Sitting shiva or shi’vah (the Hebrew word for seven) is part of the Jewish practice of mourning for a very close relative who has died. Relatives for whom you would sit shiva include parents, children, spouses or siblings. Directly upon burial of the deceased, those who observe this custom begin a seven-day period of sitting shiva to honor the massive loss that has occurred. People usually sit shiva in their homes or those of close family members with all direct family members present when possible.
The practice of sitting shiva provides a time for mourning. To honor this, direct-family mourners do not try to get anything done, instead; they rely on the community to bring them food or do their chores. Traditionally, they do not bathe, work, engage in pleasurable activities, or try to distract themselves with anything. Focus is on feeling the pain and grief of losing someone. When the mourner wants she will also discuss the pain this with people paying shiva visits. The process is meant to properly, fully, and gradually come to grips with the great transition of the soul when the loved one dies.
A few practices are traditionally observed during the shiva week. These include not wearing leather shoes in the home, not leaving the home, and possibly sitting on low benches or chairs that are close to the ground. Other family members and friends who are not direct relatives bring the first meal that is eaten during shiva. In fact, there is an emphasis on foods that are round or oval in shape because these are representative of the circular nature of life. People who are sitting shiva may also wear clothing or ribbons that are torn to represent the deepest sadness.
Though people sitting shiva do not usually leave their homes, friends and other relatives come to the home to visit and to help grievers. The goal is to give comfort to the bereaved, to listen to those grieving, and to share stories of the deceased if appropriate. Sometimes paying a shiva visit doesn’t mean saying much of anything; one doesn't talk just for the sake of it. Sitting in silence with someone may be more or as comforting as actually saying things that aren’t helpful.
Not all Jews sit shiva, though many sects of Judaism observe and encourage the practice. Some have modified the practice to three instead of seven days of mourning, though this is frowned upon within traditional Judaism. Both within and outside of Judaism, sitting shiva is thought of as a particularly beneficial practice since focus remains on grief. In modern society, people often engage in activities to distract from feeling grief after losing someone close. Observing a seven-day period where most of what you do is focus on your loss and recognize how deeply this loss is felt may be extraordinarily helpful.