Jewish Words of Comfort

Judaism helps provide the words to comfort mourners.

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In English, "grief" has no singular, no plural, only a comprehensive sense. Similarly, the Hebrew word for grief, "avel," is a comprehensive term. So, too, is "hefsed" (loss)—we speak of hefsed merubah (great loss) and hefsed mu'at (minor loss), but not in the singular or plural as such. On the other hand, "nehamah" (consolation) has a ready plural--"tanhumim" (many consolations).

Thus, centuries of Jewish usage, ex­pressed in the common forms of daily language, shine a light on the significant contrast between accumulated grief and separate consola­tions. This linguistic insight into Judaism teaches two counterintuitive truths: First, all mourners, no matter how diverse their losses, share a common sadness, forming a communal net of sorrow, although each is unique. And yet a single mourner's particular experiences of grief form a personal net of troubles, shared by no one else.

sad woman

Jewish tradition, in its Ashkenazic and Sephardic formulas, requires that this special Hebrew phrase be spoken because it incorporates a fundamental tenet of Judaism: We are the concerns of God, not only as unique individuals but also as one among many others who are suffer­ing and who must always be included. In fact, an oft-repeated teaching of Judaism is that God heals us only if we first ask God to help others.

This is particularly true when we turn to God not to seek comfort for a personal loss, but for the survival of Zion and Jerusalem. That is why, when extending God's blessing to sick people, we mention "she'ar holei Yisra'el" (those others in Israel who are sick). We affirm that God is concerned not only with individuals but also with the whole commu­nity of Israel.

God is at once the public God of the People Israel and also the God of persons, of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, as we recite in every religious service. The French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pas­cal, one of the keenest minds of the 17th century, had this phrase sewn into his coat lining--"I believe in the God of Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, not of the philosophers nor of the wise"--because it reflected his closest personal belief in a personal God and because he wanted to guarantee that it went wherever he went....

The Most Consoling Words

Probably the most consoling words I have ever heard are these: "Tell me what your loved one was really like." The dialogue between mourners and consolers during shiva is not designed to distract the bereaved but to encourage the mourner to speak of the deceased--of his or her quali­ties, hopes, even foibles--and, of course, not to criticize the dead who cannot respond. Far from recalling the anguish of the loss, it gives those who are bereaved the opportunity to recall memories and to express theft grief aloud.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.