Mourning the loss of a loved one provides a time of love and introspection. Grieving is not always easy, particularly when culture and customs are unfamiliar. Offering Jewish condolences in appropriate and caring ways not only honors the friend or loved one; it comforts the grieving family. Several principles help navigate the unfamiliar traditions.
Jewish Condolences Phrases
There is no "perfect message" to honor a friend or loved one who is no longer with us. When condolences are offered, either verbally or written, it is always important to speak from the heart with love and compassion. Shiva is a time for silence, sorrow and reflection. Sometimes silence speaks more than words can express. Written messages can be either brief or extended, while verbal discussion should be short. You may include quotes from Scripture or other writers, but focus your thoughts on personal time spent with the deceased. Here are some suggestions.
- [Name's] friendship meant a lot to me. [Name] was always talking about how much s/he loved your family.
- I learned so much about my job from [Name]. When I was starting out, [Name] would always make sure I was doing the right thing. If I didn't know how to do something, [Name] was the first to show me how.
- We will miss the wonderful food that [Name] would bring to the office every Wednesday. All of the staff loved his/her kindness.
- Please know that our family loved [Name]. Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.
- "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." This phrase should be stated when you leave the Shiva, when you close a written message, or when the phone conversation comes to an end. The phrase can be mentioned in either English or Hebrew or both.
The Use of Scripture
Many verses from the Scriptures contain appropriate messages of condolence for the bereaved during a time of grieving. Several Psalms speak words of comfort and consolation. Lamentations or Job offer heart-felt expressions of grief and confusion. Three Psalms are always appropriate:
- Psalm 23. "The Lord if my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name's sake."
- Psalm 77. "You are the God that does wonders; You have declared your strength among the people. With your arm, You have redeemed your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph."
- Psalm 90. "O God, You have been our refuge in every generation. Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God."
- Psalm 46. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."
- Psalm 147. "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."
Each religion has its own customs for mourning. Judaism is a religion rich in traditions and history. The week long period of mourning in the Jewish faith is known as Shiva. The ritual is described as "sitting Shiva" and lasts for seven days following the burial. During this time, people who can will make a "shiva-call," which visits the home to offer condolences. Making such a call is a sign of respect and care.
Most of the time, it is considered proper to allow the family member to speak first. Responses to the comments should be brief and should center on the life of the deceased and your personal interactions. Shiva is not a time for socialization. Common conversations should not be a part of the visit. Mourning is a time for reflection and the visitor is present for support and strength.
Signs of Condolence
In addition to words of condolence, there are several tangible ways that the message of condolence can be expressed to the bereaved. A gift or an act speaks a message from the heart that does not require words. Here are several possible opportunities.
- Food and Shiva baskets. Visitors provide food for the family during their time of mourning. Baskets include baked goods, desserts, fruit, dried figs, nuts and sweets. Shiva trays or platters also contain meats, fish, salads and other fruits.
- Planting a tree in Israel. A very common practice for a message of condolence is to plant a tree in someone's memory. Some people even make trips later to spend time in some of the parks which are homes to the trees.
- Sending flowers. While many cultures use flowers during the funerals, it is not a custom to send flowers to someone's home during Shiva. Flowers and planters would be appropriate to send after the time of mourning has ended.
- Financial donations. Donations may be made through the synagogue, or sent directly to a charity or agency the deceased supported. The donation can be given to honor a certain individual.
- Creating a plaque or memory page. Many synagogues offer opportunities to honor the deceased with a wall for memories and stories or a memory page where stories can be shared. The plaques and pages provide a lasting memory for the family.
- Written notes and messages. Notes or cards containing special thoughts or verses from the Torah are appropriate, especially if a personal visit is impossible.
Because there are so many Jewish funeral traditions, saying the appropriate thing can sometimes be difficult. The best Jewish condolences come from the heart, expressing sincere words that let the family know how much the deceased touched your life.