Greeting the Mourner
Death might be a part of life. It is something that we will all have to confront. And unless one tragically passes away very young, at some point in our lives we will all also have to console someone who is suffering a loss. But all too often when we find ourselves in front of a mourner we are lost for words. We can all sympathise and many can even empathise, but what true comfort can we offer?
As with practically everything in Judaism, the richness of our history and tradition means that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Visiting a Shivah house and comforting the mourner is a Mitzvah which the Talmud includes as part of the obligation: “you shall walk in G-d’s ways”, connecting it to when the Almighty comforted Yitzchak after the passing of Avraham. Maimonides reckons it as a Rabbinical injunction as part of the Biblical Mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel. Either way it is part of Judaism and as millennia of our history has proven, a crucial one that provides much needed to comfort to friends and strangers alike in their hour of need.
Within that history two main phrases have developed that are used to greet the mourner. The Ashkenaz tradition is: הַמָקוֹם יְנַחֵם אֶתְכֶם בְּתוֹךְ שְׁאַר אֲבֵלֵי צִיוֹן וִירוֹשָׁלַיִם – “May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim”. Some also include a verse from Jeremiah וְלֹא תוֹסִיפוּ לְדָאֲבַה עוֹד – “may you no longer agonize anymore”. The Sephardi custom is to say מִן הַשָׁמַיִם תְּנוּחַמוּ – “From the Heavens may you be comforted”.
The origins of both are lost in time, but they most probably originate from the sentence recorded in the Mishna and used in the times of the Temple: השוכן בבית זה ינחמך – “May He who dwells in this house comfort you”.
What all three have in common is the acknowledgement that it is the Almighty who will comfort the mourners and not us. For what comfort can we offer to someone who has just lost a loved one? We can sympathise and possible empathise, but we cannot change the reality. For that reason we call on the Almighty, the Omnipresent, the One who commanded us to make for Him a dwelling place in this world. We call on the One who is above time and place, to fill the void that at this moment feels like it is all pervasive and will last for ever.