Article from Rabbi Sharfman on Shiva, Mourning and Consolation

Dear Friends in Kehillah,

An essential part of being a kehillah kedosha (a holy community) is caring for our friends in their time of need. This series of articles is meant to help us all understand our roles as mourners and as those supporting those who are in mourning, both of which we will experience in our lifetimes.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with your questions. I am here for you.

With love,

Your Rabbi

The Meal of Consolation

Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one’s hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.

The washing is performed with a cup of water poured alternatively on both hands; as with the shovel at the filling of the grave, the cup is not passed directly from hand to hand.

It is the obligation of the community to provide a meal of condolence (seudat havra’ah) for the mourners on their return from the cemetery. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud criticized neighbors who caused the bereaved to prepare their own meal, cursing them for being so callous to the plight of the mourners.

What types of food should be eaten?

Upon returning from the funeral to the home where shiva will be observed, it is traditional to ritually wash one’s hands with water from a pitcher placed outside the door. This custom is based on the biblical concept that contact with a corpse is a major cause of ritual impurity (Num. 19:11). It also stresses that Judaism is concerned with the value and dignity of life, rather than excessive attention to or worship of the dead.

It is customary to serve foods that are round to symbolize the cyclical and continuous nature of life. Among the most common are hardboiled eggs (a symbol of the close connection between life and death), lentils, garbanzo beans, and even bagels.

According to some, the egg is the only food that hardens the longer it is cooked, stressing that human beings must learn to steel themselves when death occurs. Similarly, the egg is completely sealed inside its shell, reminding the mourners to remain silent and refrain from casual talk.

Lentils are especially significant because, unlike most beans, they have no eye–symbolic of the deceased no longer being seen. Also, just as lentils have no mouth, so are mourners forbidden to open their mouths to greet people (Gen. Rabbah 63:14).

The critical importance of the seudat havra’ah to the mourners is that it is served by friends and other family members who care deeply for them. In modern times, guests now share in this meal, but it was once limited to those in mourning.

– By Ronald L. Eisenberg

Additional notes:

Many families, including some who are not observing Shiva, welcome visitors at the family home after the funeral service for a traditional meal, called a “seudat havra’ah” (meal of consolation).  This meal is mostly intended for the mourners, who may feel too saddened to eat if left alone.  The community is present to provide the food for the mourners, encourage them to take care of their own needs, and usher mourners into a new stage in their lives.  This is also a time in which mourners may light a large candle (usually provided by the funeral home) which will burn in the home for the next week.

There is a tendency in many places for families to engage a caterer to provide for this meal.  However, it is best for extended family members, synagogue members, or friends to arrange the meal.  Mourners should not arrange for the food, greet or entertain guests.

The article by Eisenberg mentions the traditional foods included in the meal of consolation, what is provided to the mourners is not limited to that list. It is thoughtful to consider the kashrut and health concerns of the mourners (do they keep kosher? Are they vegetarian? On a low sodium diet for heart problems?) who likely are not thinking about their own needs at this painful time.


Planning for Shiva

Before the burial, priority should be given to arranging a respectful farewell to the departed loved one.  Once these efforts are in place, attention should turn to the details of mourning.  If mourners will be sitting shivah (i.e. observing the seven-day-long period of mourning in a family home), preparations must be made, usually with the help of a rabbi or synagogue members.  (Some families may alternately make use of a leniency which permits a three-day mourning period when economic necessity requires an early return to work.)  This full week of withdrawal from daily concerns provides a chance for mourners to grieve together, exchange memories of the deceased loved one, and be comforted by each other and the community.

How to Make a Shiva Call

We are not alone. This is the fundamental message of Judaism about death and bereavement. Every law and every custom of Jewish mourning and comforting has, at its core, the overwhelming motivation to surround those who are dying and those who will grieve with a supportive community. While some may argue that facing death and coping with grief heighten one’s feeling of aloneness, the Jewish approach places loss and grief in the communal context of family and friends.

