With the shocking disruption of normal life caused by a death in the family, the standard forms of social intercourse, its niceties and graces and minutiae of etiquette, are without significance. The mourning heart has no patience for these formalities. Tradition, thus, scorns all types of greeting during shiva.

The sages, who consistently demand that one greet all men graciously and courteously, regard greetings as out of place when spoken by, or to, the mourner. It is absurd to say to a man deep in anguish over someone he loved. "Hello. How are you feeling today?" This is not only a question that cannot be answered, it indicates a lack of compassion and understanding. The shalom aleichems and the hellos are hollow and purposeless, even offensive, to the despairing heart. Certainly, as Maimonides, the twelfth-century sage, taught, we must strongly discourage the misplaced small talk and lightheartedness of some mindless visitors. The rejection of greetings at this time, far from betraying a lack of cordiality, issues from a profound insight into man's nature and a deep compassion for his predicament. This law, as so many other laws of bereavement, originated with Ezekiel. God tells Ezekiel (24:17): "Sigh in silence." Indeed, how can one mourn more eloquently than by "sighing in silence"?

The sages offer a second reason for avoiding the standard greeting of "shalom." Shalom is one of the names of God, and greeting in the name of God at a time when God has taken a close relative could conceivably be, in the spirit of the mourner, an intimation of scoffing and an invitation to question God's justice, at a time when he is required to proclaim God's justice, as in the tzidduk ha'din prayer.

Traditionally, therefore, Jews do not extend greetings to the mourner. The visitor enters the door, usually left slightly ajar to avoid the first meeting and greeting, and sits down, without fuss and bother, to share the grief of his neighbor.

  1. During shiva, the mourner should not extend greetings to others and others, naturally, should not bid him shalom.

  2. When greetings are extended by visitors out of ignorance, the mourner, during the first three days, may not respond to the greeting. He should indicate, graciously, that he is a mourner and is not permitted to do so. After the three days he may respond to the greeting out of courtesy, but should do so in an undertone, to indicate respect to both the person and the tradition.

  3. After shiva he may initiate the greeting and may respond to it. Customarily, however, the mourner is not greeted with shalom for the full year of mourning in the case of a parent's death, and for the 30 days after the death of other relatives.

  4. If a large contingent of people visits as a group, such as, for example, representatives of an organization, he may bid them farewell. Special respect must be accorded to a large number of people.

  5. On the Sabbath, the mourner may wish others shabbat shalom, and they may respond. As to whether others may initiate greetings, there is conflicting opinion, and the mourner should follow the practice of his own community.

  6. May visitors greet each other in the house of mourning? It is considered in poor taste even to utilize the word shalom in the house of mourning, especially since one must then differentiate between the greeting spoken to the bereaved and that spoken to the comforters.

  7. Other forms of greeting to the mourner (not using the word shalom), such as "good evening," etc. should also be avoided. Merely sitting beside the mourner is sufficient. If one desires to approach the mourner directly, the mention of his name alone is indicative of both courtesy and the compassion for his bereavement. Visitors may greet each other without utilizing the word shalom.

  8. The proper way to bid farewell is to use the Hebrew phrase, Ha'makom yenachem (otecha for one male, otach for one female, etchem for many mourners, etchen for more than one female mourner) b'toch she'ar avelai tziyon veerushalayim. One may use the translation, as well: "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Indeed, it is, after all, God alone who can provide the only valid, lasting comfort at this moment of anguish. God, in this phrase, is referred to as Ha'makom, which ordinarily means "the Place." It implies that the omnipresent God, who is everyplace at every time, was present at birth and is now present in the house of mourning—knows the grief that is suffered by the mourners. He is the God who will grant you comfort.

  9. There is no reason why the visitors should not wish the mourner well: that he be blessed with good health and strength, that in the long future he be shielded from great sorrow, and that he be granted long life, or other appropriate blessings. By the same token, the mourner may extend these good wishes, or even mazal tov for some happy occasion, to those who visit. It is psychologically and spiritually valuable for the mourner to demonstrate concern for others-for their sorry plight or their good fortune, although he is himself steeped in the despair of his own difficulties.

  10. To bring gifts of material things to the mourner is not only in poor taste, but in violation of the traditional custom. The avoidance of sending gifts is in the nature of avoiding greetings. It expresses only the superficial joys of friendship at a time of profound personal disorientation. Traditionally, the meal of condolence was the proper gift of consolation. While, obviously, all visitors cannot provide this present, a gift to a charity in honor of the deceased is, instead, correct procedure. Thoughtful visitors will follow this course.