clothing-wise, there’s no set attire for visiting a family observing shiva. However, as it is a somber environment, you should wear appropriate clothing. It’s been suggested that men wear long pants and women dress conservatively. Remember, you are there to support the family. You don’t want your outfit to distract or offend anyone in the space.

What to do as a guest

As a shiva guest, your job is to validate the emotions of the mourners. You want to be genuine in providing support for the family. As with most funerals, your support shouldn’t be like ticking off a box. Nor should you try to make someone feel better or distract them from their pain. Shiva is about letting the pain of loss be felt in its entirety. It is believed that those who are properly mourned have an easier time getting into Heaven. As a guest, your job is to support those in mourning. Death can be a hard thing for families to navigate. But shiva offers space for the community to come together.

The opinions we expressed in this post are for general informational purposes only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations.
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