The Pain of Forgetting The Mourners Consolation

By Hirshel Tzig

You wanna know pain? I’ll show you pain.

A local non-frum/maybe half-frum Jew walks into shul to say Kaddish. He seems like a somewhat affluent man, yet disheveled, like he hasn’t slept or shaved for a few days. It turns out his dear wife of many years just passed away, and he’s still in middle of Shivah. So the Rov tells him to sit down on a low chair, and that the people davening there will bless him for his recent loss. So, one by one he hears the “HaMokom” from everybody at the Minyan and thanks them for it, although he’s not quite sure what it is they’re saying. A Phenomenon like that is not something you see every day, but it sure does prepare you for what you might see outside of your local frum neighborhood these days.

There was this one gentlemen – a real Tzaddik, a Baal Tshuveh, yes, and most frum people can learn a lot from him – who also wanted to partake of this Mitzvah, (for lack of a better term) and who also started to say the HaMokom. Lo and behold that’s all he could remember, he couldn’t remember the words that follow! The pain and frustration that was visible on his face was worse than anything I had ever seen. Of course he wouldn’t ask anybody what the exact words were, at least I didn’t see him doing that. I also couldn’t bring myself to tell him what they were, for fear of emabarrassing him further, since he didn’t know that I saw him forget. So, he quietly and humbly walked away, in a very “aw-shucks” way lamenting the fact that he couldn’t console the poor old man on his loss. What’s ironic about all this is that he must’ve heard the phrase hundreds of times when being consoled for his own recent loss…..

Originally published in Sept 2007

23 comments on “The Pain of Forgetting The Mourners Consolation

  1. My observation is that although, like the “l’shanah tovah” formula, there are indeed four variants — as you’d expect — the custom seems to be to use the plural male or female only. Keep in mind that the use of a plural to a single person is a common practice when showing honor, as in, “sholom aleichem.”

  2. Ron: the version of the formula is determined by the number and gender of the mourners, but only one word changes: ‘eschem’ becomes ‘oscha’ for one man, ‘osach’ for one woman, eschen for many women; it remains ‘eschem’ for a group of men and women together. Some say ‘eschem’ regardless, so don’t worry if you can’t remember the changes.

    As a matter of fact, when my husband (FFB) and I recently paid a shivah call together, the mourner’s husband and mine were marvelling over a printed pamphlet with all the “grammatically correct” forms. Neither of them had ever seen anything other than the generic ‘hamakom y’nachem etchem’; Artscroll, the standard Lubavitch siddur, and any other siddurim or pamphlets they had ever come across previously only ever listed the one form, and one of them commented on how using the plural always is a reminder that the mourner is not truly alone.

    On another related note, the *last* shiva call I made, several FFB women shared a siddur to say the ‘hamakom’ because they either hadn’t had the need, or just hadn’t had the opportunity to make shiva calls themselves.

    May all of this duscussion prove irrelevant to our personal lives, and may the coming year be one of only revealed good and bracha for all of k’lal Yisroel.

  3. Great post and comments! When I was sitting shiva for my mother I didn’t understand the ‘hamakom’ that people were saying to me, so I didn’t feel particularly comforted by hearing it. Over the years I’ve been to many shiva houses and learned to say it by heart, but at some point I realized it’s more meaningful to just say it in English. That way it’s easier to speak from the heart instead of just reading a script. “May G-d comfort you along with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

    And it’s okay to add your own personal thoughts afterwards, “I hope we meet again under happier circumstances,” or “Please call me if you want to talk.” In my experience even some FFB mourners appreciate that more than hearing the same Hebrew words mumbled over and over.

    Ron: the version of the formula is determined by the number and gender of the mourners, but only one word changes: ‘eschem’ becomes ‘oscha’ for one man, ‘osach’ for one woman, eschen for many women; it remains ‘eschem’ for a group of men and women together. Some say ‘eschem’ regardless, so don’t worry if you can’t remember the changes.

    Miriam: there’s nothing wrong with looking in a siddur during havdala. There’s even an opinon that it’s better to read the text inside than say it by heart.

    Esti: even though we direct our comments to the mourner, it’s also a prayer at the same time. Like all prayers, it’s okay to daven in a language we understand: HKBH cares more about our emotional connection than the exact syntax and letters. Rachmana liba ba’i, and tefilla is avoda shebalev.

  4. If someone as a BT is really having “pain and frustration” over not remembering a Hebrew phrase by heart, a phrase which is commonly said in a community they have not been immersed in their entire life and a phrase which they are not accustomed to saying, this is an issue that goes much deeper than simply the slight embarrassment of starting to say it and then walking away in the middle. This person may need to address an inferiority complex of some sort that is hiding beneath the surface, in which they are ashamed of their past, where they come from, or who they really are.

  5. I am not a BT, but wanted to point out the following..

    After the loss of my father and being on the receiving end of many offers of “Hamakom”, I found it very difficult to say it when making a shiva call to another mourner. My emotions at the others’ shiva house were somewhat tied into my own loss. The post mentioned that the BT had a recent loss and this may have contributed to the difficulty in saying “Hamakom”.

  6. Good grief…I thought I was the only one who doesn’t know hamakom yenachem by heart. I can’t help but feel a sudden feeling of fraternity with everyone here. Thanks to all for sharing their thoughts and experiences in this post… ;)

  7. Great post. The mourner most likely saw the BT’s pain and identified with it, as it seems the mourner didn’t understand what everyone was mumbling at him anyway. The mourner may in fact have been most comforted by a fellow Jew, like him, who didn’t necessarily know the exact right thing to be done although his heart was in the right place (this mourner did in fact walk into an Orthodox shul despite he didn’t exactly know what he should be doing). As pointed out above, its the warmth and sensitivity which makes the difference in a shiva call, not if the words are 100% correct. On the occasions I’ve drawn a blank on the exact phrase, or where the person sitting isn’t from a frum background, I usually state it clearly and meaningfully in English. I think that mourner in the shul would have appreciated that much more than people ‘doing it right’ since the idea is to comfort the mourner. Hashem knows your intentions. Tefillah is different, as its directed towards HKBH and the exact syntax and letters of the Hebrew make a big difference there. But if we’re trying to get across some deep meaning to someone, isn’t it best to communicate to them in the language they know best wherever possible?

