Note: This section discusses just a few of the mourning practices observed in a shiva house. It is not a substitute for a thorough study of these laws. Please consult your rabbi with questions of practical application.
It is customary to light a candle in deceased’s home, based upon the request of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi to light a candle in his place after his passing (Kesubos 103a). Olive oil is optimum but candles (or, in a pinch, even electric lights) may also be used. This light should be kept burning continuously throughout the week of shiva.
The practice is to cover the mirrors in the house of a mourner. A number of explanations are given for this practice. One explanation is that the mirrors are covered because the mourners are not supposed to be concerned with their appearance at this time. Others say that it is because minyanim meet regularly in shiva houses and it is prohibited to daven facing a mirror. Mirrors need not be covered in a room that the mourner will not use. For example, if a parent is in mourning, mirrors need not be covered in the children’s bedrooms.
There is a prevalent custom not to remove anything from a shiva house; this includes even retrieving items that had previously been borrowed by the mourner. There are many variations of this practice. For example, some are lenient when it comes to food, while others rule stringently. Some prohibit only things taken directly from the mourner’s hand. Some limit the prohibition to items in the room where the deceased passed away. There are many such differences, including those who consider the entire practice baseless and impose no restrictions whatsoever.
Tachanun is not recited in a house of mourning even if the mourners are not present (Shaarei Teshuva OC 131:10). The custom is to recite Psalm 49, Lamnatzeiach Livnei Korah, following the morning and evening services in a shiva house. (There are those who also recite it following the afternoon service.) On days on which Tachanun is not recited (i.e., not recited anywhere), Psalm 16, Michtam l’David, is substituted.
When visiting a shiva house, callers usually just walk in, or enter after a quiet knock on the door to alert the residents to their presence. The callers are not guests; they are not greeted and ushered in, nor are they offered food or drink. The mourners do not rise to greet them. Callers may bring a gift of food if they wish but it is not expected (and not particularly common). It is not a Jewish custom to send or bring flowers.
A mourner is not greeted with “shalom” or “shalom Aleichem” because he is not at peace. Similarly, the mourner he should not greet others in this way. Not only that, not even visitors to the shiva house should greet one another in this fashion (Aruch HaShulchan YD 385:4). There are different opinions as to greeting a mourner with “hello,” “good morning” and the like. The generally-accepted practice is not to extend one’s hand to shake hands with a mourner; there are different opinions as to the propriety of shaking hands with other visitors.
One should not pay a shiva call to a person with whom one does not get along. This is because the mourner may suspect that his nemesis has come to gloat and this will cause him further pain (Rema YD 385:2).
A man may pay a shiva call to a woman, and a woman may pay a shiva call to a man, but the parties must ensure that a situation of yichud (seclusion) does not arrive.
Since a condolence call is a kindness for both the living and the deceased, paying a shiva visit takes priority over visiting a sick person, which is only a kindness for the living.
Many people are anxious about visiting a shiva house for fear of saying the wrong thing. For this reason, it would be advisable for a visitor to gather his thoughts before arriving at the shiva. The proper topic of conversation is the deceased’s life, with particular focus on his merits and the reward that he has earned. Things to avoid include:
- Meaningless platitudes, such as “He lived a long life” or “At least he’s not suffering”;
- Suggestions that the deceased can be replaced, such as “You’ll meet someone else” or “You can have more kids”;
- Comparing the bereaved’s situation to one’s own, including “I know exactly how you feel” and “If you think that’s bad….”;
- Presuming how the mourner feels about the shiva experience, such as assuming that shiva is a burden and that getting up from shiva is a relief;
- Inquiries about purchasing the deceased’s possessions or real estate.
(Additional suggestions appear below.)
Really, it’s just common sense. (In researching this article, the two most jaw-dropping examples of shiva gaffes I encountered were, “It’s a shame she didn’t die a month earlier so you could name the baby after her” and “You’re so lucky because now you have someone to daven for you in Shamayim.” Don’t say things like that.) The mourners have also made shiva calls in the past and they know how awkward it can be, so even if you put your foot in your mouth, it’s unlikely that you’ll say anything terribly offensive. Nevertheless, if you lack confidence in your ability to address the mourners, limit your conversation to a few predetermined thoughts about the deceased or, at minimum, the blessing of “HaMakom….”
Formerly, mourners would nod their heads to indicate when it was time for visitors to leave (Moed Katan 27b). Nowadays, one must be sensitive to the mourner’s state of mind and understand when he wants visitors to leave (Aruch HaShulchan YD 376:3). Leaving is also a form of comfort to the mourners because sometimes they want rest or privacy. Visitors must therefore be careful not to overstay their welcome; 15 or 20 minutes is more than sufficient for most shiva calls.
On the way out, there is typically a place where visitors can donate money to charity in memory of the deceased; there is also often a sign-up sheet to study mishna in the departed’s memory. (Mishna is typically studied because “mishna” is an anagram for “neshama,” the soul.) These things serve as a merit for the deceased.
When he saw that I was doing a series on Shiva, OU Torah contributor Daniel Adler forwarded me a letter on this subject that had been sent by Rabbi Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway. In the course of his letter, Rabbi Bender gives the following advice:
When paying a shiva call, you are going there to help ameliorate the family’s pain.
It is not important how a person passed away.
It is also not important how old they were, how sick they were, how long they were ill, and whether they suffered.
What is important is whatever is important to the family.
What is important also, Chazal tell us, is to speak about the achievements of the niftar/nifteres.
I have had no problem saying to an aveil: ‘Tell me about your mother’ or ‘Tell me about your father.’
If you are not sure about saying something, don’t say it.
Try to bring the level of conversation to a higher plane.
Chazal also tell us that the aveil should open the conversation. But sometimes, they are in too much pain to speak.
If you react by just sitting quietly it can be best, even though the quiet can be deafening.
When you feel you must speak, say something nice about the niftar, if you can.
Try to focus on their spiritual accomplishments, or the history, dynamics and events of the family.
You will be surprised how easy it is to get into a conversation like that.
Stay away from questions that can bring up hurt.