«After Abraham died, Hashem blessed Isaac, his son».(1) How is Abraham’s death relevant to Hashem’s blessing Isaac? The Talmud says that when Isaac was sitting shivah, the seven-day period of mourning, Hashem came and comforted him, and blessed him.(2)
We see from this how great it is to comfort mourners, and that by doing so we are emulating Hashem.
The Mitzvah of comforting a mourner is so important, that it takes precedence even over the Mitzvah of visiting the sick, if it is impossible for you to do both. This is because comforting a mourner is an act of kindness to both the living and the departed.(3)
Our requirement is not, of course, to do the same as Hashem does, and we are not capable of doing things exactly as Hashem does them. I will try, with Hashem’s help, to explain our requirements in comforting mourners, as well as some do’s and don’t’s.
Incidentally, I do not know where the term «making a shivah call» comes from. The traditional Jewish term is to be «me-NA-chem UH-vail,» to comfort a mourner.
Many people worry, before going to comfort a mourner, «What should I say?» The answer is: very little. A person in pain needs to talk, and he needs someone to listen to him talk. He doesn’t need you to say very much. Your job, in comforting the mourner, is to listen to the mourner, responding when necessary and appropriate. Always let the mourner take the lead in the conversation.
Our basic requirement is to make the mourner feel better.(4) The idea is not that we should try to take his mind away from his pain. A mourner has to come to grips with his loss, to learn to accept it, and not ignore it. He has to pour out his feelings and express his sorrow. You can show your empathy and caring by listening to him. Even just entering and not speaking gives comfort, and honors the mourners.(5)
Most of all, the mourner needs to know that he is not facing the world alone, that he has friends.
When is the best time to visit a mourner? One may visit and comfort a mourner at any time during the shivah. However, the first three days of the shivah, when the pain is greatest, it is best if only close friends and family visit.(6) During the first three days, a mourner cannot truly be comforted, because the pain is still too fresh. However, if it is difficult for you to visit later, you are technically permitted to visit even during the first three days.(7)
It is not customary or necessary to bring food, unless you know that the mourner has no food to eat. If possible, someone should assume the responsibility of arranging (cooking or bringing) meals for the mourners.
A man should not visit a mourning woman, or mourning women, if there are no other men present. It is proper to take along another man.(8)
Following are Laws that we must follow when at the house of a mourner:
It is forbidden for a mourner to be joyful during the shivah.(9) This is no time for telling jokes or for being light-hearted.
A mourner is forbidden to say hello or goodbye; likewise we do not say hello or goodbye to a mourner. We do not say «shalom,» or any other greeting.(10)
The visiting comforters may not begin speaking until the mourner has spoken to them first.(11)
Once the mourner has nodded his head in farewell (since he is forbidden to say «goodbye»), the comforter may no longer sit there, but must leave.(12) The reason for this is because overstaying your visit could cause the mourner discomfort.(13) Since these days nodding the head is not a standard method of communication, make sure you keep very attuned to the mourner’s feelings so you will know when to leave.(14)
Before leaving a mourner you say, in any language you prefer, «Hamakom yinachem eschem b’soch sha’ar availay Tzion v’Yerushalayim.» Which means: «May Hashem, Who is everywhere, comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.»(15) The mourners should answer «Amen.»(16)
If the mourner does not speak at all to the comforter, the comforter may still say «Hamakom Yinachem…» when he leaves.(17)
Never tell a mourner to sit down. Since the first seven days of mourning are referred to as «sitting shivah,» it sounds as if you are telling him to stay in mourning, G-d forbid.(18)
If one has not comforted a mourner during the shivah, one should do so during the first thirty days after the funeral, by saying «Hamakom yinachem, etc.» If thirty days have passed, one should not recite that, but should say «May you be comforted,» or «May you never know any more pain.»(19)
May Hashem’s promise to us soon come to pass, that «I will overturn their mourning to joy, I will comfort them, and I will give them joy that will be greater than their former pain.»(20)
A good book to read on this and all such matters is «The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,» by Maurice Lamm, published by Jonathan David Publishers. It is a well-known book, and most good Jewish book stores will have it or can get it. You can also order it from Tiferes Stam Judaica.
1. Genesis 25:18
2. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a
3. Maimonides, Laws of Mourners, 14:7
4. Shelah, 144:1
5. Prishah, YD 393, #3
6. Gesher Hachayim, 20:5:5; Daas Torah, §376
7. Gesher Hachayim, ibid
8. Gesher Hachayim, 20:5:1
9. Shulchan Aruch, YD 391:1; Gesher Hachayim, 21:8:2
10. Shulchan Aruch, YD 385:1
11. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:1
12. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:1
13. Maimonides, Laws of Mourners, 13:3
14. Aruch Hashulchan, YD 376:3
15. Prishah, YD 393: #3
16. Pnai Baruch, 11:5, quoting Rabbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, obm
17. Pnai Baruch, 11:4, footnote 5, quoting Rabbi Auerbach.
18. Shulchan Aruch, YD 376:2
19. Shulchan Aruch, YD 385:2
20. Jeremiah 31:12