Death and Mourning

  • Rav Ezra Bick


This shiur is dedicated to the memory of our alumnus

Rabbi Daniel Beller z"l.


            The period between Pesach and Shavuot is, by custom, a period of national mourning.  Tradition connects this period to the death of the students of R. Akiva, which was the period of the Bar Kochba revolt and the unprecedented Roman repression which followed.  This custom was reinforced 900 years later during the first Crusade, when the ancient Jewish communities of the Rhine valley, the heart and cradle of Ashkenazic Jewry in the Middle Ages, were wiped out by the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.  Most of these attacks also took place during this period.

            We shall, however, not be discussing this seven week period, often called "sefira" (since it is also the period of the mitzva of "sefirat ha-omer," the counting of seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot, from the exodus from Egypt until the receiving of the Torah at Sinai) but the underlying concept, that of mourning.  Death is an ubiquitous part of life, and the reaction to death - the ritual of mourning - is an important, if often avoided, part of halakha.

            The laws of mourning for a close relative appear at first glance to be rather complicated.  I shall first sketch out a schematic summary of the different subdivisions, which will, hopefully, make it easier for us to make sense of the totality.

            The stages of mourning are defined by the distance from the time of death:

1.   Aninut - From the time of death until the burial. During this time, the mourner is exempt from all positive mitzvot - he does not pray or recite blessings, does not put on tefillin, etc.  In fact, other than tending to the practical matters of the burial, he does not do anything at all.

2.   Shiv'a - Seven days (the word "shiv'a" means "seven") following the burial.  The mourner sits on the floor (or nearby), does not leave his house, does not work, does not greet others or return a greeting, and does not wash or shave.  It is customary for others to visit him during this period (which is popularly called "making a shiv'a visit).

3.   Shloshim - Thirty days from the burial.  He is forbidden to shave or cut his hair, to wear new clothes, or to participate in a celebration or get married himself.

4.   12 months - For parents, there is an additional period of twelve months following the burial, when it is forbidden to participate in celebrations, such as weddings.

            This description makes clear something which has long been noted.  The laws of mourning seem to be designed to gradually bring the mourner back to normalcy.  Psychologically, it seems that there is a definite method of weaning the mourner away from an obsession with his grief by first agreeing with it, even strengthening it, and then gradually bringing the mourner back into contact with the elements of his normal life.

            Undoubtedly, there is a great deal of truth in this observation, especially when combined with the mitzva of "nichum aveilim," the obligation on others to comfort the mourner, which takes the form of visiting him during the week of shiv'a.  In other words, for the crucial period immediately after death, the mourner is passive, withdrawn, inactive, and the world, so to speak, comes to him, not leaving him to bury himself behind the wall of his grief by himself.  I would, however, like to speak of another viewpoint on aveilut, not from the psychological point of view, but from the metaphysical-anthropological. Who is the mourner? What has the experience of death done to him? What, most importantly, does that say about life. While death, which will affect us all, is a very important topic, life is an even more important one; and here, as elsewhere, we learn by contrast - by examining the effect of death we learn about the meaning of life.

            I think we can arrange the successive stages of mourning as successive stages of alienation.  The mourner is someone who has experienced death, to a certain extent vicariously, because of the vicarious shared experience of familial unity.  The reason why mourning is halakhically incumbent on relatives is accordingly quite clear.  The reason for the laws of mourning is not GRIEF, which would depend on sympathy and love.  Love exists between friends, and not always, unfortunately, between relatives.  But whatever the emotional relationship within a family, it represents a shared life.  The life of a child derives from his parents; and whether they love each other or not, their lives are, to a certain extent, a shared quality.  In the extreme individuality of modern western culture, this point may not always be easily understood.  The halakha does not understand familial relationships only in a pragmatic sense.  My obligations to my parents is not based solely on gratitude.  The family is a real metaphysical entity based on the continual flow of life, even as each individual is a world unto himself.  The Biblical basis of family is the verse in Genesis, "Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2,24).  The "one flesh" here is understood by the Sages to refer to the child, who is the unity of his parents and not their product.  Hence, the death of a family member is also a bit of death of all members; each death, to quote the poet, diminishes me as well.  The mourner, therefore, is not only sad for the one who is gone, but has experienced the death, the negation of existence inherent in the experience of death, himself. 

            The effect of death is alienation, the inability to relate to the world of the living.  Death means no life, the negation of relationship, which depends on the ability to grow, to change, to be free and creative.  Death is the opposite of creativity; it is decomposition - not a free creation of something new and better, but a dissolution into the base elements of matter.  One who has experienced death is simply dead - dead to the world.

1.  Dead to what elements of the world? Here, the halakha creates a set of concentric circles of relationships.  The deepest degree of alienation is, perhaps surprisingly, from God Himself.  Aninut, the first period, is marked by the inability to perform mitzvot.  According to the opinion accepted by the halakha, the exemption from positive mitzvot during this period is not merely an exemption - you are not obligated to pray - but a prohibition - the onen (one who is in the period of aninut) is FORBIDDEN to pray, to bless God's name, to put on tefillin, etc.  Death denies even the possibility of relationship with God, at least in its deepest initial stage.  It may seem strange that there can be a religious prohibition on being religious, but that is the case here.  The relationship of man with God is dependent on his being a man, created in the image of God, possessing powers of creativity, of life, of growth, of hope for the future, of a vision of infinite expanse before him.  The mourner is dead, dead to all that, without the spark of Divine creativity, which has been diminished and vitiated by the loss he experiences within himself.

