These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

All His Friends Came to Him

Posted on May 22, 2011 by Jean

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When Job’s three friends heard about all these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home…. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance… they broke into loud weeping; each one tore his robe and threw dust into the air onto his head. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering. (Job 2:11-13)

To sit with someone who is grieving, to be aware of his pain, and to share that burden, is hard. People are afraid of death and grief, and they are reluctant to spend time with a mourner.

The mitzvah of comforting the bereaved, helps the mourner, who has experienced a great loss and is suffering pain and loneliness. The presence of the community “…counteracts the danger that the mourner will remain isolated and lonely in his sorrow.” (A. Meir)

Nichum aveilim may also help the deceased. According to some, the soul of the deceased is “mourning over the death of its body.” (S. Glick) The attempts of the living “to make meaning of the life of the departed, are a consolation for the soul of the deceased as well.” (A. Meir)

Not only the bereaved and the deceased benefit from the laws of mourning. The community also can gain strength from observing them.

Halachic guidelines for what to do during shiva visits may help people overcome their reluctance to console the mourner. However, grief does not end after just one week, and the community “must remain aware of [the mourner’s] suffering and treat him as a mourner in every respect.” (S. Glick)

There are guidelines for behavior following shiva, too. Members of the community still have the opportunity to console the bereaved, even if they did not attend shiva. The following chart shows some ways that the community might offer comfort after shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning) and during the rest of the year. (S. Glick)

Mo’ed Katan 21 b Tractate Semahot 14:12
Beraita – A  
After thirty days
one enquires about the person’s welfare, but does not tender [words of] consolation.
After the thirty days, but within twelve months
One enquires about the person’s welfare, and then comforts him [with words of consolation].
Beraita – B  
One who meets a mourner within twelve months tenders him [words of] consolation, but does not enquire about his welfare.  
After twelve months have passed, one enquires about the person’s welfare, but does not tender [words of] consolation. However, one may refer to his sorrow indirectly. After twelve months have passed, one speaks to [the mourner] and then asks how he is feeling.
R. Meir said: “If one meets a mourner R. Meir says: “Whoever sees a mourner…, after thirty days, but within twelve months, should ask how he is feeling and then comfort him.”
After twelve months – he tenders [the mourner words of] consolation. After twelve months, he may in no sense remind him of his mourning.

It takes a long time for a mourner to come to terms with his loss and build a new life. The community should convey the message, “You are not alone, we are with you.” (S. Glick)

Comforting the bereaved is an act of loving-kindness and of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The mourner needs to build a new life from his loss; he needs to know there is somewhere to go from here.

To help him, the community must take the initiative. “The mourner can’t take the first step; ‘a prisoner can’t release himself from jail.'” (A. Meir). There are practical ways for members of his community to support the bereaved. The following are suggestions for those who wish to observe the mitzvah of nichum aveilim. (A. Levine)

– Keep in contact with the mourner by phone or personal visits.

– Draw the mourner out of the house.

– Invite the mourner for Shabbos, Yom Tov, a seder, a Purim seudah, for Chanukah lighting, to eat in the succah, and so on.

– Help the mourner cope with day-to-day decisions.

– Go over to the house or invite the mourner to your house to study together.

– Bring them to shiurim, lectures, and study groups.

Here are some additional suggestions, based on my own experiences as a mourner:

– When you see a mourner crying, don’t turn away. The mourner shouldn’t wonder, “Am I allowed to cry?”

– Do not avoid a mourner. He shouldn’t wonder, “Are people afraid of death, or don’t they care about me?”

– Speak with the mourner. Months after the funeral, he should not still wonder, “When will someone ask me if I’m okay or if I need to talk?”

The laws of comforting the bereaved are only ideals. Not every Jewish community observes them. And perhaps a mourner would feel that he was on his own even if he had a community that cared.

The only advice that I know for a mourner is something my father said after my mother died: “We just have to get through this.” It sounded harsh, but together, each of us kept putting one foot in front of the other until the pain was bearable.

Shmuel Glick, Light and Consolation
Rabbi Aaron Levine, To Comfort the Bereaved
Rabbi Asher Meir, Meaning in Mitzvot
The Book of Job, JPS Translation