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The rite of shiva

Updated: Jul 3

The SAJM is currently displaying Joe Turpin’s solo exhibition ‘Set in Stone’. Through a blend of mixed media installations and paintings, Turpin embarks on a captivating exploration of Jewish identity and history, delving into personal memories, loss, and mourning.

As part of the exhibition, Joe Turpin's performance art piece, titled 'I Didn't Sit Shiva For You,' encapsulated Turpin's candid introspection regarding the absence of the customary Jewish mourning process after his mother's passing.

Sitting shiva is a solemn and deeply ingrained tradition in Judaism, observed by mourners following the passing of a loved one. Derived from the Hebrew word for "seven," shiva typically lasts for seven days, during which close relatives gather in the home of the deceased to grieve, recite the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish), and receive condolences from visitors.

On 16 May "I Didn't Sit Shiva For You" unfolded as a symbolic tribute spanning seven hours, with each hour representing a day of mourning. Joe’s performance activated the exhibition space, adding depth and engaging visitors in a unique artistic experience. The piece was recorded and now forms part of the exhibition.

What is the purpose of the shiva period?

Jewish rituals around death and mourning are designed to reflect and respect the psychological state of the mourners while gently leading them back to life. Sitting shiva for the first seven days after a death provides comfort and support to the bereaved, allowing them to do nothing else but grieve openly and honour the memory of their loved one.

Shiva customs

Over centuries, several shiva customs emerged in different countries. Many of them are still practised today in varying degrees, depending on individuals or cultural differences.

Covering mirrors

Rabbis interpreted the custom of covering the mirrors to avoid seeing ourselves in grief and to encourage internal focus, rather than thinking about physical appearance. This is connected to another tradition that immediate mourners do not shave, cut their hair or wear make-up during the days of shiva.

Wearing torn clothing

The ritual of kriah (Hebrew for ‘tearing’) involves the tearing of clothing, typically done before the funeral by the immediate family of the deceased as an expression of extreme pain and grief. The torn garment, or alternatively a torn black ribbon, is traditionally worn throughout the shiva period. This ancient custom is mentioned in the Torah, in which Jacob, King David and Job all tear their garments in initial moments of grief.

Why it is called ‘sitting’ shiva

To symbolise being struck low by grief, mourners traditionally sit close to the ground while receiving visitors. Ashkenazi Jews often sit on low chairs or benches or on couches without cushions. Sephardi Jews may sit on pillows on the floor.

The meal of condolence

The Talmud directs that the first meal after burial of a loved one must be provided by neighbors, relatives, and friends to help the mourner begin to accept life again. Called s’udat havraah, this traditional meal of comfort usually includes lentils, bagels and hard-boiled eggs. The round shape of these foods represents the continuous cycle of life. Sharing a meal is an affirmation that life continues, and that the grieving person is not alone.

Lighting a shiva candle

For many cultures, candles represent the divine spark. In Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) practice, five candles burn throughout the seven days of shiva to symbolize the five levels of the soul’s consciousness. If a candle is used in modern days it is usually a single long-burning flame that stays lit for the whole shiva period.



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