At a loss for words

A woman from my husband's community in America lost her mother last week, so we went to pay her a Shiva call (meaning "seven" in Hebrew, Shiva is a seven-day mourning period observed by Jews) .

I am not sure if there is anyone who actually enjoys paying Shiva visits - you would probably have to be quite a disturbed individual if you derived any pleasure from such a situation - but I particularly find the visits uncomfortable. The laws and customs of Shiva are such that comforting the bereaved is no mean feat.

To begin with, according to Jewish custom, you are not supposed to initiate conversation with the bereaved - you should wait until he/she has spoken to you. It is hard enough as it is to find the right words to express one's condolences - especially when you barely know the bereaved or the person who died - but when you have to wait for the person to speak... it can be extremely awkward.

Visitors are also supposed to recite the traditional words of consolation, HaMakom Yenachem et'chem b'toch she'ar avelei Tzion vi'Yerushlayim, which translates as May the omnipresent comfort you together with the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. I have a good memory in general, and am able to memorize telephone numbers, car registration numbers (don't ask - as a kid, remembering car registration numbers was a quirky hobby of mine), and birthdays of people I barely know. My husband is constantly asking me to remind him about his family's birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

Anyway, enough blowing my own trumpet. The point is that in the 28 years of my life, I have NEVER been able to remember, and correctly recite, the eight Hebrew words of consolation written above. I mumble the words quickly and quietly in the hope that the bereaved will just nod and move on to the next person. What makes the situation even more pathetic is the fact that in most Shiva houses, a paper is taped to the wall with the verse written on it, so there is very little excuse - save for illiteracy - for not being able to say the words.

I remember when I first started working for a publishing house in Jerusalem, one of my bosses, who wasn't religious, tragically lost his wife at the age of 33, and my other boss took me to the Shiva house to visit the family. I was a bundle of nerves throughout the visit as I silently tried to repeat the words in my head. The deceased woman's mother, who was very elderly, was hard of hearing, so my tactic of mumbling the words quickly and quietly didn't really work. Upon saying the words, she turned to me and, unsure of what I had said, asked me to repeat myself. It was one of those "I-wish-the-ground-would-swallow-me-up" moments.

Another equally embarrassing incident was when my aunt in London was sitting Shiva for her mother. When the time came at the end of the visit for me to recite the words of comfort, I recited instead the verse you say when you are scared of being attacked by a dog - "Lechol yisroel lo yecheratz kelev leshono" loosely translated as, "No dog's tongue should hurt any member of Israel." Given the fact that I have been petrified since childhood of both dogs and my Moroccan aunt, I guess there is some logic as to why at that particular moment, that verse left my lips. My aunt's expression of horror will stay with me forever. You can imagine how mortified I was.

So when we paid the Shiva visit today, I made my husband repeat the verse again and again in the car, and my eyes barely left the piece of paper in the room with the words on it, but alas I messed up again. Go figure.

alan d. busch

17 years ago

Dear Sorelle,

I came by your blog via J-Blog Central.

I liked your piece especially much since I have had the same problem with that phrase. i can barely say it to myself without getting tongue-tied, so under the guise of personalization, I say things such as:'May the Holy One comfort you ...' you get the idea. And you know what? My guess is the person in mourning is not going to care what appropriate divrei nechama you say as long as they're from the heart.

I am,

Very Sincerely Yours,

Alan D. Busch


17 years ago

Thanks, Alan. You're right when you say that the most important part is to be sincere. That's why I find it so difficult to be formulaic in my responses, and to be tied down to eight words.

I looked at your blog, and was very sorry to read about your tragic loss. It makes me realize even more how much you have to appreciate each day you have with the people you love, especially your children.

Hope you and your family have a Chag Kasher Vesameach.

Tyler Hauck

17 years ago


i am not jewish and i have never been to israel or the middle east, but i really enjoy reading your blog. here in the states it seems so often that anything we hear about israel is so... detatched from reality. (i'm not sure if that makes sense?) it's amazing to read about life in israel from someone who is actually living day-to-day life there! keep writing, and i'll keep reading.

cheers from the university of michigan!

tyler hauck


17 years ago

Tyler: Nice! I have a reader from Michigan:-) I see from my geographical overlay stats that I have readers in the States, but it's really nice when they actually "introduce themselves!!"

I know exactly what you mean when you say that everything you hear about Israel is detached from reality. I have lived here for close to 9 years (whoa, I'm old), and if I go to England or America for just a week, I feel as if I am on a totally different planet when I pick up the newspapers or turn on the TV. It's nuts. Anyway, thanks again for your nice words.