Some Tips for Those Making Shiva Calls

As westbankpapa has told you, my father passed away last week. I will try to write about my family at another time – things are a bit too “raw” right now for that, but just having experienced sitting shiva there are some things that I thought I would put in a post for those of you who make condolence calls. I don’t mean to criticize – the people who make the effort to do this mitzvah should be commended – but I can’t help wanting to pass on some tips about how to do the mitzvah properly.

First, I must say that I am not an “expert” at making shiva calls. Westbankpapa and I “divide” this mitzvah up – unless the person mourning is a friend of both of us, or work colleague of one of us, I visit the women and he visits the men. At the same time, I remember learning from my mother (may she rest in peace), that the most important thing about this mitzvah is “just showing up”. I used to be very self-conscious, because I am a naturally reticent person, and I would worry that I wouldn’t say the right thing. My mother reassured me, though, that the essence of the mitzvah is listening, not talking. I cannot tell you how right she was.

Unfortunately there are a lot of people who don’t understand this. Perhaps because they are under stress, or perhaps they are just now aware of themselves, but there were a number of people who couldn’t stop talking. My brother and I were raised to be polite, and although the halacha (Jewish law) says that a mourner cannot greet others, we found it impossible not to make a bit of “small talk” when people would come in to the house. We usually asked people if they had found the house easily or if they had gotten lost on the way. 99% of the people would visibly relax at this.  Most people would do the appropriate thing then, and ask if my father was ill, which gave us an opening to talk about him. Some, though, started talking and wouldn’t stop. Another very fine religious man, who I respect greatly, found it necessary to constantly interrupt my brother when he did start talking about my father. He uttered sympathetic phrases, of course, but at the wrong times. This left me extremely frustrated. In the end my brother stopped talking altogether – not because he was finished, but because it wasn’t worth the “fight” to be heard.

Some topics are also off limits. No matter what is going on in the world (and this past week was crazy, I know) the person sitting shiva doesn’t care about how many kassam rockets have fallen, and where. I tried to make this known in a gentle way by stating that there would be plenty of bad news for me to hear after shiva was over, and that I didn’t need to hear it now. (Most people took the hint then).

Another common mistake people make when making a shiva call is coming at the wrong time. We weren’t organized enough to write hours down on the notices (and yes, I have seen some with specific times given when shiva calls are not wanted – 2-4 in the afternoon, to be exact). So there were days when there was a steady stream of people from 10:00 in the morning until late at night – without a break. For those of you who have experienced this you know how exhausting it is – for those of you who haven’t sat shiva yet, just trust me. You don’t sleep well at night, and having visitors for hours straight is tiring. The best time to come, if you can take time off from work, is 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning. The second best time is at 8:00 at night – but not after 10:00.

Another tip is not to stay too long. 15 to 20 minutes if fine, and if you are very close to the person then 30-40 minutes – but not longer than that. I had one woman, who was an acquaintance, stay for over an hour, which I found very stressful. I am sure she felt that she couldn’t leave because there were no other people visiting – but I would rather have had a quiet half an hour at that point (to eat dinner, perhaps?) than her continuous presence.

G-d willing this will be a mitzvah that we will hardly have to do. But if we do it, we should do it right

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mother in israel
    Mar 03, 2008 @ 12:29:11

    Even though I’ve sat shiva myself, it’s been a long time and reminders are also good.

  2. J. Lichty
    Mar 04, 2008 @ 15:18:55

    my condolences to you and your family wbm and may you find comfort among the mourners of zion.

  3. Batya
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 03:30:00

    HaMakom y’nachem…
    I’m very sorry.

  4. Ezzie
    Mar 05, 2008 @ 23:36:15

    All very true, and important to keep in mind… Again, Hamakom…

  5. aliyah06
    Mar 07, 2008 @ 12:35:31

    I am so very sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting these tips. It’s an excellent reminder and will help both mourners and callers.

  6. zahava
    Mar 09, 2008 @ 12:47:19

    So very sorry to hear of your loss!
    המקום ינכם אתכם בתוך שער עבלי ציון וירושלים

  7. David (London UK)
    Mar 15, 2008 @ 19:52:10

    My mum was sitting shiva last week,too, and she had the same comments to make – the etiquette seems to have been lost somewhere…

    I hope you find comfort!

  8. pob
    Mar 23, 2008 @ 01:05:07

    my condolences to you and your family wbm

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