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Communicating Your Condolences When Someone Dies

When you have a friend who is Jewish, and that person has lost a parent, spouse, or other loved one, your first thoughts are typically to convey to them your sympathies and condolences, letting them know that you’re thinking about them in their time of loss. Within the Jewish tradition, though, there are specific customs that are observed, some of which are very different from non-Jewish mourning rituals.

For example, in many traditions, it is customary to send flowers to a funeral home or directly to immediate family members of the deceased. In the Jewish tradition, though, that is generally discouraged—it’s extremely rare that flowers would be sent to either the funeral home or the shiva home. The tradition is an ancient one, honored for thousands of years, stemming from certain practices:

  • The Jewish faith has a strong tradition of treating everyone as equals in death. That’s why it’s unusual to see ornate coffins and other expensive items as part of a funeral or burial service. There’s a perception that flowers at a funeral or grave would lead to wealthy people being treated better than poor people.
  • In the Jewish faith, a funeral is considered a solemn occasion. Flowers are perceived to take away from the solemnity and from the actual purpose of the funeral.
  • Because flowers die, they are only a temporary memorial. In the Jewish tradition, a more permanent memorial, such as a donation to a fund, offers a more enduring remembrance.

Customs that Are Traditionally Followed to Express Sympathy or Condolences in the Jewish Faith

In Judaism, when a person dies, certain family members will sit shiva, the first period of mourning. Shiva means “seven,” so those who sit shiva will do so for seven days. This is typically the time when most friends and others will want to express condolences or sympathy. Here are some of the ways that may be done:

  • The shiva call—Those wishing to pay their respects may choose to visit the home where the shiva is taking place. There are no faith-based limits on who may make a shiva call, but the family may choose to place restrictions, both on the time when visits may be paid, and on who may come (family members only, for example). In many instances, the obituary will specify where the shiva is and will give details about when and who should come. In many instances, when you arrive at the shiva, you will find the front door unlocked and can enter without knocking or ringing the door bell.

As a general rule, visitors typically refrain from initiating conversation at a shiva call. Instead, you should focus on listening and providing support. It’s not a time for small talk, either—your conversation should ideally be focused on the person who has died. Your stay at the shiva should be brief—less than an hour—as it’s an exhausting process for the people sitting shiva. When you leave, keep your words concise and simple. A traditional sentiment often expressed at this time is “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

  • Condolence and sympathy baskets—One of the most frequent ways to express condolences and sympathy after the death of a person of the Jewish faith is to send a shiva basket, tray or meal. During the shiva, mourners will typically not leave the house and usually need food items to provide sustenance. So-called “shiva baskets” customarily contain food items, including fruit, nuts, baked goods and desserts and even chocolates. The shiva baskets may take the form of planned meals, or may include trays of meats, fish and other foods. It’s also not uncommon for friends and family of the mourners to have a meal catered in to the shiva house.
  • Other shiva gifts that help you express condolences—There are other commonly accepted traditions for allowing friends and family to show their sympathy.
    • Many people choose to plant a tree in Israel in the name of the deceased.
    • You can also send a sympathy card, but the Jewish tradition is to include a handwritten message, rather than a store-bought one. Keep the message short and sweet—”Please accept our sympathies” says it all.
    • It is also common to perform an act of tsedakah, or charity, in memory of the deceased. That customarily involves making a donation to either a synagogue or a charitable organization with which the deceased was involved.

The Appropriate Way to Greet Mourners

Often, one of the most challenging parts of conveying your love, condolence and respects to the families of a deceased is finding the right words. It’s important to acknowledge grief and suffering, but, as with many things, it’s usually better to say less. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, the customary greeting to mourners is one of the following:

  • May you suffer no more
  • My (our) condolences
  • May the place console you (from an old rabbinic expression)

Let Us Help You after the Death of a Loved One

At Gutterman’s, we provide comprehensive and compassionate funeral home services to individuals and families in New York and Florida. For guidance after the death of a loved one, or to learn about the ways that we can be of service to you, call our offices at one of the numbers provided below. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to assist you.