Comforting Jewish Mourners: Nihum Avelim
Respect for the deceased, kindness and concern for those who mourn.
The traditional sentences of consolation which conclude the shiv'ah visit (and are used in the cemetery line) are "May you be comforted from Heaven," in the Sephardic tradition, and "May God console you together with everyone who mourns for Zion and Jerusalem," in Ashkenazic tradition.
In traditional communities, daily prayer services are held at the shiv'ah house. Attending those services is a good way to show concern for the mourners, since it ensures the presence of a minyan (a quorum of ten), which is required for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of several versions of this prayer sanctifying God’s name. It also serves to slowly help connect the mourner, who often has a more introverted psychological stance that is characteristic of mourning, with a sense of community.
Another way of showing concern is bringing food to the shiv'ah house; this ensures that the mourners do not have to cook meals for themselves. The rabbis of the Talmud ordained that these meals should not be brought in ostentatious platters and baskets; the purpose of the meals is to help the mourners, not to demonstrate the comforters' wealth.
There is a custom to comfort mourners who are sitting shiv'ah during Friday night services in synagogue. The mourners remain outside while the congregation reads or sings the psalms that welcome the Sabbath (Kabbalat Shabbat). Then the mourners enter the synagogue, and the congregation greets them with the traditional sentence of consolation.
When it is not possible to visit during shiv'ah, notes of condolence are a way of expressing concern and sympathy. When meeting someone who has lost a relative during the year following the death, one should say some sentence of consolation, but not after the year has passed.
Maimonides states that comforting mourners is not only a way of showing kindness to the mourners, but also of showing respect to the deceased.
The Shulhan Arukh rules that one should also comfort non-Jewish mourners. The ways in which this should be done are obviously different, but the principle of showing concern for someone who is in distress remains constant.
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