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Q&A: Consoling Mourners on the Sabbath

April 15, 2015

Question: May I go on shabbat to visit a neighbor who’s sitting shiva? I work during the week and don’t have any other time to go.

Answer: Yes. Although there are varying practices about specifically not visiting mourners on the Sabbath, they do not  apply to you, and you should not let the custom prevent you from performing the commandment when the opportunity arises. Here are the relevant laws:

Laws of Mourning, 14:1, 7:

It is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort mourners, to prepare for a funeral, prepare a bride, accompany guests, attend to all the needs of a burial, carry a corpse on one’s shoulders, walk before the bier, mourn, dig a grave, and bury the dead, and also to bring joy to a bride and groom and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one can carry out with his person that have no limit. Although all these commandments are of Rabbinic origin, they are included in the Scriptural commandment Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That charge implies that whatever you would like other people to do for you, you should do for your comrade in the Torah and commandments.

It appears to me that comforting mourners takes precedence over visiting the sick. For comforting mourners is an expression of kindness to the living and the dead.

Laws of the Sabbath, 24:5:

We may visit the sick and comfort mourners [on the Sabbath].

Now, although Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayim 287) mention this last rule without modification, the source text in the Talmud (Sabbath 12a) says that the the sages were reluctant to permit this. Why? What were the sages concerned about? There are a number of reasons suggested.

Rashi says that it is because the comforter is distressed by what he does, “mip’nei shemitzta’er.” Rashi’s assumption is that one should not ruin his own mood on the Sabbath. We could reason that the mourner is thereby less distressed by receiving condolences, and some visitors even get a form of satisfaction from helping others. This shows us how even though the sages could have prohibited consoling mourners on the Sabbath, they ultimately permitted it.

The Rosh and Rif say that the sages’ initial concern was that one would “cry out” if allowed to visit a mourner on the Sabbath. In the context of the Talmud’s discussion, “cry out” means to offer a type of supplicatory prayer to God on the mourner’s behalf, much like we do for the sick. Tahanunim are normally supposed to be disallowed on the Sabbath and festivals, but according to the Rosh, there is only a remote possibility that visitors would do that. I would offer that nowadays, those who visit shiva houses even during the week are not accustomed to reciting supplicatory prayers on the mourners’ behalf, and therefore would certainly not come to do so on the Sabbath. Also note that if such a practice would still be extant among our people, the liturgy would feature some sample prayers, but our siddurim and the like have a noticeable lack of such texts even when they have more than enough material to cover the time immediately before death, funerals, burials, and gravesite visits.

Based on  the Talmud’s assertion, the Magen Avraham (to Orah Hayim ibid.) posits that it is not proper for people to specifically wait for the Sabbath in order to offer their condolences. This is the prevalent practice, but as you know, you have no other time than the Sabbath to do so, and therefore you should go on the Sabbath.

I think that it is important that you share this response with others, because in our day, the lack of people visiting mourners on the Sabbath has led to the widespread belief that there is some sort of custom or law that specifically proscribes visiting mourners on the Sabbath, causing many mourners to spend their Sabbath days in excruciating loneliness and many potential comforters to lose an opportunity to fulfill the commandment of walking in God’s ways, i.e., emulating His behavior.

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From → halacha

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