Shiva Condolences

Not everyone grieves in the same way, and different religious and ethnic customs may call for different types of condolences. When a Jewish loved one dies, the family sits shiva for seven days. You may wish to visit and take something or send something to the family's home. But what should that be?

If you want to show a family member or friend you're thinking of them while they sit shiva, it can help to understand the meaning behind this Jewish funeral custom.

This article explains shiva as well as:

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What is shiva?

Shiva is the seven-day mourning period for the immediate family of a Jewish loved one who has passed away. The idea behind the custom is to create a comforting, supportive environment for the family to grieve without worrying about anything else. During shiva, family and friends gather in someone's home to offer their sympathy and lend support.

During shiva, mourners do not perform certain daily tasks, like preparing meals, so they can focus on their grief and begin to heal from the loss of their loved one. So they don't go hungry, family and friends usually provide food. They may send other things as well.

The first day of shiva begins after the funeral service. The location may be announced at the funeral or in the loved one's obituary. Families receive condolences throughout the whole shiva period. If you’re planning to send something rather than visit in person, make sure the item will arrive during shiva.

Sitting shiva

Sitting shiva, so called because mourners often sit on low benches or boxes, creates a time free from distraction. The low seating symbolizes sadness; the structured nature of the custom helps the family process their loss.

According to Jewish law, the immediate family members of a spouse, parent, sibling or child must sit shiva. Other family members can also participate, but they don't have to and aren't strictly considered mourners.

During shiva, friends, relatives and neighbors visit and offer shiva condolences. Other rituals that might be observed depend on which sect of Judaism the family identifies with. This could include forbidding the study of the Torah or refraining from showering or bathing. In some households, mirrors are covered, mourners don’t wear leather and men don’t shave.

Another custom: Visitors usually don't greet the mourning family first. Instead, they should wait for mourners to greet them, which allows the family to talk in their own way and on their own time. It’s also customary for guests to serve each other, as mourners are not allowed to serve guests.

What to take or send for shiva

Visitors typically choose from a small selection of traditional shiva items, including:

Shiva baskets

Shiva baskets typically contain baked goods, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruits and chocolates. This condolence is generally appropriate for all Jewish mourners.

Shiva platters

Shiva platters are heartier than baskets and usually include meats, fish, salads, fruits and other fare. Some visitors opt to cater entire meals. If the mourners keep a kosher home, send only kosher food. If you're unsure and don't want to ask, choose kosher to be on the safe side.

Tree planting

Planting a tree in Israel in memory of a loved one is another time-honored tradition. The Jewish National Fund is an Israel-based nonprofit organization that has offered memorial tree plantings for over a century.

Another option: Through the Arbor Day Foundation's Memorial Trees program, you can plant a tree (or trees) in one of our nation's forests in honor of a Jewish loved one.

What not to take or send to a shiva

Since the family sitting shiva will not be able to prepare meals, don't send a food basket or platter of food that needs any kind of cooking or assembly.

Additionally, don't send flowers to a Jewish funeral or to a family sitting shiva. Flowers are not usually part of Jewish memorial traditions.

What to write in a shiva condolence message

When you send something, you'll want to also send a card letting the family know whom the item is from. You might also simply send a card by itself. If you struggle to find the right words, remember that it's enough to write, "I am thinking of you." or "Please know I care."

If you want to write more, consider including a fond memory about the loved one. Any heartfelt condolence will likely be appreciated.