What to do and say at a shivah house

The traditional week of mourning is psychologically better for the family because it helps to ease them back into life and learn to live without the person who has died.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism ס.שר הביטחון בשבעה ביצהר
ס.שר הביטחון בשבעה ביצהר

Q. What should and shouldn’t I do or say at a shivah house?

A. It is customary that when someone is sitting shivah, God forbid, family and friends should come to visit in order to show they care.

There are two main times for a visit: to attend the minyanim (prayer services), and at other times during the week. In both cases take your cue from the mourners.

If they want to talk and engage you in conversation, follow their lead – but don’t turn it into a social occasion with tea and jokes.

If they seem withdrawn and not ready for conversation, sit silently and simply let your presence convey the message, and as you leave say the traditional words, "HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch shear avlei Tziyon veYerushalayim…" – "May the Almighty comfort you with all who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem".

If it seems appropriate, bring some food for the family (needless to say, make sure it is kosher).

Which day of the shivah should one pay a visit?

There is a view that one should wait till the third day. This opinion is quoted by classical works such as the "Kol Bo Al Avelut" and "Gesher HaChayyim", but it is not forbidden to visit earlier; the Maharil says, "Immediately after the mourners return from the funeral people go for a while to their house and sit down and comfort them".

The advice of the "Gesher HaChayyim" is that if you go early in the shivah you should limit your conversation; the mourners are likely to feel numbed and unable to converse in the regular way.

What comfort should you offer?

It’s not your job to preach simplistic sermons like, "Well, it was the will of God", or "You’ll get over it in time". Instead, talk about the merits of the deceased.

If the mourners seem receptive, share some memories of the person who has died.

I recall an occasion when someone said to me, "I’m sure you remember some humorous things about my father. I’d like to hear them!" But that doesn’t give you a licence to get everyone roaring with laughter.

It may be better to say, "Give yourselves a couple of weeks and we’ll share some funny moments then".

One of the mistakes that mourners often make is to limit their shivah (the word literally means "seven") to one day, possibly thinking that that will be easier to take.

On the contrary: the traditional week of mourning is psychologically better for the family because it helps to ease them back into life and learn to live without the person who has died.

If there is a chance that a minyan will be difficult to assemble as the shivah proceeds, the answer is simple – don’t just go once. Go every day if you can, and if there are prayers two or three times each day go often.

It will help to ensure a minyan and it will be a tremendous mitzvah and support. You don’t have to stay long once the prayers are over; just be there when you are needed.


Q. Why is it considered good to get married on a Tuesday?

A. The Creation story has the constant refrain that when God saw what He had made, He said it was good. On the third day, however, He twice said it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12), and hence Tuesday is regarded as twice blessed.

The connection with marriage comes from a verse in the following chapter, where God said it was not good for a man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), and hence getting married provides a person’s missing “good”.

A different approach is recorded by the sages at the beginning of Tractate K’tubot, which states that a maiden is married on Wednesday and a widow on Thursday.

The preference for Wednesday for a previously unmarried girl is explained as linked with the tradition that the Beth Din meets on Monday and Thursday, so that if a bridegroom married on Wednesday finds a problem with his bride’s virginity he can go to the Beth Din on Thursday.

Why then not marry on Sunday so that there can be resort to the court on Monday if necessary?

The Talmud answers that a bride is entitled to a proper wedding feast, and this takes three days to prepare, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. A Sunday wedding would present problems in relation to the previous Shabbat.

Later generations, however, found it possible to have Sunday weddings while still carefully observing Shabbat, and in many communities today the preference is for Saturday night or Sunday.

Another day considered auspicious for weddings is Thursday, which in the Creation story is blessed with fertility: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:22).

In some places marriages are encouraged in the first half of a month whilst the moon is increasing, as a token of growing love and blessing.