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The Ritual of Silence

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.

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posted June 22, 2006 at 1:39 am

Thank you for this post, which resonates deeply for me. During my year of clinical pastoral education, when I was working at a nearby hospital, I encountered many moments when respectful and loving silence — or heartfelt prayer — was a better response than the stilted words of consolation I might have offered. There’s no getting around what a profound mystery death is, and our attempts to explain it in simple and comprehensible words can be the exact opposite of what a mourner needs.

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posted June 22, 2006 at 3:22 pm

An Orthodox woman once told me that when a friend of hers lost her child, that she felt the best thing she could do to help her friend during shiva was to sit there and hold her hand, since there were no words adequate she could say to ease her friend’s pain. In that light, what the rabbi says makes perfect sense.

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Rev. Marge Ragona

posted June 22, 2006 at 10:14 pm

Please don’t think that ancient Greek dualism still holds Christians hostage. THEY might have believed that the soul was imprisoned in an evil body, but most thinking Christians now know that the soul and body are inextricably linked, and will rejoin after death. That may be traditional Jewish belief, but it is also traditional Christian belief. Progressive Christians do not believe the body is evil. It just is, and we do believe in resurrection of the body as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds state. Please don’t color all Christians alike. Just as there are shades of belief in Judaism, there are shades of belief in Christianity.

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posted June 23, 2006 at 9:26 pm

The biblical origin for the custom of silence is the Book of Job, in which Job’s “friends” present a perfect model of how NOT to behave with a mourner–they natter endlessly about how G-d wouldn’t punish Job if he hadn’t sinned, and how Job should repent and everything will get better. The rabbis conclude that the best alternative is to just shut up and let the mourner do the talking, if any.

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