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.