The Gemara (Sotah 14a) teaches that we are should follow the ways of Hashem—to emulate His traits (midos) as taught to us by the Torah. One of His traits is that he consoles mourners, as the Gemara derives from the death of Avraham Avinu, after which Hashem appeared to his son Yitzchak to bless him.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Rif Berachos 11b,) explains that consoling mourners is a full Torah mitzvah, since it is included in the obligation to perform acts of kindness.
However, the Rambam clarifies that the formal mitzvah of nichum avelim is rabbinic (Avel 14:1). Although the general concept of performing acts of kindness is a Torah obligation, the specific act of consoling mourners is a rabbinic mitzvah. Thus, the Rambam says that the mitzvah is included in the Torah precept of loving your neighbor as yourself.
In the present article we will discuss some basic aspects of the mitzvah of nichum avelim, which is appropriate for the weekly portion of Kedoshim which includes the mitzvah of “love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 18:17).
What is the main focus of the mitzvah? What is the nature of the customary blessing that we give mourners? How should conversation be started? And can the mitzvah be fulfilled on the phone?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Main Focus of the Mitzvah
The main purpose of nichum avelim is to console the mourners, easing their pain by visiting them, sharing in their grief and allowing them to express it. As the Chafetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chesed 3:5), “the principle of nichum avelim is to console the mourner of his grief.” Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:40) writes similarly that the mitzvah relates to “mourners who are agitated by their grief, and he speaks upon their hearts and consoles them.”
In addition to this basic purpose, the Rambam (14:7) notes that the mitzvah involves an “act of kindness for the living and for the deceased.” He adds that for this reason the mitzvah of consoling mourners takes precedence over the mitzvah of visiting the sick, which relates only to the living.
The benefit for the deceased (which has a source in the Gemara, Shabbos 152b) is explained by Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos (1:691) in terms of honoring the dead, which is a tikkun for the departed soul, as we find concerning the funeral service itself. He adds that this is all the more true if the deceased’s righteousness and good deeds are discussed at the shiva house.
The aspect of honoring the deceased is only achieved when actually visiting the home of the mourner. It is therefore better to visit the mourner, rather than merely calling him by phone (aside from the fact that visiting personally is a more effective consolation than a phone call). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 4:40, sec. 11) thus writes that one should comfort by phone (or by other means of communication) only if it is not possible to visit the mourner in person.
“May HaMakom Console You”
Based on the explanation above, it is clear that the customary blessing, “May HaMakom console you among the mourners of Zion” (the wording is mentioned by the Perisha, Yoreh De’ah 393:3, and is not of early origin) is not the principle fulfillment of the mitzvah, which requires that the visitor engage and console the mourner.
As Rav Moshe expounds (Orach Chaim 5:20), “It is simple that the mitzvah of consoling mourners is not only blessing them that Hashem should console them, meaning that He should give them the strength to be consoled. For this alone does not console them and quiet their spirit, which is the main concept of consolation that the Torah obligates. Rather, as we find concerning the friends of Iyov who came to console him, who spoke with him at length […] and so, too, concerning Hashem Himself.”
Ahavas Chesed also writes that although giving the blessing of “May HaMakom console you” can be a minimal fulfillment of the mitzvah, the principle mitzvah (ikar ha-mitzvah) is “to speak upon his heart and to ease his pain with his words.”
In fact, there is some discussion as to whether the words “May HaMakom console you” are a blessing, to which it is appropriate for the mourner to answer amen, or whether these are words of consolation, to which the response of amen is inappropriate. Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos (5:309, sec. 19) raises this as a matter of doubt, and writes that even if meant as consolation, the mourner can accept the words as a blessing and answer amen.
Concerning visitors who simply enter the room, sit down, say the customary blessing and leave, the Perisha (393:3) asks how this can possibly fulfill the mitzvah of comforting mourners. He responds that perhaps the entry into the house of mourning and sitting down in honor of the deceased and the mourners can constitute a consolation.
Sitting or Standing
Those who come to console the mourners should, ideally, sit on the floor together with the mourners, indicating the visitor’s participation in the mourner’s pain and grief. This is noted by several Rishonim (see Rosh, Moed Kattan 3:98; Rambam, Avel 13:3) and is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 387:1).
