The Shiva Visit — Do We See It as Compelling or Compelled?

The Torah tells us that when the Patriarch Jacob died and was brought to the Land of Israel for burial as he had requested, Joseph declared a mourning period of seven days (Genesis 50:10). Curiously, and apparently as was customary in Egypt, upon his death the Egyptians themselves had begun mourning Jacob for seventy days (Genesis 50:3).  Nothing, either way, about shiva –the Bible itself tells us only about the obligations of the mourner.

Nihum Avelim (comforting mourners), though, the Talmud tells us, is considered one of the classic forms of kindness in Jewish tradition – one of the ways for humans to fulfill the principle of “Walking in God’s Ways,” and the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.   Maimonides, however, instructed us in somewhat greater detail that once the burial is completed, “the mourner goes home. On each of the seven days of mourning, people come to comfort him. Whether new people come or not, the others still comfort him” – whatever than means. One can surely take from this, though, an affirmative obligation to visit and comfort the bereaved.

But, realistically, why do we, as a people, actually visit the mourner, or even attend the funeral of the mourner’s deceased?  Put aside, of course, close friends and family.  Is it because we are required to do so by custom, even if no such “commandment” is found in Scripture? Do we believe that our attendance will truly comfort the bereaved?  Is it so the mourner will have a minyan? Or because we truly care about the mourner, or cared about the deceased?  Indeed, one questions whether Maimonides even posits that “caring” on the part of the visitor is part of the equation.  And, typically, is actual “comforting” involved in the exercise–  how often, sadly, have we attended shiva and the departed or his or her qualities or good deeds are not actually mentioned or discussed?

Suppose we know for sure that the mourner would find greater solace privately or alone with his or her immediate family — that the mourner would prefer not to be the focus of the overall shiva experience. Or perhaps the deceased had actually made a sickbed (or earlier, at a time more balanced) request, for whatever idiosyncratic reason that he  might have had, that there be no shiva in his honor. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced.

Or maybe he or she simply didn’t believe in the whole regimen. Would one still, given the request that there be no shiva, nonetheless pay that paradoxically obligatory shiva visit – ostensibly for the purpose of comforting the mourner?

In that last question may lie the conundrum that often may confront us. Are we paying a shiva visit because the religion itself – call it, ritualistic obligation – tells us to? Perhaps it isout of a personal sense of common decency and respect for the deceased. Or, maybe, there is something totally different at play — and to articulate the possible reason not commonly discussed in polite company, do we, at least sometimes, pay a shiva call precisely because we feel obliged to?  Like sending holiday greeting cards to someone — only reciprocating because they send them to us.

In other words, perhaps, and this may sound cynical, we do it not because we feelobligated by the religion or its apparatus or by a genuine need to comfort the bereaved, but rather by an intangible sense of societal pressure. Maybe akin to a president visiting the scene of a disaster and purporting to comfort the citizenry, whether or not he truly feels empathy or even sympathy or sees it as good deed – “consoler in chief.”

Or – and this is truly the un-discussed – do we visit because the mourner or “the community” likely “takes attendance” (“Why was he (or she) not there?” “Did they have a fight?”  “How disrespectful.”). Some who have been the mourner, interestingly, remember those who didn’t pay the visit more so than those who did – quite a statement in and of itself! Or maybe, for some, “If I don’t attend when she has lost a parent, will she come when eventually I lose mine?” Now, doesn’t that type of shiva visit sound the least bit un-meaningful?

Or maybe it’s something altogether different – like “I want an outpouring for my parent when that unhappy moment arrives for us.” And finally, and most disturbing, perhaps some pay that visit because the mourner is perhaps the visitor’s “direct report” at work, or it’s a simple case of she being “higher up the pecking order” of some kind or nature.

Depending on one’s individual persona, sometimes impelled by the state of one’s religiosity (including adherence to such mitzvot), if one considers one’s many shiva visits over a lifetime – aside from those involving family members, and maybe even then – one may have often felt “compelled” to do what should ideally be a freely-chosen intent to “do the right thing”. Is, however, the mitzvah one performs less mitzvah-like if the guidance of Maimonides’ teaching — meaning a mitzvah basically directed by the Oral Torah or the rabbinate — is not the true or even predominant motivation for his or her attendance?

And, incidentally, one might also ask, whether we can’t extend to the bereaved greater comfort or the deceased greater honor by an action different that “the visit” – say, by writing a letter or poem in the deceased’s memory, or meeting for a drink or dinner with the mourner alone, one on one, after the shiva period is over, and thereby given an opportunity to directly express one’s personal sense of loss regarding the deceased, or true concern for his or her survivor?

Everyone remembers the shiva experience differently. So consider this one. A longstanding client of mine, John, who had become a dear friend, died maybe ten years ago. I never, however, had met his family – and they likely never even heard of me. He was a churchgoing Catholic, and was waked at a chapel at a considerable distance from my home. A friend of mine who didn’t know John, offered to drop me off at the chapel on his way home from work.

But I’m a kohen, and I typically observe the mandate of not coming into contact with the dead.  So before my friend left, I asked him to go inside, seek out John’s widow, and ask her to come outside into the cold night air for a brief “visit” from me. She must have been surprised at the request, but came. We spent a few minutes talking about John. She thanked me warmly for having attended – even though I suspect she must have wondered if I was being somewhat nuttyin doing it this way.

I called her some weeks later to see how she was doing. In the interim someone had apparently explained to her my curious behavior that night. She was clearly smiling as she told me, and I will forever, remember it — that she treasured my (unusual) visit more than any other, especially since, as was obvious, I wouldn’t have known anyone there, including her. Maybe she overstated it, but I took her remark to heart.

Unlike many shiva visits, if you will, over the years, there was no “obligation” that motivated me that night. No one was  “taking attendance” – Joan and her children, whom I had never met, would have had no expectation that I would come. And John was obviously not Jewish – so, strictly speaking,  there was no religious obligation to attend. Ironically, as a result, I actually consider that experience more of a mitzvah than most any ritualistic act I’ve ever experienced. How strange! And what does that say?

I told this story some years ago to a lovely elderly woman who has recently passed awayherself. Curiously, when I told it, scratching her head she asked me why I had even gone to the wake given that I didn’t know anyone else who would attend. I simply smiled in response.

Fast forward — there was a great outpouring of shiva visitors to her surviving family during the week after this woman died. Today, she surely understands better.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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