25-5767: Mitzvah 59

Talmidav Shel Aharon
25-5767: Mitzvah 59
June 4, 2007

Mitzvah 59 – It is a positive commandment that a Kohen is to defile himself for close kin (by attending to their burial)
Hafetz Hayim: As Scripture says: “for his mother, his father, and for his son and his daughter, and for his unwed sister … for her he shall defile himself. ” (Lev 21:2-3) Although a Kohen is forbidden to become ritually unclean for other dead people, for close kin, however, he has a duty to become defiled ( in attending their burial.) and he has to defile himself for his wife to whom he is married. As for his brother and sister, it applied to those from the same father. Women are not required to become defiled for close kin, but the right to do so is theirs, and they have to observe mourning. This commandment includes within it the religious duty to mourn; that all Jews have a religious obligation to mourn for each of the seven relatives mentioned above. The first day of mourning is decreed by the Torah, while the other days of mourning are by the rule of the Sages. It is in effect everywhere, in every time.

This lesson is easy and hard at the same time. On the one hand, understanding the rules of the Kohanim are easy. A Kohen is not allowed to make himself ritually impure on purpose. There are enough accidents that can happen that need to be addressed that a Kohen cannot do something that will make him ritually impure with intention. There are a few exceptions. For example, if there is an unclaimed body that is in need of burial and there is no one else to bury it, it is a mitzvah for the Kohen to bury that body.
Here we have one of the other exceptions. Ritual impurity from a dead human body is the most severe form of ritual impurity (Tumah). Only the ashes from a properly sacrificed red cow can make a person pure again. This is one of the reasons a Kohen cannot attend to the dead. It would make them impure for seven days. (Another reason is that priests in Egypt, where Israel had a lot of experience, priests dealt with the dead all the time. To prevent this kind of a death cult, Israelite priests were forbidden to take part in funeral rituals.) There has to be a major exception to these rules for the immediate family of a Kohen. It would be both cruel and inhumane to prevent a Kohen from attending to the funeral of seven close relatives. The Torah lists parents, siblings and children as six for which the Kohen may make himself ritually impure with intention. The Sages added a seventh, the spouse. The High Priest cannot make himself impure even for these since there are others in the family who could attend to the funeral beside himself. For this reason a Kohen who is sensitive to these matters will not attend a funeral where the body is present or go to a cemetery. He cannot be in any building that contains a dead body nor can he step over a body in an open place. Only for the seven relatives can he make himself impure. So much for the easy part.
From this Mitzvah, we learn, however, how everyone else is to mourn. According to the law, we are official mourners when one of the seven relatives dies. (parents, siblings, children and spouse) We are commanded to make a tear in our clothing for them, to attend to their funeral and to mourn them after the interment. The tear can be made in the shirt, coat or tie that we are wearing or on a special ribbon that we wear. For a parent, the tear is made on the left side, over the heart. For everyone else it is worn on the right side. For the seven relatives, the mourner becomes exempt from time bound positive Mitzvot while preparing for the funeral.
After the funeral, the mourner observes three set time periods. The most intense mourning is done during the first seven days after the burial. (The exception is Shabbat when no mourning is allowed). During this time a candle burns in the home where the person is observing Shiva (the seven day period is called Shiva) the person does not wear leather soled shoes, one does not put on makeup or shave, and one does not leave the house. Friends and other family members bring them food and other necessities and a service is held in the home so that the family does not have to attend synagogue. The service is held daily from the day of the funeral (counted as the first day) until the morning of the seventh day (you need only observe the first hours of the seventh day) If the seventh day is Shabbat, Shiva ends at noon on Friday. Shiva is temporarily lifted at noon on Friday so that mourners can prepare for Shabbat. Shiva is then restarted when Shabbat is over (unless Shabbat was the last day).
The second period is Sheloshim, it is a 30-day period that begins the first day of Shiva and continues after Shiva is finished. During Sheloshim, one begins to get back to work and get on with life, except that one does not attend parties with music or live music events (concerts, musicals etc). There is an exception if the mourner actually earns his or her living making music or creating parties (band leaders or caterers for example). The third period is the year that begins with the burial and ends with the first anniversary of the death. (Which may or may not be the same day.) During this time the mourner attends services daily so that Kaddish can be recited. If the mourner is able, the mourner should lead a part or the whole of the service. A mourner cannot have a Torah honor, however until Sheloshim is finished. Kaddish is customarily recited only 11 months. This is based on the theory that a soul that dies must pass through punishments to atone for sins in this world. The more sins, the more punishment is given out. Judaism believes, however, that the punishment can not last for more than 12 months when everyone has been punished enough and has earned Gan Eden (Heaven). Kaddish is a way we can help alleviate the punishment. We say it for 11 months because if we go longer, we would be insulting the dead by implying that they were so sinful that they needed to be punished the full 12 months! Kaddish must be recited with a minyan, 10 adult Jews. A mourner is required to attend minyan to say Kaddish as long as a Minyan is available. If there is no minyan one can study in the name of the deceased instead.
If one of the major Festivals of the year occurs during Shiva or Sheloshim, the festival interrupts the mourning and it is NOT continued after the holiday. If the death occurs on the Festival, the funereal has to wait until the intermediate days and then Shiva/Sheloshim begin when the holiday is over. If there is one hour before the holiday when mourning has occurred, than the rest of Shiva is suspended. In the case of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret, since this is two separate holidays that occur back to back, it not only ends Shiva, but Sheloshim as well,
The exception to all of this is the rules for the death of a parent. The restrictions of music and parties continue on for the full year. This is in recognition of the deeper role a parent plays in our lives. Some will wear their torn clothing for the full 30 days rather than the usual seven days of Shiva.
As with all complicated rules of Judaism, the easiest way to answer all questions about funeral practices in Judaism is to consult your Rabbi.

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One thought on “25-5767: Mitzvah 59

  1. B. Horowitz writes:1) I’m guessing that the rationale here is that siblings of the same mother and a different father would not themselves be Cohanim, and therefore have other (non-Cohanim) relatives who could attend to the burial. However, would the Cohen still be obliged to mourn the deceased? 2) What is the consensus of opinion today regarding mourning the deaths of half-siblings and step-relatives? Is it pretty much left up to the individual/family?Rabbi K. answers:1. Judaism teaches that there is a fundamental difference between arrainging a funeral and mourning. Funerals are to honor the deceased. This is the duty of those who loved the deceased unless it is a Cohen, when other, not Cohen, family members must make sure that the body is properly buried. Mourning is a different responsibility and even a Cohen must mourn one of the seven relatives when they die. He or she would sit shiva and say Kaddish etc. These do not impact ritual purity and are requried of a cohen by Jewish law.2. there is also a difference between relatives who are REQUIRED to mourn and those who CHOOSE to mourn. The seven relations are required to be mourners. Anyone who wishes can also make the tear, sit Shiva and say kaddish if they choose to do so. This applies to any person, relative or not, who was so close that mourning would be appropriate. Judaism would not endorse mourning as a profession or as an excuse to get out of another mitzvah. We are not a religion of the dead. Still, if there is a reason to be a mourner, you can choose to take on the responisbility. That does not relive any of the other seven relatives of their responsibilities.

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