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Theory of Relativity

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


I am not one of the seven.

I am not her brother or sister. I am not her son or daughter. I am not her mother or father. And I am not her spouse.

Therefore, Jewish law does not regard me as an obligatory mourner.

Obligatory mourners have certain restrictions placed on them in order to allow them the space to mourn. They are to refrain from all social pleasantries and major positive religious requirements during the initial days. The mourners must remain in their homes during the week of shiva — with certain exceptions. They are to wear their rent garment (or torn back ribbon) throughout the week, sit on lowered seats, wear slippers or stockinged feet, abstain from shaving, the wearing of cosmetics, Torah study, and sexual relations. The mirrors in a house of mourning are covered. The list goes on…

I am not bound to the restrictions. Nor are these behaviours required of me.

My grandmother died. Jewish law does not obligate me to behave in any way. And yet, by not binding me to the prescribed mourning rites, it is as though my relationship has somehow been deemed “less than.”

Is this what the rabbis had in mind?

In seeking an answer across the ages, it is often useful to look at a similar circumstance in order to arrive at a reasonable explanation. Consider the minimum lifespan required to establish a human being as a viable person. An infant less than thirty days is not considered a viable person and is not mourned should, God-forbid, death occur before the thirty-first day of life.

When first confronted by this text from the Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 374:8), the decision by the Rabbis to forbid mourning rite seems heartless and cruel. I came to learn that the Rabbis arrived at this conclusion at a time when infant mortality was high. In order to spare the feelings of the bereft parents, they established a minimum age of thirty complete days. Living until thirty-first day increased, though did not guarantee, the odds that this was a viable life.

Application of the Rabbis’ protective intent in the case of an infant to the definition of “who is a mourner?” leads to one possible conclusion; by limiting the categories, the Rabbis limit the opportunities to thrust an individual into the restrictions of mourning.

Whereas in the case of an infant death I concur with the current liberal approach that encourages parents to observe mourning rites, I am too much of a traditionalist (not to mention a superstitionalist) to argue for a change.

Our Sages did acknowledge that some relationships stand outside the traditional seven and may warrent some fashion of ritual mourning. A glance at the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh (203:2) shows that partial mourning may be observed for a cousin, grandson, mother-in-law, father-in-law, and grandfather. [Later commentaries instruct an individual with living parents to obtain permission prior to observing rites for a mother-or-father-in-law.] Surely, in our egalitarian community, we might expand this list to include a granddaugter and a grandmother.

Relationship titles can be misleading. Though they accurately describe the familial relationship between two people, they do little to define the actual relationship. I suppose that people have no way of knowing that a chasm remains in the place once filled by my grandmother. I wore no ribbon. My mirrors remained uncovered. No outward sign of the mind-numbing grief.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. HSaboMilner permalink
    Wednesday, 17 February 2010 7:52 pm

    when my beloved Savta passed i mourned her so deep within my soul. she had been my grandmother but also my best friend. she mothered me and sistered me, mentored me and taught me. Yet when she passed away, there was no observable mourning for me. I feel your pain, and your loss. Your mourning is no less just because you did not personally sit shiva.

    may your grandmother rest in peace.

    Hamakom yenachem otach b’toch she’ar aveilei tzion v’yerushalayim

  2. Wednesday, 17 February 2010 10:08 pm

    May that chasm soon fill in with all the wonderful memories you have of your grandmother.

  3. Nancy D. permalink
    Wednesday, 17 February 2010 11:22 pm

    Perhaps, in the strictest, literal sense, there are “no outward sign[s] of the mind-numbing grief,” you feel however, your tears and pained expressions speak volumes about the love you have for your grandmother and the grief that is expressed in your eyes makes clear the grief that you undoubtedley feel in your heart.

  4. Thursday, 18 February 2010 6:54 am

    Baruch dayan ha’emet.

    I lost a most beloved non-Jewish “non-relative” last year and spent way too much time feeling I had to explain who she was and why I was sad.

    My mother was told that she didn’t have to mourn as long as we did for my father because – having lived with him – she needed no “reminder” that he was gone.

    Having mourned 4 grandparents, I think perhaps that’s true for grandchildren too… maybe, for whatever reason, we don’t need all the outward reminders to drive home the realization that another link is gone: we are one tiny bit closer to being the elders ourselves.

    May your entire family be comforted.

  5. Ruth permalink
    Thursday, 18 February 2010 8:14 pm

    Funny I came across this now. 3 days after Rosh Hashanah this year, my father-in-law passed away unexpectedly in Israel. Naturally, my husband went (although he missed the funeral). I was left with our 3 kids and a shul to handle (we run an outreach center with a shul), with no time to mourn. He was away for YK of course, and I encouraged him to stay for the first days of Sukkot, to comfort his mother, since their Shiva was so short and cut off by the holidays. After the holidays were over, I finally had time to breathe and think about our loss. I wrote a speech that I gave at the shloshim. It was very moving and everyone, including my husband, was in tears. It came through as sincerely from the heart, not: I have to say kaddish for a year now, I cannot go to dinners and parties. Plain and simple feelings and memories from the past. Since his death, I went back to making Challah every week, and when I dunk in the Mikvah, I see his image and think of him. It’s like I am doing certain Mitzvot with him around me, and it’s a wonderful feeling. So go ahead, mourn, put your feelings down, and express them to your family and friends.

  6. Saturday, 20 February 2010 4:59 pm

    When my grandmother died, I was at a loss.

    I spoke about her at the funeral parlor, but my mother would not let me go to the cemetary, because my grandmother’s (German) tradition was that we do not go to the cemetary if both our parents are alive.

    But I was closest to my grandmother of all the people in the world, even closer than my mother.

    My mother, an only child, sat Shiv’a in my grandmother’s home, where I had been living for several months. I was there, the whole time, but I felt in between, like there was no space for my mourning.

    I had to be there for my mom.

    A few friends came to comfort us. I know it meant a lot to my mom that my friends came too.

    It is many (20) years later, and I still miss her so much.

  7. Saturday, 20 February 2010 5:00 pm

    ps. don’t be fooled by my smiling face. I am sitting here, balling like a baby.

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