One of the many rituals surrounding death in the Jewish tradition is the practice of going to a mourner’s house during a seven-day mourning period called “shiva.” The mourner sits on a low stool and he/she is comforted by friends, relatives, and loved ones.
Not only, however, are there rules and rituals involving the mourner but also those who come to visit him/her. The visitor is instructed that he/she should not speak to the mourner unless addressed by them. I always found this law to be a bit bizarre. The thought of coming into someone’s home and awkwardly sitting there in silence can make everyone feel so uncomfortable.
As Americans, we are accustomed to saying hello and at least a few simple words of comfort to the bereaved. But the older I get and the more funerals and shiva homes I attend, the more I see the deep wisdom in this mandated silence.
The other week, my friend went to pay his condolences to relatives of his that had just experienced the tragic death of their teenage son. While there he witnessed what he described to me as “a horrific moment.” One the visitors who felt the need to say something told those the mourners that their child had died because God wanted him closer to Him. He went on to further suggest that the mourners should be happy just to have had the child in their lives for so long and that everything that had occurred was God’s will.
While all of his words have sources in Jewish tradition, they were just about the stupidest and most insensitive thing one could have said at that moment to the father. The father burst out in pain, “How do you know what God wants? What are you saying…you’re sick…how can you say this about me, my child, and God?”
Too many times one enters mourners’ homes and feels the need to put into words that which is unspeakable. As my father Rabbi Shalom Stern likes to say, words are our way of controlling things and there are some things in life we just can not control. Death is one of them.