Comforters are obligated to tend to the needs of mourners. For instance, since a family sitting shiva [seven days of mourning following a death] should not prepare meals, it is the responsibility of the community to feed them. Some people send prepared foods from local caterers, and many Jewish newspapers carry ads for “shiva trays.” With our busy, frenetic lives, it is certainly convenient to turn to these sources. Yet personally prepared and/or delivered food is a more traditional act of comfort. Liquor, candy, or flowers are not usually sent. A donation to a charity designated by the mourners would be another appropriate way to honor the deceased, while comforting those who mourn.

As a comforter, making a shiva call is one of the most important acts of condolence. But all too often those visiting a mourner’s home are not sure of the appropriate behavior. David Techner, funeral director at the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Detroit and a leading expert in the field, suggests that many people do not have the slightest idea as to why they even make the shiva call. “People need to ask themselves: ‘What am I trying to do?’ When people say things like, ‘At least he’s not suffering,’ who are they trying to make comfortable? Certainly not the mourner. People say things like that so that they do not have to deal with the mourner’s grief. The comment is for themselves, not the mourner.”

In my interviews with rabbis, funeral directors, psychologists, and lay people for my book, A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort, I discovered that the act of comforting the mourner is quickly becoming a lost art. We do not know what to do, so many people avoid making a shiva call altogether. We do not know what to say, so many people say things that are more hurtful than helpful. We do not know how to act, so often the atmosphere is more festive than reflective.

The problem is exacerbated by mourners and their families who do not know how to set an appropriate tone. Many observances have become like parties, with plenty of food, drink, and chitchat. Of course, there are alternatives. In some shiva homes, the minyan [prayer service with at least 10 Jews, where the mourner says Kaddish, the memorial prayer] becomes the focus. During the service [or just before and just after it], the life of the deceased is remembered through stories and anecdotes.

Practical Tips

Whichever type of shiva home you encounter, there are some basic guidelines for making a shiva call.

Decide when to visit. Listen for an announcement at the funeral service for the times that the mourners will be receiving guests. Usually the options are immediately after the funeral, around the minyanim in the evenings and mornings, or during the day. Should you wish to visit during another time, you may want to call ahead. Some experienced shiva visitors choose to visit toward the end of the week, when it is frequently more difficult to gather a minyan.

Dress appropriately. Most people dress as if attending a synagogue service. Depending on the area of the country, more informal dress might be just as appropriate.

Wash your hands. If you are visiting immediately after the funeral, you will likely see a pitcher of water, basin, and towels near the door. It is traditional to ritually wash your hands upon returning from the cemetery. This reflects the belief that contact with the dead renders a person “impure.” There is no blessing to say for this act.

Just walk in. Do not ring the doorbell. The front door of most shiva homes will be left open or unlocked, since all are invited to comfort the mourners. This eliminates the need for the mourners to answer the door. On a practical level, it avoids the constant disruptive ringing of the bell.

Take food to the kitchen. If you are bringing food, take it to the kitchen. Usually there will be someone there to receive it. Identify the food as meat, dairy, or pareve [neither meat nor dairy]. Be sure to put your name on a card or on the container so that the mourners will know you made the gift. It also helps to mark any pots or pans with your name if you want to retrieve them later.

Find the mourners. Go to the mourners as soon as possible. What do you say? The tradition suggests being silent, allowing the mourner to open the conversation. Simply offering a hug, a kiss, a handshake, an arm around the shoulder speaks volumes. If you do want to open a conversation, start with a simple “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say. This must be really difficult for you” or “I was so sorry to hear about _______.” Be sure to name the deceased. Why? Because one of the most powerful ways to comfort mourners is to encourage them to remember the deceased.

Recall something personal: “I loved _______. Remember the times we went on vacation together? She adored you so much.” Do not tell people not to cry or that they will get over it. Crying is a normal part of the grieving process. And, as most people who have been bereaved will tell you, you never “get over” a loss, you only get used to it.

Spend anywhere from a few moments to 10 minutes with the mourners. There will be others who also want to speak with them, and you can always come back. If you are the only visitor, then, of course, spend as much time as you wish.

