Nihum Avelim (comforting mourners) is considered one of the classic forms of kindness in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, states in the Talmud that consoling mourners is one way for humans to fulfill the principle of “walking in God’s ways,” and the 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides writes that by comforting mourners, a Jew can fulfil the mitzvah (or commandment) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. More generally, comforting mourners is a way of showing concern for those in distress, showing them that they are neither abandoned nor alone.
The mitzvah of comforting mourners begins after the burial. In talmudic and medieval times, those attending the burial would form a line outside the cemetery, and as the mourners would walk by this line, community members would console them. This practice is still followed in Israel and among traditional Jews in the diaspora. (According to traditional Jewish law, officially mourners are the deceased person’s spouse, parents, children, and siblings.)
The most common time to console mourners is during shiv’ah (“seven”), the seven-day mourning period that follows burial. Visitors come to the “shiv’ah house,” where the mourners are said to be “sitting shiv’ah.” This is not a simple social visit; the aim is to show the mourner that one is concerned about his or her distress.
Concern for the mourner should be paramount. The Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law (written by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century), states, “The consolers are not to speak until the mourner speaks. The mourner sits at the front of the room, and once he nods to indicate that the consolers should leave, they are not permitted to remain any longer”.
One should visit the shiv’ah house of a mourner who is a friend or relative, a member of one’s community, or a mourner who has no other visitors. Ideally, one finds out during which hours the mourners want visitors, and the visitor should be careful not to tire the mourners, or engage them in small talk or conversation unrelated to their mourning.
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