Q. What should and shouldn’t I do or say at a shivah house?
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 If they seem withdrawn and not ready for conversation, sit silently and simply let your presence convey the message, and as you leave say the traditional words, HaMakom yenachem… – “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.