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Parshas Shemini (5777)

Silence and Mourning

This week’s Torah portion opens with the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the desert through a special service that was performed for eight days. On the final day, just when the joy of the inauguration reached its peak, tragedy struck. Aaron the High Priest’s two oldest sons – Nadav and Avihu – performed an unauthorized service and lost their lives. The Torah records that Aaron was silent in the face of this terrible blow and accepted the Divine decree upon himself without complaint (see Leviticus 10:1-7).

Silence and mourning seem to go hand in hand. For one thing, the Jewish law requires that the first meal eaten by the mourners after the burial – known as the Seudas Havra’ah (“Meal of Condolence”) – should be provided by neighbors or the community in order to show the mourners that those around them wish to provide consolation, and should consist of lentils and eggs. The Talmud explains that the reason for this custom is because just as lentils and eggs have no “mouth”, so, too, the mourner has no mouth because he is often mute in his grief.

Additionally, the law requires that the mourner refrain from inquiring about another’s welfare during the shivah (seven days following the burial) period. The Talmud in Mo’ed Katan 15a derives this from the fact that G-d told Ezekiel: ‘Sigh in silence’ (Ezekiel 24:17). Rashi explains: “That is to say, in this respect you should observe mourning: you should be silent and not inquire about another’s welfare.” Small talk is discouraged during shivah, because it is “small”: lighthearted and unfelt. Mourners and their visitors do not say “hello” or ask “how ya’ doin’” during shivah. Instead they are to focus on the loss of their loved one and friend.

Moreover, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that those who have come to console the mourners are not even permitted to begin speaking until the mourner speaks first.

Experience has shown that silence is often the best thing for both the mourner and for those comforting him. The mourner is at a loss for words as he finds it difficult to comprehend why things had to happen the way they did. He has no choice but to be silent and accept the decree with a certain measure of faith. Those who come to console the mourner are also better off being silent rather than unwittingly saying something that will only make things worse. In fact, the Talmud in Berachos 6b says: “Agra d’bay tamya shtikusa – the main reward a person receives for visiting a mourner’s home is for silence; [just for being there and silently sharing the mourner’s grief”].

Even if this was a visit in silence, there is one thing that should be said to the mourner just before leaving the shivah house. It is the traditional statement of comfort: “Ha-Makom yenachem es’chem b'soch she'ar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim … May the Omnipresent [G-d] console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.

One can ask: Is this called “comforting the mourner”? I mean, all the visitors are really doing is sitting in front of the mourner in silence and then saying “May G-d comfort you”! What does that accomplish?

The truth is that in this one traditional statement lies a very important lesson that can provide a measure of much-needed consolation to the mourner. You see, G-d in this line is referred to as Ha-Makom - "The Place." By saying this to the mourner, we are reminding him that G-d is everywhere – He is the true “Place” of the world and we all exist within Him - here and in the next world. So that the person who is “gone” is not really gone but is closely connected to the mourner, for both he and the deceased are still together, contained within "The Place" that is G-d. And this understanding can help lighten the sense of loss that the mourner often feels.

There is a deeper meaning to the usage of this particular name of G-d in comforting the mourners. The Hebrew word Makom is spelled mem, kuf, vav, mem. The mem has two forms - an "open mem" when written in the beginning or middle of a word, and a "closed mem" when written at the end of a word. In the Midrash and Kabbalah, the letter mem represents G-d’s Malchus, Kingship, and Memshalah, Rule, in the world.

The open mem points to the obvious, openly revealed glory of G-d's actions. The closed (final) mem alludes to that part of G-d's rule which is closed, or concealed from man, and to which man submits instinctively and with perfect, innocent faith. [Only in the World to Come will we fully comprehend all G-d's actions and Divine Providence in this world.]

These revealed and hidden aspects of G-d's reign are also alluded to in His Name Makom, Omnipresent [literally “place”]. This Name begins with an open mem and ends with a closed mem. The open mem alludes to the fact that He is perceived through the wondrous functioning of the universe. Yet, in the final analysis, He remains unknowable and hidden - as indicated by the closed mem, beyond the grasp of our limited human intelligence.

That is why in experiences beyond our understanding, such as consoling and comforting the mourners, we refer to G-d as Makom, and the mourners are blessed with the prayer: "Ha-Makom yenachem es’chem ... May the Omnipresent console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". This, too, serves to help the mourner who is silently accepting G-d’s Divine decree, by restoring his faith in G-d’s ultimate justice and fairness – even if it is presently concealed.

[Sources: ABC’s of Death and Mourning by Mrs. Lori Palatnik online at; The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk; Mesorah Publications]

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