I have to go to a Zoom shiva this week. I know these have been happening for nearly a year, but this will be my first one. What usually happens at these? Is there any etiquette I should know about?
Unsure of Shiva
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column about bringing a toddler to a shiva house, advice which, almost immediately, became irrelevant. Shiva, the week following a person’s death, when family and friends visit the house to comfort the mourners, is an important Jewish life cycle ritual. It’s often difficult and emotional, but it’s a huge mitzvah to attend. Though the format has changed for now, it’s no less important, and, if anything, providing connection and comfort is more important than ever.
At an in-person shiva, the typical protocol is to enter the house and, if possible, be near the mourner(s) but only to say things that are part of a kind of script. These include, “May his/her memory be for a blessing,” “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” or “Blessed be the true judge.” Then, typically, visitors sit and wait and listen to the mourner share stories of the deceased when they feel so inclined. Depending on the time of day, there is also often a short prayer service so that the family can say Mourners’ Kaddish, and visitors are there to help make a minyan (prayer quorum).
On Zoom, it’s actually a little easier to sit back and listen. Without the opportunities to slip into side conversations with other attendees, you can often be more attentive to the mourner’s stories and less distracted by your own discomfort. And because Zoom shiva, even after a year, is still awkward for most people, you’ll know you’re not the only one unsure what to do.
The best thing is to log on, mute yourself and get a feel for the “room.” If you knew the deceased, you may have the chance to share a story. If you didn’t, or if you don’t want to speak, you just listen. Your presence here is truly the thing that matters. A rabbi or another family member may serve as a sort of facilitator, or if there are only a small number of people present, it may be less formal than that with people just unmuting to speak when they have something to share.
Another feature of in-person shiva is that people often bring food. The function is both so that the mourners have something to eat and so they the people attending shiva have refreshments. Before sending food to anyone these days, it’s important to know if they want this. Find out if someone is coordinating a meal train or meal deliveries, but without a house full of people, extra food could end up being a burden rather than a help.
While traditional, in-person opportunities to grieve have been taken away from people this past year, it’s also important to note that the phenomenon of the Zoom shiva has meant that friends and family from around the world have been able to join in these rituals. There is no substitute for in-person comfort and support, but there’s also no substitute for seeing the faces of loved ones who live far away.
I expect a combination of virtual and in-person shiva to be the norm even after the pandemic, so getting familiar with this format now will likely be helpful not just for this particular moment, but long into the future.