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Shivah is a Hebrew word meaning "seven" and refers to a seven-day period of formalized mourning by the immediate family of the deceased. Shivah begins immediately after the burial and concludes a short time after the morning service (Shacharit) on the seventh day.
Where is Shivah observed?
It is customary to observe Shivah in the home of the deceased. Where this is not possible or feasible, Shivah may be observed in the home of an immediate family member or even a friend. Most importantly, however, the family should be together during this time.
For whom is Shivah observed?
Jewish law prescribes observance of Shivah for one’s parent, sibling, child, or spouse.
Technically, shivah begins immediately after the burial, while still at the cemetery. In fact, many people change into their non-leather shoes worn during shivah while still at the cemetery, to indicate that they are now aveilim. The majority of the rituals of shivah begin, however, when the mourners return to the Shivah home (or to the place of shivah). At that time, prior to entering the house, the hands are washed from a pre-placed container of water, and dried on disposable towels. Then a family member lights the shivah candle which is provided by the funeral home and which burns for seven days (no blessing is recited). The shivah candle serves as a mark of respect for the deceased, as in Jewish tradition the flame is symbolic of the soul.
Jewish tradition prescribes several specific behaviors in the house of mourning as part of the shivah observance. There are two customs in particular that bear examination:
What is the purpose of low stools?
It is customary for the aveilim, or mourners, to sit on low chairs or boxes during the Shivah period. Indeed, it is possible that this practice resulted in the expression "sitting" Shivah. The intent is not for the mourners to be uncomfortable (no asceticism involved), just for them to sit lower than usual, a recognized sign of mourning.
Why are the mirrors covered?
Covering the mirrors is less about law than custom. Regardless of whatever superstitious or cultural norms may have originally been behind the institution of the custom, it has become established mourning practice to cover the mirrors in the house of mourning, especially in the public rooms. This also helps remind us that shivah is not so much about ourselves as it is a time to concentrate on the deceased.