In Judaism, to console the bereaved, just show up

“Eilu devarim she’ein lahem shiur,” reads a section of the morning service. “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure.” That translation is not entirely accurate, but it comes from the prayerbook I grew up with and is deeply ingrained in my mind. Later in that same translation it says one of those obligations is “to console the bereaved” — the Hebrew actually says: “ulevayat hameit,” which means “to accompany the dead.”)

I was recently reminded of this type of obligation when my rabbi announced that a community member was sitting shiva for his father this week. A crucial part of community, she said, is “doing things for people you don’t even know.” In fact, I do know this mourner, though not well. Nevertheless, the rabbi’s words were enough to remind me of that list of obligations.

There is a tradition that the front door of the house of mourning be left unlocked or even open. This is meant to make it easy on the mourner. Greeting guests at the door may be emotionally taxing soon after the death of a loved one. As a would-be comforter in an urban environment, it can feel awkward to simply walk into someone’s home. Then again, paying a shiva call isn’t about making yourself feel comfortable. In this case there was no need for trepidation; a small piece of paper that read “Please let yourself in” was taped right next to the doorknob.

So I let myself in. The next thing to think about in a house of mourning is counterintuitive: Don’t speak unless spoken to. While the American norm is to approach the mourner and offer condolences, the Jewish tradition is to give the mourner some space. The point of the seven days of shiva is to grant mourners a period of calm and seclusion before they have to go out and face the world. They may not want to talk about their loved one. They may not want to talk to anyone; wait until they engage you. Again, it might feel awkward. But again, this isn’t about you.

There were only a few others there when I arrived. We sat in the living room — crammed to overflowing with extra chairs — and made polite small talk while waiting for the minyan to start. On the mantle a few relics of the deceased were on display, including a black-and-white portrait of him in military uniform.

After a few minutes, the mourner and two older relatives joined us. Gradually, more people arrived, most of them bearing food. Food, as on most Jewish occasions, is a key part of shiva. The community makes sure the mourner does not need to do anything during shiva, including preparing food. Thus, shiva usually involves an endless parade of it.

Though one can call on a traditional house of mourning at any reasonable hour, there is typically a larger gathering for the shiva minyan. During the first year after the death of a close family member, the mourner traditionally says Kadish Yatom, Mourner’s Kaddish, daily. Because the mourner does not leave the house during shiva, we bring the minyan to him, giving the mourner the opportunity to say Kaddish. By the time we began the service, 20 people had arrived, a minyan twice over — a true show of support. At the end of the service there were 40 people crammed into the house, from many areas of the mourner’s life.

As it was early evening and the sun was still up, we did the Mincha (afternoon) service. Mincha is a quick and easy affair, consisting of Ashrei (Psalm 145 with a few verses from other psalms), the Amidah (the central rubric of 19 prayers said thrice daily), Aleinu (a closing prayer) and two repetitions of Kadish Yatom. The service was conducted from a slim, glossy siddur for houses of mourning with a selection of readings in the back. These are commonly distributed by a synagogue or funeral home.

We began with a somber niggun, and ended by reading silently to ourselves from Eccelsiastes (“a time to live, a time to die … etc.”). Two additional modern poems were recited, then the two older relatives shared amusing anecdotes from the deceased’s youth.

In my experience, most of the food people bring is eaten by the comforters rather than the bereaved. This time was no different. After the service, there was small talk, food and drink.

All told, I was there about an hour. If I’d come only for the service, it would’ve been less than 30 minutes. That’s the thing about making a shiva visit: It costs little in time and effort to you, but can mean so much to the mourner.

You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do much of anything. As in life, 90 percent of consoling the bereaved is just showing up.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.