VISITING THE BEREAVED
In the last decade or so, a considerable change has come about in the manner and timing in which people visit the bereaved. It is now a growing custom for people to pay their condolence call at the funeral parlor (or wherever the funeral is to be held). The call is paid before the funeral service. Although Orthodox authorities strongly object to it, this custom has by now become widespread. What is the actual situation in law and custom with regard to the proper time for visiting the bereaved? (Asked by Rabbi Mark Staitman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
THE MODERN change in the visiting of the bereaved has become widespread and often supplants the visitation in the home during the seven days of mourning. Quite understandably, Orthodox authorities object to this development. It tends to abolish the sitting of shiva at home and therefore makes almost impossible the six days of home service which tradition requires. Besides the fact that the new customs make seven days of shiva virtually impossible, the rabbis would have two other objections to this new custom. First, it takes place before the burial, and before the burial the bereaved is still an onayn, not yet an ovel, i.e., a mourner who is to be consoled. There should be no attempt at consolation before the burial. Second, psychologically, such visits might be futile, as the rabbis say in the Ethics of the Fathers (4:23): “Do not comfort a man while his dead still lies before him,” which means, of course, that since the dead is not even buried yet, words of consolation are too premature to have any consoling effect.
Clearly, then, this modern change in funeral observances among many American Jews, Reform and Conservative, requires careful study, for evidently the custom will continue and even spread. This is highly probable, first of all, because more and more people live in apartments rather than in private houses, so it becomes difficult to have large numbers of people visiting. Also, families nowadays are scattered over the country, and often relatives come just for the funeral. Therefore the only time their friends and well-wishers can see them is at the funeral parlor before they go back to their distant homes.
Since this new practice is a result of an unchangeable social situation, it would be almost hopeless to try to stop it. Thus it might perhaps be wise to follow the rabbinical dictum not to make a decision when we know beforehand that it will not be obeyed (Yevamos 65b). Under these circumstances it becomes necessary to restudy the various laws involved in the visiting of the bereaved and to see to what extent, or with what possible modification, the present situation can perhaps be considered acceptable.
It must be understood at the outset that the consoling of the bereaved is held to be an outstandingly important mitzvah, in fact, it is deemed to be an imitatio dei. The Talmud in Sota 14a says that God comforted Isaac when he was bereaved. This is based upon Genesis 25:18, which states that after Abraham died, God brought His blessing to Isaac. Developing this verse, the Talmud says that just as God comforts the mourners, so do thou also comfort the mourners. Also, the Avoth of Rabbi Nathan (ed. Schechter, chap. 30) says that whoever comforts the mourners brings a blessing to all the world. Since, therefore, this mitzvah is so highly valued, then as a general policy we should be inclined to encourage the observance of this mitzvah whenever it may be possible for it to be performed. The question remains, however, as to what are the actual limitations in the Halachah to the performing of this mitzvah.
As a matter of fact, because of the great worth of this mitzvah, the Halachah permits it to be performed even under circumstances in which one might have anticipated it would not be permitted. For example, it is important not to let anything mar the joy of the Sabbath. One would think that visiting the bereaved would be prohibited on the Sabbath because of the sadness it would engender in the visitor. And, indeed, Rabbi Chanina says (Shabbat 12b) that it was with reluctance (b’kushi) that they permitted visiting the bereaved on the Sabbath. With reluctance indeed, but they permitted it. In this decision they follow the school of Hillel against the school of Shammai, which, indeed, would have prohibited it (ibid. 12a). And so it is recorded in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Ctiayim 287:1), where the law plainly says that we may comfort mourners on the Sabbath (also Maimonides, Hil . Shabbos 24:5). The Magen Avraham makes an interesting comment to this general permission, namely, that this permission should not be used as an encouragement to those who stay away from the mourners all week but come only on the Sabbath (presumably when their businesses are closed and there is no work). However, Yechiel Epstein (Aruch Ha-Shulchan, ad loc.) would permit people to visit on the Sabbath if they really had no time to visit because of business or work during the week. But be that as it may, visiting the bereaved on the Sabbath is permitted. As a matter of fact, while the mourner may go to the synagogue on Friday night, the services in his house are expected to last for seven days, which would, of course, include the presence of consoling visitors on the Sabbath too. So it is permitted also to perform the mitzvah of consolation on holidays. We are told (b. Succah 41b) that the pious men of Jerusalem went from the synagogue on Succos and, with their lulavs in their hands, paid visits of consolation on the bereaved (see the full discussion in Greenwald’s Kol Bo, pp. 297-99).
While the law thus acknowledges the special worth of this mitzvah (i.e., by extending it to Sabbath and holidays), the people themselves, in past generations, have developed customs of the opposite tendency—namely, to restrict the permissibility of these visits (contrary to the Halachah). Some people believe that the mourners should not be visited for the first three days of the seven. This notion is based upon the Midrashic idea (Leviticus R. 18:1) that the soul of the dead hovers around the body for three days. Others believe that the mourners should not be visited on the first day of the shiva (cf. Ginze Joseph 74:2, where the author, Joseph Schwartz, proves that there is no Halachic justification for this). But all these folk-created restrictions have no foundation in law, as can be seen from the fact that originally the mourners were consoled right at the cemetery, immediately after the burial. In fact, an elaborate ceremony was developed there in which the friends stood in two parallel lines and the mourners passed between them (right at the graveside) to be consoled (Tur, Yore Deah 376). Indeed it was expected, also, that friends would accompany the mourners from the cemetery and go right to their house to console them after the funeral (Maharil, responsum #23), and also, of course, to help with the first meal, which must be provided by friends. Greenwald also quotes the famous Chassidic authority of the last generation, Eliezer Spiro, who observed the fact that some people avoid calling on the bereaved on Sabbath and holidays and said, “Has the generation become so righteous that it now does not console the mourners on Sabbath and holidays?” This (sarcastic) phrase, “has the generation become so righteous,” is derived from the discussion of yibbum vs. chalitzu in Yevamos 39b, and the opening phrase must be read as a (scornful) question (see Rashi ad lo c) .
Of course, there still remains the objection that the modern custom of visiting the bereaved takes place before the burial, when the formal mourning (avelus) has not yet begun. But even with regard to this fact, there is at least one circumstance of permissibility, and it derives from a special case discussed by the Gaon Hai. The Gaon is quoted by Ibn Yarchi (12th century) in his Ha-Manhig in the laws of Esrog, # 3 2, where he speaks of the following special case: If a man dies during the holiday and he is buried, the avelus does not begin until after the holiday.
Yet, although the avelus has not even begun, friends of the bereaved, according to Gaon Hai, may visit them and make them feel calmer. In other words, here the Gaon speaks of visits to bring consolation even before the formal mourning, avelus, actually began.
In general we may say, therefore, that we are confronted with a social situation that is fairly irreversible, and since the mitzvah of consoling the bereaved is so great, we should take advantage of every element in the law which might permit us to condone it, lest by overstrictness we might discourage people altogether from coming to console the bereaved.