Theory of Relativity
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.