            But this must come to an end.  The life within man revives.  When the death has been put aside, buried, when the relative is no longer before us (the halakhic definition of aninut is "his dead one is lying before him"), the most basic relationship returns.  The point here is not that the relationship with God is the most important one, but that it is the most basic, elementary one - it is based on the creation of man, when God "breathed into him a living soul" (Genesis 2,7).  If a man is a man at all, if any breath of life is left in him, which of course must be true if he has remained an individual and not only a part of his family, this relationship with God must come back to life.

2.  The next seven days are marked essentially by an alienation from human society.  The mourner does not leave his home, does not go to work.  He is not permitted to greet his fellow man with the Jewish greeting "shalom." Shalom means peace and completeness - there is no peace between him and his fellows.  (This does not prevent his friends from visiting him; on the contrary, the treatment for his mourning is to visit him and comfort him by the very existence of human contact and fellowship).  The ability to relate to others as humans is also dependent on a sense of vitality, of creativity, within.  Dead things do not have friends.  Friendship is a human value, based on the ability to relate as spiritual beings to each other. 

            The relationship with another is the second most basic relationship described in the Torah.  As soon as man was created in the image of God, God saw that "it is not good that man be by himself" (Genesis 2,18).  On the first day of creation, Adam met Eve.  It takes longer to restore the level of life necessary to maintain human contact.  A week is a cycle of life, a whole world of time unto itself - six days of creation and a Shabbat.  The whole world was created in a week.  The alienation from society must be experienced fully if it is to be overcome. Unlike Adam, the mourner will live this week in a world of loneliness, a world that is not good, for it is not good that man be by himself.  (That a week is the appropriate period for a cycle based on human relationship, or the lack of such a relationship, is indicated by the fact that the period of rejoicing after a wedding, when the bride and groom stay together and celebrate, is also a week.  This derives from the marriage of our father Jacob, who was told to spend a week with his new wife Leah).

3.  The next period, the thirty days of shloshim, are marked by a prohibition to groom oneself - no haircuts, shaving, new clothes.  From what is he alienated now? Clearly, from himself.  This may appear strange to you.  Surely man is closer to himself than to others, and than to God.  This may be true psychologically.  But the order here is the opposite.  Man's relationship with himself, the sense of wholeness signified by a dignified appearance, is achieved only on the basis of a healthy relationship with his creator and with others.  It is only after one can have a relationship with other humans that one can discover and achieve a sense of unity with oneself.  Long after one is able, by relying on external experiences, to recreate a living connection with others, the inner ache and sense of loss and diminishment will remain.  Concerning the basic relationship with another, with one's mate, the Sages state that one who is without a mate is defined as being incomplete.  It is only by being able to reach to others that one actualizes the human potential within.  The first chapter of Genesis says that man was created "male and female." The Sages poetically reconcile this statement with the description in the second chapter of a later creation of woman from man's side by stating that the original creation was of a dual-faced person, male and female, who was separated.  The single man is not a man at all. 

            Thirty days is a month, defined by the cycle of the moon.  The lunar cycle symbolizes the waxing and waning of life.  Even something which seems to have ground down to inert nothingness springs back and grows again.  (The moon is considered, among other things, a symbol of the Jewish people, for precisely this reason.) One can, after experiencing a world of loneliness, return to human society immediately, because the society is there waiting for you - the others are living.  But to return to oneself, one has to grow, to develop.  The month is the cycle of growth and development.   

4.  If one has passed through all these stages, does it mean that there is no sadness.  Not necessarily.  There are also laws of mourning that are simply mourning - sadness and grief.  A mourner is forbidden to participate in celebrations of joy for the entire period of mourning, and this is not necessarily limited to the periods of alienation.  In the case of mourning for a parent, sadness remains for twelve months.  The obvious conclusion is that even a whole, creative person can be sad, can mourn.  Life and sorrow are not contradictory, the way life and death are.  Sorrow, as opposed to alienation, is a part of life, at least under some conditions.  Sorrow is not unhealthy, not inimical to the experience of life.  This may be obvious, but at times we get the impression in popular culture that it is somehow unhealthy, or even inhuman, to be sad or to grieve.  There is a time, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3,1) states, for everything; "a time to mourn and a time to dance."

            One additional point.  Shabbat overcomes mourning.  In every seven day period of mourning, there will necessarily be a Shabbat, but on Shabbat one is not permitted to mourn.  The day becomes an island, so to speak, within the sea of mourning.  If we remember that Shabbat is "a taste of the world-to-come," a time when life is based on the inner spark of creativity rather than any external activity (see an earlier shiur on Shabbat), we understand why it is excluded from mourning.  Shabbat is timeless - there is no death on Shabbat.  It derives from the world of total life, the world that is past death.  Since we can experience that world within this one, at least once a week, even the mourner, numbed by his experience of death in this world, can reconnect to life on Shabbat.  When the Shabbat ends, this world rolls back over us, and the mourner returns to his previous state.

            There is a traditional reluctance to learn the laws of mourning before they are needed.  I think though that understanding these laws is critical to understanding life.  Rav Soloveitchik once commented to us that inherent in the experience of mourning is a sense of guilt vis-a-vis the departed.  Perhaps we can only appreciate the potential in a life when we are confronted with its departure.  On a not so personal note, I have tried to increase our appreciation of life in general, of the elements of a healthy creative life, by examining the laws of mourning intellectually, from a safe and neutral distance.  There will come a time, we have been assured, that an appreciation of life will not be dependent on the necessity to experience its loss.

He will destroy death for ever; and HaShem God will wipe away tears from all faces (Is. 25,8).