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What to Expect at a Shiva (Condolence Call)

Jewish tradition calls upon us to support each other during times of loss. After a funeral and burial, the appropriate time to offer condolences is during the shiva week that follows. Shiva provides mourners with time and space to grieve and to work through the pain of their loss, but the process is not undertaken alone. The presence of friends and family - who offer support during this period - is essential for healing to begin.

What is the meaning of nichum aveilim?

Nichum aveilim is a Hebrew term meaning “comforting mourners” and refers in part to the mitzvah of visiting the house of mourning during the shiva period.

When may we begin to visit mourners?

Before burial, grief is so strong as virtually to preclude consolation by even the most well-meaning friend. Accordingly, the appropriate time for a condolence call begins after interment during the shiva week.

How did condolence calls originate?

Jewish scholars see the condolence call as an ancient custom. The Talmud (Sotah 14a), for example, teaches that consoling mourners was originally an act of God. This tractate cites Genesis 25:11, which states: “After the death of Abraham, God brought blessing to Isaac his son.” Thus, states the Talmud, just as Isaac was consoled by God’s presence, so we are commanded to bring comfort to loved ones with our presence.

Most commentators cite Job 2:13 as the first instance of a condolence call, when Job’s three friends “sat down with him upon the ground . . . for they saw that his grief was very great.”

What is the purpose of a condolence call?

Most mourners do not leave their homes during shiva. It is a time to grieve, to work through pain, and then to take a first step back toward life. The process, however, cannot be undertaken alone. The presence of a support system of friends and family is essential to healing. Your visit helps.

Many people are reluctant to visit a house of mourning. They worry about what they should say or do. But what you say or do is the least significant part of a condolence call. Your presence is the greatest gift you can give to the bereaved family.

What happens when you arrive?

It is traditional to not knock or ring but rather just to enter a house of mourning, so as not to bother the mourners. Many do not observe this custom today, but it is a good idea to keep it in mind and try the door before you ring the bell when paying a shiva call.

As you enter the house of mourning, a member or friend of the family may meet you and usher you into the living room. It is customary to wait to speak until after the mourner speaks. But, once you are acknowledged, all you need say is “I’m sorry.” That simple phrase, a touch, a hug will mean more to the mourner than you can ever know.

What happens then?

Shiva is a time when we reminisce, remember, and recapture memories of a loved one. As such, what we usually do during a condolence call is to listen to those memories that the mourner wishes to share or to talk about other subjects initiated by the mourner that may have nothing to do with his or her loss.

Usually, you need not stay more than thirty minutes. During your visit, supporting, listening, and responding to the mourner should be your primary goal.

Should we bring a gift or flowers?

No. Except for food it is not customary to bring anything with you to the house of mourning. Again, your presence is the main thing. If you wish to “do something,” make a contribution to the deceased’s favorite charity or to a synagogue fund established in his or her memory. A particularly meaningful gesture for many Jews is to plant trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.

What if we cannot be physically present during shiva?

It is proper and comforting to write a card or note if you cannot be present. If you were close to the deceased, mourners would usually also welcome a phone call.

Can we visit mourners on Shabbat?

Since Jewish law prohibits sitting shiva on Shabbat, most people do not receive visitors at that time.

May we pay more than one condolence call during shiva?

Yes. If you are close to the family, it is appropriate for you to come each day, particularly for the daily minyan, which is a central custom of shiva.

Will there be a religious service at the house of mourning?

It is customary for a daily service, known as a shiva minyan, to be held usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This brief service allows the mourners to recite the Kaddish, the prayer recited in memory of the deceased.

The Jewish Home (Revised Edition), by Daniel B. Syme