A Halacha That’s Clear-Cut

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

 In the eighth volume of the Igros Moshe, there is a fascinating teshuvah written to Rav Efraim Greenblatt, zt”l. This teshuvah, which is the 20th one in the sefer, comprises many varied and disparate topics. The teshuvah begins with a discussion of folding one’s tallis on Shabbos and then moves on to the recitation of Shehechiyanu on Chanukah, using hot water on Shabbos, eating turkey on Thanksgiving, the muktzeh status of sunflower seed shells, opening a store on chol hamoed, the punishment for embarrassing someone publicly, the obligation for a rav to issue halachic rulings, the correct position to be in while reciting havdalah, the explanation behind Rav Moshe’s, zt”l, peculiar practice during Tachanun, and on and on. 

The twenty-first topic discussed in that one teshuvah is the mitzvah of comforting mourners. It is a common custom that before departing from the house of the mourning, the visitor blesses the mourner(s): “May Hashem comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Rav Moshe, zt”l, discusses the significance of this declaration.

Oftentimes, when men are called to make a minyan in a shivah house for Shacharis, they are in a rush to leave as soon as davening is over. They instruct the mourners to immediately sit down after prayers so that they can utter the aforementioned declaration of “May Hashem comfort you….” Did they fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim with this declaration? Further, Rebbe Yochanon says (Moed Katan 28b) that the visitors should not start speaking to the mourner until the mourner himself begins to speak. When the visitors are in a rush to leave, they quickly declare, “Hamakom Yenachem…” without waiting for the mourner to begin talking. Are they violating Rebbe Yochanon’s directive?

The same question can be raised on the Perisha. The Perisha writes that in his days (the commentary was first published in 1638) oftentimes the visitors to a shivah house simply sat with the mourners and didn’t engage in any conversation. When the visitors were about to leave, they recited the aforementioned declaration, “May Hashem comfort you….” The Perisha suggests that perhaps just sitting with the mourners fulfills the mitzvah of nichum aveilim. Still, how can the visitors recite, “May Hashem comfort you…” since the mourners did not start speaking?

HaRav Moshe, zt”l, suggests that merely uttering “May Hashem comfort you…” is not actually nichum aveilim. It is simply a blessing that the visitor bestows on the mourner that Hashem should comfort him. The blessing itself, however, is not a source of comfort. Someone who relies on that declaration alone has not fulfilled the mitzvah of nichum aveilim. However, since it is not actually nichum aveilim, the Divrei Sofrim writes that one may utter this blessing even if the mourner has not begun talking. Hence, the visitors who are rushing to leave the shivah house can utter this blessing without waiting for the mourner to open up the conversation. Nevertheless, they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that they fulfilled the mitzvah of nichum aveilim. Nichum Aveilim is primarily accomplished by talking to the mourner, thereby alleviating some pain. According to the Perisha, however, even just sitting for some time is also considered nichum aveilim.

Rav Moshe writes that this understanding explains two more practices. The halacha is that after a funeral, the mourner walks through two rows of people while they declare that the mourner should be comforted from Hashem. Also, when an aveil walks into shul in the middle of kabbalas Shabbos, everyone says, “May Hashem comfort you…” Aren’t these two instances a violation of Rebbe Yochanon’s directive not to start a conversation with a mourner until he starts first? 

Rav Moshe therefore concludes that conveying this blessing to the mourner is not a conversation starter or nichum aveilim; it is an independent blessing. Nichum aveilim is inappropriate immediately at the conclusion of the funeral or in the middle of davening. In those two circumstances, the blessing will have to suffice. However, when visiting the house of a mourner, there is a mitzvah to help the mourners find peace which is not accomplished by simply saying, “Hamakom…”

Still, from Rav Elyashiv’s comments on Moed Katan, it appears he disagrees and feels that “Hamakom…” is a fulfillment of nichum aveilim.

May we speedily merit the days when mourning will be put aside forever. 

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