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Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Chadashah




I would like to try in this presentation to interpret the halakhic terms and concepts that relate to mourning in philosophical and also, perhaps, psychological categories. I want to try to derive from dry, formal, abstract terms experiential materials which can be utilized in formulating an understanding of Judaism's view of the mourning experience. People speak about religious experiences today, trying to stimulate religious experiences with drugs or all kinds of acrobatics while actually engaging in idolatrous practices. But one cannot get a religious experience - that is, a Jewish religious experience - without utilizing the materials of Halakhah. There can be no philosophy of science or nature unless one is an expert in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology, the sciences of animate and inanimate objects. So, too, it is impossible for one to philosophize about Judaism and speak about its experiential universe without having the Halakhah at his fingertips. I am suggesting a modest experiment here: to try to translate a halakhic discussion into the idiom of modern man without doing any harm or inflicting any damages, without restricting or limiting the depth and the sweep of Halakhah.


The whole concept of avelut, mourning, at both an individual and a historical level, is nurtured by a unique doctrine about man and his emotional world. It actually represents, I would say, the Judaic philosophy of man and his relationship to both God and the world. Man, Judaism maintains and insists, is capable of determining the kind of emotional life he wants to live. Man has both actions and emotions at his disposal. Man must never be overwhelmed by his emotions. He can invite emotions as well as reject them, opening the door and inviting feelings and sentiments if they are worthy, and slamming the door on those which are degrading and unworthy of attention. In the same manner in which man has the freedom to abstain from engaging in an act to which his conscience objects on moral grounds, he can also disown emotions which the same conscience assesses as unworthy of being integrated into his personality. Likewise, he can assimilate such emotions which bear the stamp of moral approval - constructive noble feelings. Emotions can be subjected to the scrutiny of our moral consciousness, examined and evaluated as to whether they are worthy and dignified ones which enrich, redeem and exalt man's life. Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote a famous book called Hovot ha-Levavot, in which he discriminates between hovot ha-evarim, the duties of our limbs, and hovot ha-levavot, the duties of the heart. But how can one speak about hovot ha-levavot if the heart succumbs hysterically to emotions, such as love for a person, object, goal or idea which is in reality unworthy of one's love and appreciation?


Actually, many precepts in the Torah deal exclusively with human emotional attitudes and not physical actions: "Love your neighbor" (Lev. 19:18), "You shall not covet" (Ex. 20:14, Deut. 5:18), "You shall rejoice on your holiday" (Deut. 16:14), "You shall not hate your brother" (Lev. 19:17), "You shall love the stranger" (Deut. 10:19), etc. We all know the question which Ibn Ezra raised vis-a-vis the command of lo tahmod, not to covet the property of one's neighbor. Coveting is an emotion, a feeling. How then can one be commanded to not covet, desire, or be envious? But in truth one can be called upon to exclude an emotion in the same way one must abstain from a certain act which is considered unworthy. Ibn Ezra (in his commentary to Ex. 20:14) introduces a famous fable or simile. The ignorant peasant, he says, will never desire or fall in love with the daughter of the king, the princess. Ibn Ezra wants to show that emotions are guided by human reason. One desires only what is possible; whatever is impossible is not desired. Pascal spoke about the logique de couer, the reasons of the heart (Pensees #277). The freedom to adopt and accept emotions or to reject and disown them is within the jurisdiction of man.





The precept of avelut, as I indicated above, rests completely upon this Jewish doctrine of human freedom from emotional coercion. However, man's task vis-a-vis avelut is not always the same. At times man is told to respond emotionally to disaster, to yield to the emotional hurricane and not master his feelings. He must not take evil as something inevitable, which warrants no emotional outburst, just because such a response would be an exercise in futility.


Judaism says with admirable realism: Of course every event, good or bad, is planned by the Almighty. So too is death. Man can do little to change the course of events; he rather must surrender to God's inscrutable will. Yet submission to a higher will must not prevent man from experiencing those emotions which are precipitated by a confrontation with existential absurdity, with the total disregard for and complete indifference to human interests manifested, prima facie, by natural law. Judaism does not want man to rationalize evil or to theologize it away. It challenges him to defy evil and, in case of defeat, to give vent to his distress. Both rationalizing and theologizing harden the human heart and make it insensitive to disaster. Man, Judaism says, must act like a human being. He must cry, weep, despair, grieve and mourn as if he could change the cosmic laws by exhibiting those emotions. In times of distress and sorrow, these emotions are noble even though they express the human protest against iniquity in nature and also pose an unanswerable question concerning justice in the world. The Book of Job was not written in vain. Judaism does not tolerate hypocrisy and unnatural behavior which is contrary to human sensitivity. Pain results in moaning, sudden fear and shrieking. The encounter with death must precipitate a showing of protest, a bitter complaint, a sense of existential nausea and complete confusion. I want the sufferer to act as a human being, God says. Let him not suppress his humanity in order to please Me. Let him tear his clothes in frustrating anger and stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.


