Thursday, February 2, 2012

Laws of Mourning -- Theory and Practice

 When I began my rabbinical studies, I had a good background in Hebrew (from having spent a college year in Israel) and in both Bible and philosophy (from my college studies at Georgetown) but I didn't really know that much about traditional Jewish practice. One of our first year courses was designed to make us familiar with some of the more common rules and concepts that as rabbis-in-training, we might be expected to know -- since as early as our second year, we would be sent out to serve as student rabbis in small congregations.

    My teacher and later dear friend Rabbi Ben Hollander (who passed away about four years ago) was teaching us about the concept of aninut and the status of being an onen. An onen (a person in aninut) is someone who has lost a parent, spouse, child or sibling but has not yet buried them. During this period, Rabbi Hollander explained, one is "exempt from all the mitzvot." So in all innocence I responded "then that would be a good time to run out and get a cheeseburger." After recovering from his shock, Rabbi Hollander said "let me amend what I said. An onen is exempt from all the positive mitzvot," meaning, that he or she is not obligated to perform the "thou shalts"(tefillin, prayer at fixed times. etc.) but still has to follow the "thou shalt nots" (keeping kosher, refraining from work on Shabbat.)

    Many years later when I was the rabbi in York, Pa., a congregant passed away and his two brothers came to minyan that evening, before the funeral. It was our practice there to wait for a minyan and phone people who lived near the shul if we were one or two short  in the evening (on the assumption that in the evening people are in less of a hurry to get to work than they are in the morning). Someone said to me "Rabbi, we have a minyan, let's start" and I responded that we did not have a minyan, that Dave and Lew don't count. Everyone looked at me in astonishment, because they, too, had not been taught about the concept of aninut.

    In Judaism, rights and obligations go hand-in-hand. Why does a child under the age of 13 not count in a minyan? Because they are not obligated to pray. This is also the reason we do not count Gentiles for a minyan, or why Orthodox congregations do not count women. While arguably children, women and non-Jews are obligated to pray to God, they are not obligated to say the formal liturgy at a set time. If you are not obligated, you aren't part of the minyan. And since an onen isn't obligated to pray (since their one and only obligation is to prepare for the burial), should they nevertheless show up for services, they cannot be counted towards the minyan.

    I have found that many Jews who are in general not particularly observant, nevertheless seek to follow the laws of mourning fairly closely. I am not sure why this is. It may be a realization that there is great wisdom to be found in these practices. Or perhaps, it is a sense of loyalty to our deceased relatives, a desire to be a link in the chain of tradition. However, I've found that as much as there is a desire to follow these laws, there is also widespread misunderstanding of them.

    This is not the time or place to give an exhaustive overview, but I want to highlight a couple of areas where I've noticed a divergence between what many in our community do and what Jewish law prescribes.

    I've already mentioned aninut. Besides the fact that an onen is exempt from the requirement to pray and does not count in a minyan, the halacha also prescribes that we not greet or attempt to console the mourners until after the funeral.  It is perhaps a natural desire to greet the mourners at the earliest opportunity, particularly in this day and age when all of us have family and friends who live all over the world and whom we don't see that often. But prior to the funeral, the mourner is busy dealing with burial arrangements and concentrating on dealing with his or her loss, and should be left alone. The proper time and place for consoling the mourner is during the seven days of shiva. It is not proper to go into the room where the mourners are gathered prior to the funeral even if you consider yourself a close friend. Be certain to attend either the Meal of Consolation right after the burial, or visit the family and participate in the minyan during the shiva, and express your condolences at that time.

    Another area where there is some confusion is how long to say the Mourner's Kaddish. I have noticed that it is increasingly common for people to say Kaddish for eleven months after the death of any relative, but in fact, the practice of saying Kaddish for that length of time strictly speaking applies only to the death of a parent.

    Why is this so? The Torah commands us (several times) to honor our mother and father, and the sages understood that part of honoring a parent was to mourn for them for a full year. For other relatives, we engage in formal mourning only for thirty days (though of course emotionally, we grieve for much longer.) Eventually the period of saying Kaddish was standardized at eleven months, because the Talmud says that saying Kaddish helps the souls of the wicked ascend to heaven, and the most wicked souls have to wait as long as a year. Since no one wanted to imply that they thought their parents were wicked, it became customary to say Kaddish for eleven months rather than a full year.

    Why don't we mourn the full year for other relatives? I suspect that there is a sociological/historical factor at work here. Remember that until very recently, families were much larger, infant mortality was higher, and so on. A typical person might have eight or ten siblings and eight or ten children. As general mortality rates were higher and widows or widowers tended to remarry, a person might well have two or three spouses during their lifetime. If formal mourning continued for a full year for every sibling, spouse, or child, a person might well spend their entire life in formal mourning. And so, the tradition limits the requirements of formal mourning to thirty days for all but a parent.

    The end of formal mourning practices like saying Kaddish doesn't meant that one's sense of loss or grief is over, it is merely a signal that it is time to begin to pick up the pieces and try as best as one can to go on with the rest of life. Beyond that, I recognize the fact that for most Jews, Jewish law no longer carries the authority it once did. If you feel called upon to say Kaddish beyond 30 days, for example, no one is going to stop you, but you should not feel obligated to do so either.

    At times of loss, we often come to realize the inherent wisdom of our tradition and the power it has to bring us comfort. If you have questions about anything I've written or need guidance in terms of these laws and practices, I am always ready to be of assistance.

    May we always meet at joyous occasions.

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