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:
Get your free Insider's Guide
Get our Insider's Guide to Funeral & Cremation to get all the information you need to make informed choices about planning final arrangements for yourself or someone you love.
Planning ahead is a mitzvah
Let us show you how planning in advance protects those you love and ensures your service honors your traditions.
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 gifts 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 gifts throughout the whole shiva period. If you’re planning to send a gift rather than take one in person, make sure it will arrive during 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 gifts and 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 gifts, including:
Shiva baskets typically contain baked goods, dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruits and chocolates. This gift is generally appropriate for all Jewish mourners.
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.
Planting a tree in Israel in memory of a loved one is another time-honored tradition. The Jewish National Fund is an Israel-based non-profit 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 as a shiva gift. Flowers are not usually part of Jewish memorial traditions.
What to write in a shiva gift message
When you send a gift, you'll want to send a card letting the family know whom the gift 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.