What Does 'Sitting Shiva' Mean?
How Jews mourn in the days immediately following a death in the family
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A Jewish friend's uncle died, and I think he told me the family had to sit and shiver for seven days. What's that all about? I was too nervous to ask.
Fear not. Your friend was in no danger of catching pneumonia. What you heard as the word "shiver" refers to the Jewish practice of shiva, a period of seven days during which the closest family members--spouse, children, parents, siblings--mourn at home.
Those who "sit shiva" do not ordinarily shiver--at least that's not the religious intent.
Shiva is, logically enough, a variant of the Hebrew word "seven." It begins right after the deceased has been buried. Only the immediate family takes part in the observance, but it is done openly so other mourners may call on them. A special seven-day candle is often lit, and the family recites Kaddish, the traditional prayer of mourning.
The benefits of this practice are beyond measure in the view of many, many Jews. While the body is normally disposed of within 24 hours, as specified in Jewish tradition, the immediate family is drawn into a weeklong expression of grief in unhurried fashion. In many other cultural and religious customs, the order is reversed: elaborate and extended periods to prepare the body and conduct funeral rituals; resumption of the bustle of "normal life" right after.
Shiva provides a built-in process for attending to mourning and remembrance. It helps curb the impulse to avoid sorrow by plunging into regular routines. And it brings the key mourners together for mutual support. It's all beautiful: enough to send shivers down your spine.