  8. David, Sorry, I missed your point earlier, but I agree that we should make the Shiva visit and try to get over our discomfort.

  9. Mark,

    I’m not negating the pain. In fact, I mentioned that the discomfort is “real and not to be discounted”. I also think that Hirshel’s awareness and sensitivity is wonderful and I loved the post. However, I think that some may allow that pain or discomfort to dissuade them from making a shiva visit or comforting mourners. Then we’ve really lost the forest for the trees.

    If someone gets caught short and can’t remember the proper phrase (and Ron, it’s not as simple as you might think for someone to memorize it since there is a certain amount of pressure and even those who memorize things for a living trip up under pressure) I think that telling the mourner that you hope that they will be comforted, as others have already mentioned, would be appropriate.

  10. I’ve actually been in a situation where I didn’t know the words. The mourner was a friend of mine from Penn who had lost her mother (and it was very sudden.) I ended up saying something along the lines of “I don’t know the Hebrew phrase that I’m supposed to be saying right now, but I hope that you may be comforted soon.” I think it ended up being alright.

  11. One of the underlying issues of many of the posts on this issue is that in many yeshivos, Hilcos Aveilus is not part of course of study. RYBS and RSZA clearly disagreed. In Halicos Shlomoh, Vol #3, RSZA emphasized that Hilcos Aveilus was very important because too many people were unable to distingush what was required of them by the halacha from what they mistakenly thought was the halacha.

  12. David and Another, I’m not sure that the fact that the mourner was in the most pain, minimizes or negates the fact that the BT was also in pain. I was personally struck by Hirshel’s awareness and sensitivity to that pain in this particular situation.

  13. I too see signs when I unfortunately have to pay a shiva call. Soemtimes, if there is no sign, I don’t remember the Hebrew, and I might just say “may the next time I come be for a simcha” or some such statement to show that I care.


  14. It seems to me that this is a case of missing the point. The comforting of mourners is done with your presence, your warmth, your empathy to their pain and loss. The line of Hamakom yenahem is a poor substitute for all of that and in many ways a ritualized cop out of real comforting of mourners. Yes, it has value in that words are inadequate at this time, but it also makes it just a little too easy on the comforters. That this article is about some poor BT lacking the self confidence to ask what to out of being embarrassed and is not about the poor guy who showed up to shul who nobody knows, nobody asked his name, but managed to mumble some words to, should leave everyone to do teshuvah.

  15. I think we are in danger of melodramatizing relatively insignificant embarrassment here. Hey, you hook into a subculture that’s strange to you, you are going to have moments such as these. Twenty-plus years out, I still do. And believe me, I wince at the memory of some of them.

    Here’s a good idea: Memorize the one line of “hamakom yenachem.” Although there are different versions depending on whether you talking to a man or a women, get the one you’re mostly likely to say down (the only difference is “yenachen” for a woman) by learning it. Learn it by practicing it a bunch of times, then know it, then avoid pain and embarrassment. No free ride.

    Meanwhile I will once again mess up the “long version” of that one line we say after davening Rosh Hashanah night and end up bailing out with “gam l’mar!”

  16. They do put up small signs at shiva houses, even in places like Boro Park and Williamsburg, but this was an impromptu, unexpected shiva call, hence the lack of a sign.

  17. IMO, there are two issues here:

    1. Performing the mitzvah in the prescribed manner; and

    2. Dealing with the “discomfort and pain”.

    The “discomfort and pain” is something that, while real and not to be discounted, pales in comparison to that being felt by the mourner.

  18. I don’t know the exact words either, although I could translate it for you without thinking about it. It just isn’t something that occurs to you to sit down and memorize, although it probably would be a good idea. Last time I was supposed to say it, the mourner was family and knew my background, so I hope she remembered that enough to understand why I didn’t actually say anything myself, at least not in Hebrew. (I either switched to English or just sort of amened what my husband said. I don’t quite remember anymore.)

    It’s not exactly the same, but can be just as embarrassing: I have the same problem with the line in havdalah that everyone is supposed to say. I sort of know it, but only sort of… and my husband doesn’t stop for it unless we have guests! Initially because his father doesn’t stop for it (although his father says it when he’s a guest) but now because we (myself and the kids) don’t say it even if he does pause there. I really have to sit down with the older kids and just have a group memorization session.

  19. The signs are helpful and practical and if G-d forbid we have to sit Shiva it makes sense to post them for the benefit of others.

    But even with the signs, reading them makes it obvious that you don’t know the words. So what is the pain of not knowing the words?

    There are times when we have no problems revealing our past. But here in the midst of a Shiva visit, where we are just one of many consoling the mourners, declaring “I am a Baalei Teshuva”, by our lack of knowledge to a group of strangers seems out of place. Perhaps it’s the context that causes the discomfort and pain.

  20. I’ve seen this too, Bob. I believe that some of the organizations that help mourners, such as Misaskin, offer these signs. Otherwise, you can copy it out of a siddur and enlarge (Ron C., any copyright problems with that?). Perhaps a transliteration would be helpful as well.

  21. A small sign can be posted showing the text, to help people say the Hebrew or English properly. I think I saw this once.

  22. Then why not say the consolation in English? It would surely be still meaningful to the mourner…

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