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How to Pay a Proper Shiva Call

How to Pay a Proper Shiva Call

Proper etiquette and practical advice.

by

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…a time to keep silent and a time to speak.”

The wisdom in this song is not for the Byrds, it comes from the wisest of all men, King Solomon. While the picture of many shiva homes today filled with people, food, and conversation is anything but silent, the Midrash interprets “the time for silence” as proscribing our behavior when comforting the bereaved. When Job, the very symbol of human suffering, experienced devastating loss, three of his friends came to comfort and console him: “They sat with him on the ground for a period of seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great” (Job, 2:13).

Consolation can be provided with words, but it is communicated even more powerfully through silent companionship, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel for the visitor. The acknowledgement of pain and willingness to share it by simply being present is the essence of a shiva call, nichum aveilim. The Talmud in fact states in the name of Rav Pappa, “The reward that comes from visiting the house of a mourner is for one’s silence while there” (Berachos 6b).

Consolation is powerfully communicated through silent companionship, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel for the visitor.

In an article in Jewish Action in the Fall of 2000, Rabbi Edward Davis shares the story of the time he went to get a haircut while visiting London. As he sat down in the chair the barber asked, “Talk or no talk?” The barber was sensitive to Rabbi Davis’s preference and comfort and didn’t impose a conversation on someone who preferred to sit in silent contemplation.

The Code of Jewish Law (y.d. 376:1) mandates that the visitors are not allowed to speak until the mourner speaks first. Essentially, the proper etiquette in a shiva home is to sit with the mourner and through our patient silence offer him or her – talk or no talk?

It is natural to struggle with silence. Sitting silently is intimidating, awkward and uncomfortable. Well-intentioned people therefore sometimes fill the silence by saying things that are in fact insensitive, thoughtless or even hurtful. When people do things like tell the family members about treatments or doctors that may have healed their loved one, or say to someone who has lost a child that at least they have other healthy children, they mean well, but their words are unkind. A woman who lost her father reported a visitor asking her why her mother doesn’t look as perky as usual. An older person who lost his wife shared that someone told him “Speak to me after shiva, I have a great shidduch idea for you.”

As a community Rabbi I have spent significant time in shiva homes and many mourners have shared their observations following shiva. I share the following advice based on their feedback:

A shiva home is not a social scene. The purpose of the visit is solely to interact with and comfort the mourner. Don’t congregate in other areas of the home or enter social conversations with others.

While it is not forbidden to eat in a shiva home, it is not the purpose of the visit and should not be the expectation.

Don’t visit at inconvenient times for the mourners, even if they may be convenient for you, such as meals times, early in the morning or late at night.

Keep the conversation with the mourner focused on their loved one. If you knew them, share stories, anecdotes, memories or the impression they left on you. If you didn’t know the deceased, ask questions like: Where was your mother or father born? How many siblings did they have? What kind of education did they receive?   What did they do professionally? What is your favorite memory of them? How would they want to be remembered?

Do not ask details about the deceased’s illness. Don’t say things like, “At least he or she had a long life.” Or, “At least they are not suffering any more.” These are things the mourners can say if they feel them, but they are inappropriate comments from visitors.

Don’t tell the mourners about your loss, illness in your family or the challenges you are experiencing unless it directly relates to providing comfort and support to them.

Don’t take out your cell phone while paying a shiva call. Answering a call or even looking at text messages is rude and distracting.

Shiva visits should never be unduly prolonged. Don’t create a burden on the mourners who feel obligated to play host.

Before leaving, one stands up, approaches the mourner and recites, "HaMakom yenacheim etchem betoch sha'ar aveiliei Tzion v'Yerushalayim" -- May the Almighty comfort you among those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. One can read this phrase from a sheet of paper.

May God indeed comfort those in mourning among the mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim and may we merit to see the day in which “death is no longer part of our experience” (Isaiah 25:8).

November 2, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 14

(14) MORRIS, November 13, 2014 5:13 PM

IT WORKS TWO WAYS

There's something else to consider. i've been to many shivas where the mourner sits and talks to one person or a small group entirely ignoring others. It's uncomfortable and wrong. If someone makes the effort to come and pay respects it is imperative that the mourner acknowledge each and every person there with at least a few words or even a smile and nod.

(13) Anonymous, November 13, 2014 1:42 PM

Thank you for pointing out these most helpful guidelines

I always do my best to pay a Shiva call when members of my community have lost a loved one. IMO, doing it in a meaningful way is a skill which can be learned. I don't mean to sound crude by that last statement. My point is that I have probably made a mistake or two when I've paid Shiva calls in the past. It is my goal to do it better in the future.

(12) Anonymous, November 12, 2014 8:01 PM

I just finished reading your article on aish.com titled "How to Pay a Proper Shiva Call." Yasher koach, rabbi. It should go from your lips to G-d's ears for all who have completely transformed shiva into a social event, complete with snacks that, I am sure, are now virtually expected. We have lost all sense of the profound wisdom Judaism provides on how to pay a proper shiva call and it is a real loss for both those in mourning and those who come to provide "comfort."

(11) Marlene Langert, November 12, 2014 6:17 PM

Most Jews DO not KNow

At 79 it is only a few years since I learned what is in the above article. That was when I went to an orthodox shiva. Before that I had lost my husband, my dad, my mom and a baby. I would have been most concerned if people came in and did not talk to me. Most of the Jewish people I know would feel the same. I must admit that when my husband died at 57, I had to go up to my room and close the door a couple of times and my adult children did the same. We could not take the chatter any more. However, we were glad it was there.

It is my belief that only the orthodox would understand the silent treatment. I pray I will never have to go through a shiva again, but if I did, I would speak to everyone immediately. WHen I had to go upstairs, I was glad they were spread thru the downstairs with each other to talk with.

(10) Yehudit, November 12, 2014 8:07 AM

Beautiful and practical

This is a very valuable article. I was wondering if you could offer some advice about crying? I have heard that comfort is crying with the mourner. But what if the mourner is not crying but I start to cry? This has happened to me several times and I have felt terrible that my eyes have welled up and then caused the mourner to do the same....

Also, although eating is not the purpose, if one wants to eat solely for the purpose of making a bracha for the uplifting of the soul of the deceased "L'iluy nishma" then it is appreciated by the mourner. Our daughter made a little sign next to the food that said "Brachot L'Iluy Nishmat Rafael ben Masuda" for those who wished to do so. Both religious and secular visitors were offered to do this and were relieved to have been given something meaningful to do, and this broke the ice.

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