Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”

If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you a cup of coffee and we’d chat.

However, I can imagine two possibilities:

(1) “I really cannot get off work but I want to comfort the mourners.” Sometimes we just can’t do everything we want to do. I’m so glad you want to comfort the mourners! It’s an important mitzvah, and you will certainly be performing that mitzvah if you attend shiva at the house. Don’t forget to give them a call a few weeks later, just to say hello and check in.

(2) “The funeral is at the cemetery and I hate cemeteries.” Well, let’s talk about this a bit. Are you so freaked out by cemeteries that you literally cannot enter one? Because if that is the case, perhaps I should offer you a referral to a good therapist. But if it’s dislike, let’s dig at that a bit: why do you dislike cemeteries? Cemeteries are uncomfortable for many of us because they remind us of our own mortality. It’s hard to avoid the thought that I am going to die someday, when I am standing by the grave of a friend. Jewish tradition tells us that our discomfort at that thought is a good thing: it can motivate us to live better lives, because we remember that our days are limited. If that’s the issue, and it isn’t at the level of a phobia, I’d be inclined to encourage you to grit your teeth and give it a try. Also, what if everyone gave in to discomfort and no one showed up? How would the family feel?

The funeral and shiva are not an either/or choice. They are actually two separate mitzvot. The funeral is levayat ha mayt [accompanying the dead] and it is the last good deed we can do for a friend. Attending shiva is nichum ahvaylim [comforting mourners] and while it also happens at the funeral, it really gets down to business at the shiva.

Mortality is a bummer. We are naturally inclined to think that we will live forever. However, that simply isn’t the case, and our tradition is clear that it isn’t good for us to entertain the fantasy of living forever. Getting in touch with our mortality, once in a while, is one way to truly appreciate the present.

How would you answer this person’s question? Have you ever been to a funeral that was very sparsely attended? Any other thoughts to share on this topic?

Five Tips for Shiva Visits


holding hands - age 10, and age 8
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shiva is the Jewish period of deep mourning after the death of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or a child. It begins immediately after the burial and continues for no more than seven days. It may be paused for Shabbat (we do not officially mourn on Shabbat) or for certain holidays. When a person is “sitting shiva,” it is Jewish custom to visit them at the designated home as a way of providing comfort and support.

It is a mitzvah (sacred duty) to visit a person during shiva. However, it is not like a regular social visit. The rules of shiva are set to provide the best support for the bereaved, and to help us in what is for some a challenging mitzvah.

1. Visit only at times when you are welcome. If the bereaved is part of your synagogue community, hours of shiva may be available from the temple office. Alternatively they may be put on a sign on the door of the house. They will certainly be announced at the end of the funeral.

2. Be helpful.  Bring prepared food to the shiva house, if you are able, but do not bring dishes that will have to be returned to you. If you visit the shiva house and see something that needs to be done (welcoming guests, simple cleaning, work in the kitchen) it is very helpful to do so. A mourner is not a host, and should not be expected to entertain in any way.

3. Comfort with your presence. The general rule in speaking to mourners is: don’t speak unless they indicate a desire that you talk with them. It is perfectly fine to sit next to a mourner and say nothing at all.

4. Listen. If the mourner wants to talk, listen. Let them talk, acknowledge what you hear from them. Let them express whatever emotion they are feeling: do not try to make them feel “better” or judge what they say.

5. Don’t overstay your welcome. Unless you are extremely close to the family, make it a short visit. Do not use the shiva gathering as a social event to visit with others. The mourners are likely exhausted.


During Shiva:

  • Be there. Listen.
  • Offer to run errands, cook, deal with practical matters.
  • Give tzedakah in honor of the dead, arrange for a card to be sent to the mourner.

After Shiva:

  • Make sure the bereaved are included in social invitations.
  • Make sure that a mourner does not sit alone at services. Invite them to join you.
  • Call just to say “Hello.”
  • Drop a note to say hello, or to share a memory of the deceased.
  • Listen to their memories.

Too often, because we don’t know what to do, we withdraw from mourners, leaving them to grieve alone. This is an act of cruelty, even if it is done out of confusion. Do not abandon a mourner.