A Truly Great Mitzva

Just as showing respect for the deceased is a great mitzva and an act of kindness, so too is comforting the mourners. This mitzva is fulfilled by personally visiting the house of mourning.

The mitzva of Nichum Aveilim (Heb. comforting mourners) lasts throughout the entire seven days of Shiva. Each visit is considered another mitzva. If one heard of the passing after Shiva, he may fulfill this mitzva until the thirtieth day.

The Needs of the Mourners

The mitzva of comforting mourners includes looking after their material needs. One should respectfully and discreetly find out what their needs may be and fulfill them.

For example, if the mourners lost their main source of financial support, it is important to help gather funds for their continued support and to help the family in any other way one can.

Visiting the Mourners

In many communities, the three daily prayer services are held in the Shiva home. This provides family and friends the opportunity to visit with the mourners during different times of the day. If services are not held in the Shiva home, it is important to arrange visits, so that there are people around to comfort the mourners and attend to their needs. One should be considerate and neither visit too early in the morning nor very late at night, and to respect the privacy of the mourners.

One does not pay a condolence visit on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, since overt mourning on those days is prohibited.

Receiving Visitors

Just as it is a mitzva to comfort the mourners, it is a mitzva for the mourners to receive those who seek to comfort them. Depending on the mourners' personal needs and abilities, they may, however, restrict visitations to a few hours during the day or evening.

When receiving those coming to comfort, it is best to focus on sharing memories of the deceased and reciting Psalms. The key is to remember that one needn't "entertain" during Shiva.

How to Comfort

Many people do not know what to say to a mourner. In reality your presence alone is comforting enough. Saying the right thing is of secondary importance. Below are some general guidelines to observe when visiting a Shiva house.

For Visitors

  • Upon arriving, do not greet the mourner (or anyone else) with usual greetings (i.e. "Hello," "How are you," etc.).

  • Visitors may stand or sit.

  • One does not begin talking until the mourners initiate (unless the mourner does not know about this custom). If there are many people present, one does not have to wait for the mourner to initiate with each person individually.

  • It is best to engage the mourners in interesting and inspirational talk to ease their pain. One should not speak or act frivolously, or joke around. It is fitting to relate stories and memories of the deceased. One should be careful not to relate anything that may increase the pain or distress of the mourners.

  • When speaking of the deceased, one says Alav Ha-sholom for men ("may he rest in peace"), or Ale-ha Ha-sholom for women ("may she rest in peace"), after the person's name. Some may say Zichrono Livrocho for men, or Zichrona Livrocho for women, meaning "of blessed memory."

  • Visitors should not be expected to be served any food.

  • Before the visitor is about to leave, he consoles the mourners with the "Condolence Declaration" (see following page).

  • When one sees that the mourners would like privacy, one should politely take leave.

For Mourners

  • The mourner should sit on a low stool or crate.

  • When visitors arrive, one does not rise to greet them, even if it is a rabbi or great sage.

  • The mourner should refrain from excessive conversation on the phone, or engaging in frivolous banter, as it appears that he has forgotten his grief.

  • The mourner does not say goodbye or the like, but simply says "Amen" when offered the "Condolence Declaration."

  • Comforting from a Distance: If for whatever reason it is not possible to come in person to comfort the mourners, one may do so by phone, fax, email, etc., or by sending a messenger.

The Condolence Declaration

After spending time with the mourners, before leaving, each visitor consoles them with the following passage.

The mourners sit on a low stool or crate when receiving the condolence and respond with "Amen." If this is done immediately after the morning prayer service, the male mourners remain in their tallit and tefillin to accommodate those who need to leave to work.

Say the following to the mourners:

May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The Meaning of the Declaration

The traditional wording of the above condolence declaration expresses two themes:

1) The pain of the individual is connected to the pain of the community. Just as the destruction of Zion and Jerusalem is mourned by the entire nation of Israel, so, too, does the entire community share in the mourning of the individual's loss, since all Israel constitutes a single body. This helps to make the pain and sorrow bearable.

2) Just as the consolation over the destruction of Zion and Jerusalem is certain to come — this being a fundamental principle of our faith — so, too, will the consolation for the individual's loss. For, as Maimonides writes, the purpose of all mourning is to awaken us to Teshuva (repentance), which will surely bring the ultimate consolation from "The Consoler of Zion and the Builder of Jerusalem."