However, since mourners today do not generally sit on the floor, they are mochel and allow visitors to sit on a chair (Shach 387:2; see Moadim Uzemanim 5:341). Nonetheless, some write that one should sit when consoling the mourners (noted in Derech Sicha 1, p. 125), and Rav Asher Weiss (Shut Minchas Asher 1:63) has written that the principal nichum avelim is when seated.
Some stand to say the blessing of “May HaMakom console you” (or the customary Sephardic version of “May you be consoled from the Heavens”) which sometimes makes it easier to convey the words to several mourners together. This is certainly permitted (see Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 5:20:21). As noted it is not the main part of the mitzvah but only a customary blessing.
Talking to the Mourner
The Gemara (Moed Kattan 28b) teaches that when going to be menachem avel the mourner has to start the conversation before one speaks to him. This is ruled by the Rambam (Avel 13:3) and the Shulchan Aruch (376:1). However, merely giving the blessing that “Hashem should console you” (or similar blessing) is not considered opening conversation, and therefore Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 5:20, sec. 21) writes that it is permitted for the visitor to open with this statement.
Although this is the ruling of the Gemara and of halachic authorities, it seems that many do not follow the instruction, and begin conversation even if the mourner is silent. Some explain that in the past mourners generally refrained from speaking altogether, so that it was necessary to wait for him to initiate the conversation. Today, mourners generally talk, so that it is permitted to begin talking even if he is quiet (Teshuvos V’hanhagos 3:376).
Shut Tzitz Eliezer (17:45, sec. 4.) suggests that after the mourner began to speak with someone at the beginning of the shiva, it is permitted for anyone who comes afterwards to begin talking to him even before the mourner starts discussion.
Whom to Console
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 335:2) writes that one should refrain from visiting a mourner when the visitor is not on good terms with him. This is likely to cause additional pain rather than consolation (since the mourner might believe that his adversary is rejoicing in his grief), and therefore is contrary to the purpose of the mitzvah.
The Shach (2) adds that this matter depends on the specific nature of their relationship, and whether the concern raised by the Rema applies or not.
It is permitted for a man to comfort a woman and vice versa (Chelkas Yaakov, Yoreh De’ah 223; Gesher Hachaim 20:5:1; and others). Of course, when visiting a woman (and vice versa) one must be careful to avoid any questions of yichud, and to ensure one adheres to principles of modesty.
Although the strict mitzvah of nichum avelim does not apply to non-Jews, some console non-Jews who are mourning. This is all the more true if refraining from doing so might result in friction (Rashba, Gittin 61a).
Greeting an Avel
It is forbidden to greet an avel with Shalom or Shalom Aleichem; similarly, the avel should not greet others in this fashion (Shulchan Aruch 385:1). The reason is that the avel is not at peace with himself, so that the Shalom greeting is inappropriate (Aruch Hashulchan 385:1). The Aruch Hashulchan (385:4) adds that people who are in the house of the mourner should not greet each other with Shalom either.
There is some discussion as to whether alternative greetings such as hello, good morning and good evening are permitted (see Salmas Chaim, Yoreh De’ah 203, who is stringent in this; see Chochmas Adam 165:12) to an avel. It seems that the general custom in this matter is not to be lenient.
When to Come
Some refrain from visiting the beis avel during the first three days of mourning, which are set aside for crying over the deceased, and during which he will not be consoled (see Gesher Hachaim 20:5:5, Teshuvos Vehanhagos 3:377). However, the common custom is to visit the mourner even during the first three days.
According to the strict halacha it is permitted to visit a mourner on Shabbos, as ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 287:1). The Mishnah Berurah writes that one who does so should say a parallel to the words used for the Shabbos blessing of healing: “It is Shabbos so not consoling, and a speedy comfort to come.”
As the Mishnah Berurah (287:1) and others write (see Gesher Hachaim 20:2; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim 287:3; Yoreh De’ah 393:10), the general custom is to refrain from visiting on Shabbos. However, if one knows that his visit is important in bringing comfort to the mourner, it remains a mitzvah to visit on Shabbos, and even on Yom Tov.
May we know no further grief—personally and nationally—and speedily see the full and complete redemption.