A Practical Guide to Paying a Shiva Call

By Lori Palatnik

When one pays a shiva call, the focus is on comforting the mourners in their time of greatest grief. Traditionally, one enters the shiva house quietly with a small knock so as not to startle those inside. No one needs to greet visitors; they simply enter on their own.

Food or drinks are not laid out for the visitors, because the mourners are not hosts. They do not greet the visitors, rise for them, or see them out.

When entering the house, you should not greet the mourners. In fact, it is best to come in silently and sit down close to them. Take your cue from the mourners. If they feel like speaking, let them indicate it by speaking first. Let them lead and talk about what they want to talk about. It is best to speak about the one who has passed away, and if you have any stories or memories to share with the mourner, this is the time to do so.

This is not a time to distract them from mourning. Out of nervousness, we often make small talk because we do not know what to say. Don’t fill in the time talking about happy subjects or inconsequential topics like politics or business.

Often, the best thing to say is nothing. A shiva call can sometimes be completely silent. If the mourner does not feel like talking at that time, so be it. Your goal is not to get them to talk; it is to comfort them. Your presence alone is doing that. By sitting there silently, you are saying more than words can. You are saying: “I am here for you. I feel your pain. There are no words.”

And sometimes there aren’t any. Here are examples of things not to say:

• “How are you?” (They’re not so good.)

• “I know how you feel.” (No you don’t. Each person feels a unique loss.)

• “At least she lived a long life.” (Longer would have been better.)

• “It’s good that you have other children,” or, “Don’t worry, you’ll have more.” (The loss of a child, no matter what age, is completely devastating.)

• “Cheer up – in a few months you’ll meet someone new.” (He/she has just lost the other half of their soul!)

• “Let’s talk about happy things.” (Maybe later.)

Remember that speaking about the loved one they lost is comforting. It’s alright if they cry; they are in mourning. It is all part of the important process of coming to grips with such a loss.

You should not overstay your visit. Twenty minutes will suffice. When other visitors arrive and space is a concern, it is certainly time to leave.

Before leaving, one stands up, approaches the mourner and recites, “HaMakom yenacheim etchem betoch sha’ar aveiliei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” — May the Almighty comfort you among those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. One can read this phrase from a sheet of paper.

Upon leaving the house of the mourner, it is customary to give charity in memory of the one who passed away, may his soul be elevated.

Originally printed on aish.com from Lori’s book, Remember My Soul.
See Lori’s video blog each week on aish.com: “Lori Almost Live”

7 comments on “A Practical Guide to Paying a Shiva Call

  1. I am not Jewish, so don’t know that I would be expected/permitted to participate; however, this seems to be a sensible and respectable way to mourn for most people. I like the emphasis on presence rather than words. American culture is so fast that we are often not even present with ourselves (always rushing somewhere, worrying) and we often talk too much but say little.

    Thank you for educating me.

  2. The Sephardi/Edut Hamizrach world has a different attitude to food. It is appropriate to make a bracha and eat as a zechut for the deceased.

  3. In general Mrs Palatnik’s advice was great and consistent with how I was taught. But I agree that you need to size up the situation. Every visit is different and a lot depends on your relationship with the person sitting Shiva and where they are holding.

    I can remember visits where the mourner themselves where so chesed-focused that they took great pains to make sure the comforters where comfortable.

  4. A very thoughtful post. However on a site for BT’s, let me add, and excuse me if this is obvious, we sometimes have to act differently when visiting shiva homes where the mourners themselves do not know the rules.

    Entering silently and sitting could easily misinterpreted as being rude. They may often rise to greet you. Many shiva houses have food placed out and, given sometimes the overwhelming amount of food that shows up, mourners want people to eat and they derive some comfort from that.

    There is often a very different atmosphere where an elderly person has passed away after a long fulfilling life than in a house where a much younger person has died.

    While Ms. Palatnik has written a very helpful piece, please remember that the human encounter is what is crucial here and sometimes it does not follow the rules.

  5. Thank you for this one. Its amazing how many crackpot comments I got when I was sitting shiva, “how are you” being the least of them. IMHO the best thing to do is to follow Chazals lead and speak only when or if spoken to. Another valuable addition is a memory of the lost loved one, if you have one to share. Those are always treasured and from my experience,too infrequently shared.

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