A sacred obligation devolves upon every Jew to comfort the mourners, whether he is related to them or not, and whether he was a close friend or a passing acquaintance. In Judaism, exercising compassion by paying a condolence call is a mitzvah, considered by some of our greatest scholars to be biblically ordained. The Bible records that God visited Isaac : "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac, his son" (Genesis 25:11). The sages infer from this verse that God Himself, as it were, was comforting the bereaved Isaac.

It is a man's duty to imitate God: as God comforts the bereaved, so man must do likewise. Consolation is considered a God-like action which all the children of Israel must perform. When, following the destruction of Jerusalem and the decimation of the Jewish people, Isaiah proclaimed God's message: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people" (Isaiah 40:1), it indicated not merely a recommendation from on high, but a specific mandate obliging the prophet to bring consolation to his people.

The fundamental purpose of the condolence call during shiva is to relieve the mourner of the intolerable burden of intense loneliness. At no other time is a human being more in need of such comradeship. Avelut means withdrawal, the personal and physical retreat from social commerce and the concern for others. It is the loss that he alone has suffered. All the traditions of mourning express this troubled loneliness in diverse ways, covering the spectrum of social life-from the excessive growing of hair in indifference to social custom, to the avoidance of greetings, the minimum social courtesy.

Recognizing this state of mind, the visitor comes to the house of mourning, silently, to join the bereaved in his loneliness, sorrowfully to sit alongside him, to think his thoughts and to linger on his loss. The warmth of such human presence is inestimable. Practiced as the tradition prescribes it, true consolation is the distillation of empathy. The sum effect of the visitation of many friends and relatives, some long forgotten, others members of a community who may rarely have paid the mourner any attention at all, is the softening of loneliness, the relief of the heavy burden of internalized despair, and the affirmation that the world at-large is not a hateful and angry place, but a warm and friendly one. It is a beckoning with open arms for the mourner to return to society. Comforting the mourners, says Maimonides, is gemillat chasadim, a genuine kindness to both the dead and the living.

The purpose of the condolence call is not to convince the mourner of anything at all. This is the time for accompanying him on his very own path, not for argumentation or debate. It is the time for the contemplation of disaster. While the mourner himself may wish to discuss it, it is not the prime purpose of this visit to relieve his fears for the future or his guilt for the past. It is not proper, say the sages (indeed it borders on sacrilege), to impress upon the mourner the inevitability of death, as though to doubt the true purpose and justice of a decree that God issued, but would change if only He were free to do so. It is not seemly, perhaps it is even entirely useless, to assure the mourner that others have suffered similar tragedies, or worse fates, as though by right he should be less despairing. "It could have been worse," is cold consolation. This is a time for subjectivity, for an intensely personal evaluation of life, and the mourners should not be deprived of even this indulgence. Some of the importuning of visitors that "life must go on," and that the mourner should be "thankful that worse did not occur," are well-meaning, but hollow and sometimes annoying expressions.

The strategy of true compassion is presence and silence, the eloquence of human closeness. Sad, muttered words are clumsy openers of the heart compared with the whisper of soft eyes. The comradeship demonstrated by the expression on the face speaks volumes that the ancient bards could not match with mere words, no matter how beautiful. It fulfills at once the mourner's desperate need for both companionship and privacy. It was, therefore, an old custom, unfortunately lost to our generations, for visitors to sit silently on the earth with, and like, the mourner. How magnificent an expression of compassion!

The first principle of comforting the mourners, found in the major codes of Jewish law, is that one should remain silent and allow the mourner to speak first. In many Jewish communities in olden days, the congregants accompanied the mourner as he walked home from synagogue on the Sabbath or holiday, and there they sat with him. How warm the mere physical presence of other human beings How it relieves the sharp sting of tragedy! The classic mourner, Job, visited by three friends, sat with them for seven days and none uttered a sound. Ecclesiastes wisely notes that there "is a time to keep silent and a time to speak." The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah on 3:5) records that the wife of Rabbi Mana died. His colleague, Rabbi Abin, came to pay a condolence call. Asked Rabbi Mana, "Are there any words of Torah you would like to offer us in our time of grief?" Rabbi Abin replied, "At times like this the Torah takes refuge in silence!"

It is in this spirit that Maimonides cautions visitors that they not speak overly much as, somehow, words have the tendency to generate a spirit of frivolity so contrary to the spirit of shiva. Indeed, the Talmud notes this when it remarks perceptively, "True reward comes to one who is silent in the house of mourning, and voluble in the wedding hall!"

It is true, of course, that it is exceedingly difficult to comfort with warmth and hope and compassion, while sitting relatively silent. Perhaps, that is the reason for the parting phrase of comfort, "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." For only God can truly comfort, even as He consoled Isaac after his father Abraham's death, and as He has comforted, through the ages, the other mourners of Zion after the tragic destruction of the ancient Temple, and has comforted the exiled, and those who suffered in pogroms and crusades. If the visitor feels uncomfortable in the tension of silence, he may of course converse with the mourner, but-little and wisely.