Rav Herzl Hefter
Former Rosh Kollel in Cleveland (1995-1997)
Mourning: Action and Affect
I believe that the period of Bein HaMetzarim, between the straights, is the appropriate time to devote to the study of the laws of mourning. Our response to death and loss ultimately characterizes who we are.
The Talmud tells us that a mourner must refrain from the following activities; cutting his hair, laundering clothes, anointing himself with oil, sexual relations, wearing of shoes, performing labor, study of Torah, putting the bed upright and greeting with ‘shalom’. (See Rambam, Aveilut 5:1)
The Rambam is of the opinion that the Torah obligation to mourn is only for the first day:
“There is a positive commandment to mourn, over relatives…and the Torah obligation to mourn is on the first day only , that is the day of death and ‘burial’, but the remaining [of] the seven days are not Torah law…” (Aveilut 1:1)
Nevertheless, Maimonides rules that a mourner may not bring an offering to the temple for all seven days of the mourning period. (Biat Mikdash 2:11)
This apparent contraction leads us to a deeper understanding of mourning from the perspective of the Torah.
There are two aspects to the mourning period; the first is connected to the formal obligation of normative behavior. This is a sign of respect which is exhibited toward the deceased (see Rashi Sukkah 25a). This aspect of mourning, the Rambam rules, is on the first day only. Mourning however, is not limited to external behavior which is imposed upon us from on high. The Torah also recognizes the existential state of grief which precludes the possibility of standing in the presence of God bearing a sacrificial offering. It is this existential state that is for the duration of seven days.
We stand to learn a very important lesson from this analysis of the laws of mourning. It is precisely those who observe the Halacha who face the hazard of being so obsessed with “right action” that the feelings of the heart may be neglected. Right action must be accompanied by a feeling heart. Right action joined with the sensitive heart is the key to redemption both personal and national levels.