Participate in the service. If a prayer service is conducted during your call, participate to the extent you can. If you do not know the service, sit or stand respectfully while it is in progress. If the rabbi or leader asks for stories about the deceased, do not hesitate to share one, even if it is somewhat humorous. The entire purpose of shiva is to focus on the life of the person who has died and his or her relationship to the family and friends in that room.

If invited, eat. Take your cue from the mourners. In some homes, no food will be offered, nor should you expect to eat anything. In others, especially after the funeral, food may be offered. Be sure that the mourners have already eaten the meal of condolence before you approach the table. When attending a morning minyan, you will likely be invited to partake of a small breakfast. After evening minyan, coffee and cake may or may not be served. In any case, should you be invited to eat, be moderate in your consumption. Normally, guests are not expected to eat meals with the family during the shiva.

Talk to your friends. Inevitably, you will encounter other friends and acquaintances at a house of mourning. Your natural instinct will be to ask about them, to share the latest joke, to shmooze about sports or politics. You may be standing with a plate of food and a drink, and if you did not know better, it would feel like a party. But the purpose of the shiva is to comfort the mourners.

You are in the home to be a member of the communal minyan. The appropriate topic of conversation is the deceased. Reminisce about his or her relationship to the mourners and to you. Of course, human nature being what it is, we tend to fall into our normal modes of social communication. This is not necessarily bad; however, you should be careful to avoid raucous humor, tasteless jokes, loud talk, and gossip.

Do not stay too long. A shiva visit should be no more than an hour. If a service is held, come a few minutes before and stay a few after. Mourners uniformly report how exhausted they are by the shiva experience; do not overstay your welcome.

Say goodbye. When you are ready to leave, you may want to wish the bereaved good health and strength, long life, and other blessings. The formal farewell to a mourner is the same Hebrew phrase offered at the gravesite and in the synagogue on Friday evening:

May God comfort Ha-makom yenakhem
you etkhem [many mourners]
  otakh [one female]
  ot’kha [one male]
  etkhen [more than one female]
among the other b’tokh sh’ar
mourners a’vaylay
of Zion and Jerusalem. Tzion v’Y’rushalayim

Ha-Makom is a name of God that literally means “the place,” referring to God’s omnipresent nature, including at the lifecycles from birth to death. It is only God who can grant the mourner lasting comfort. The comforter comes to remind the mourners that the divine powers of the universe will enable them to heal and go on with a meaningful life. Ultimate consolation comes only from the omnipresent God.

“B’tokh sh’ar avaylay Tzion v’Y’rushalayim” means “among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Once again, the message is “we are not alone.” In fact, traditional Jewish practice requires a minyan of 10 in order to recite the Kaddish prayer. Personal bereavement is thus seen in the total context of the community.

The great genius of Jewish bereavement is to empower the community to be God’s partner in comforting those who mourn. In making a shiva call in an appropriate and traditional way, we are the medium through which God’s comfort can be invoked. In learning the art of coping with dying, we are, in fact, learning an important aspect of the art of Jewish living.

– By Dr. Ron Wolfson

Additional Notes

The following teaching from Rabbi Maurice Lamm is well worth considering:

The Most Consoling Words

Probably the most consoling words I have ever heard are these: “Tell me what your loved one was really like.” The dialogue between mourners and consolers during shiva is not designed to distract the bereaved but to encourage the mourner to speak of the deceased–of his or her quali­ties, hopes, even foibles–and, of course, not to criticize the dead who cannot respond. Far from recalling the anguish of the loss, it gives those who are bereaved the opportunity to recall memories and to express theft grief aloud.

Psychologists assure us that mourners specifically want to speak of their loss. Eric Lindemann, in his classic paper “The Symp­tomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” writes, “There is no re­tardation of action and speech; quite to the contrary, there is a push of speech, especially when talking of the deceased.”

Both the mourners’ words and their tears should not be avoided or suppressed. For mourn­ers and for comforters, words truly make a difference. “Tell me what your loved one was really like” is a good beginning.