Jewish Words of Comfort

Judaism helps provide the words to comfort mourners.

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Reprinted with permission from Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief (Jewish Publication Society).

Jewish tradition understands the quandary of those who want to com­fort mourners but cannot articulate words of comfort, so it provides a formulaic religious response to what is essentially an inexpressible emo­tion. Thus, consolers are able to express their sentiments in a soothing and spiritual way without fear that they might become tongue-tied in the face of irretrievable tragedy.

The Crown Jewel Of Jewish Consolation

comforting mourner

"May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha'makom yenahem etkhem betokh she'ar avelei Tziyonvi'Yerushalayim)."

This traditional farewell of mourners instituted by Judaism is carefully constructed and profound. It conveys positive feeling with layers of ever-deepening meaning, even for those who don't understand the lit­eral Hebrew or who can hardly remember the words or even pronounce them correctly.

This formula also relies on God to take primary respon­sibility for consoling the mourners--to comfort is human, to console divine. Mourners might find it hard to fully accept a human being's personal words, but they may feel more readily consoled by an invoca­tion of God's participation in mourning. The ideas embedded in this phrase are a summary of the religious and spiritual devices the tradition uses to bring the mourner some consolation.

Ha'makom

In this blessing, God is referred to by a specific and little-known name, "Ha'makom," which translates simply as "The Place." God is referred to as "place" because space affirms stability, solid ground, rootedness--the opposite of ethereal. A "space" term is used instead of a "time" term such as the Tetragrammaton--the four-letter word for God's name, which signifies eternity--because mourners need to inhabit the here and now.

Space is the framework for grievers—the place of shiva [the week-long mourning period], changing one's usual place at services. Time, in contrast, is infinite, mercurial, and unmanageable.

Further, the use of the word "makom" averts a possible negative re­sponse from mourners. Calling God by this consoling name avoids thrusting God's more familiar, awesome name into the face of mourn­ers who have been shaken to their roots by God's irreversible decree. That is, in fact, also the reason for not greeting mourners with the usual "shalom," since shalom is another name for Almighty God, a name hard to embrace at this disquieting time.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.