Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain responds to the question: I am confused about what it means to ‘sit shivah‘? I had always thought it was rather informal and meant to be supportive of the family in mourning, but when I went to one recently everyone came at a pre-designated time, sat in silence throughout and then left.
‘Shivah’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘seven’ and refers to the traditional seven days of mourning following the death of a close relative, defined as a parent, sibling, partner or child.
There are many others to whom we are close – be they more distant relatives or friends – and one can also sit shivah for them if one so wishes. The idea of ‘sitting’ is that you remain at home throughout this period and instead people come to visit you. There may be formal prayers at a certain point, for instance in the evening, but people still come at all other times of the day, whether by appointment or just dropping in, so as to keep the person company. It is traditional to bring food both for the mourner’s meals and as refreshments for the guests that drop in. Still, there can be many variations of this overall framework, particularly over the actual length of the shivah, thus those who do not live in an area of high Jewish density, may find it impractical to sit for a full week, and prefer a more limited time.
The example you cite is rather strange, as silence is the very last thing one associates with a shivah. Normally it is full of noise and chatter. Sometimes it offers a chance for the mourner to go over the details of how the person died, or review the weeks leading up to the death, or talk about the deceased’s life, or vent their own fears about the future, or utter all the ‘if onlys’ that are torturing them.
Repeating it over and over again to different people can be very cathartic. Other times, the conversation is about unrelated matters and the state of the world. It is a welcome distraction when time hangs slow. Those attending may worry that they are not able to say ‘the right thing’ but it matters not, and what counts is their presence and the warmth of human contact.