The Mishnah relieved the mourner who has not buried his dead "from the recital of the Shema ... and from all the [positive] mitzvot laid down in the Torah" (Berakhot 3:1 at 17b). Rashi (s.v. patur) says that the reason is that a person who is engaged in performing one mitzvah is exempt at that time from other mitzvot. But Tosafot (s.v. patur), quoting R. Bon in the Jerusalem Talmud (3:1), disagree, saying that the reason is that "the Torah says '... that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life' - days during which you are concerned with the living, not those days during which you are concerned with the dead." That means that the mourner is relieved of his obligation in mitzvot because he is incapable of performing them. He has simply lost his own sense of dignity; the focus of his personality has been lost. He is like a heresh, shoteh ve-katan, the deaf-mute, imbecile and minor who are all exempt from mitzvot. This is what Tosafot and all the rishonim [medieval halakhic authorities] mean when they say that it is completely forbidden to perform a mitzvah during this first stage of mourning: the mourner is incapable of performing mitzvot. Judaism understands that bitterness, grief and confusion are noble emotions which should be assimilated and accepted by man, not rejected at the time of distress. Of course, emotions, like the tide, reach a high mark, make an about face, and begin to recede. The Torah has therefore recommended to man not only to subhimself to the emotional onslaught, but gradually and slowly to redeem himself from its impact.


Therefore, the Halakhah divided mourning into various stages: First, "meto muttal lefanav, when his dead lies before him." This is the period of aninut, extending from the time of death until the time of burial. Then, commencing with burial, avelut shiv'ah, the week-long period, which extends into sheloshim, the thirty-day period. Finally, for one's parents, yodbet hodesh, the twelve-month mourning period. We have during these stages an imperceptible transition from a depressed, desolate, bitter consciousness of catastrophe to a redeemed higher consciousness.





The Gemara (Yevamot 43b) distinguishes between avelut hadashah and avelut yeshanah, "new" mourning and "old," historical mourning - or, expressing the same thought in a different idiom, between avelut de-yahid and avelut de-rabbim, private and national-communal mourning. The first, avelut hadashah, is caused by a death or disaster which strikes a family or an individual. It is a primordial, instinctual, spontaneous response of man to evil, to the traumatic confrontation with death, to the impact of catastrophe and disaster. It is an existential response, not one that evolves by the application of artificial stimuli.


The second category, avelut yeshanah, is due to a historic disaster that took place 1,900 years ago. This category is the handiwork of man. There is no spontaneous reaction to some new event which has just transpired, for nothing new has happened which should justify grief. The avelut is a result of recollection of events. Judaism here introduced a strange kind of memory, a very unique and singular memory. Thousands of years later, Henri Bergson (Matter and Memory) came very close to describing the kind of memory of which Judaism spoke so long ago.





Judaism developed a very peculiar philosophy of memory - indeed, an ethics of memory. Memory and forgetfulness are subject to ethical determination. Memory is not just the capacity of man to know events which lie in the past. Memory is experiential in nature; one does not simply recollect the past or just remember bygones, but reexperiences that which has been, and quickens events that are seemingly dead.


Many mitzvot are based upon this idea. The Passover seder is, of course, the prime example: "In each generation a person is required to see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt" (Haggadah). So too is keri'at ha-Torah, the institution of the public reading of the Torah, which is not simply limmud - study and instruction - but an experiential event meant to restage and re-enact mattan Torah, the giving of the Torah. The proof of this is to be found in the use of the ta'amei elyon, the special cantillation (trope) used for the public reading of the Aseret ha-Dibberot (Decalogue). These ta'amei elyon combine together the units of the Decalogue in its reading, rather than separating them into the actual verses. But the division would be determined by the verses if instruction were the sole purpose of keri'at ha-Torah.


This shows that actually the reading of the Aseret ha- Dibberot is not only a didactic performance of limmud, but a restaging, a dramatic reenacting of mattan Torah. That is why people rise when it is read. Rambam asked in his responsum (no. 263, Blau ed.), Why should they rise? Aseret ha-Dibberot is no more sacred than the parashah which speaks of Timnah, the concubine of Elifaz (Gen. 36:12)! But the Aseret ha-Dibberot is read not only as a text which is being studied, but as a text which is being promulgated and proclaimed by God Himself. When Rambam speaks about the obligation of Hakhel, the public reading of the Torah performed by the king in Jerusalem every seven years, he writes that the king is the representative of the kahal, the congregation, and the entire kahal must pay close attention to the keri'at ha-Torah. Even the wise and great, as well as converts who do not understand the Hebrew text, must concentrate and hearken with dread and trepidation in the same manner as the Jews hearkened to the words of God when the Torah was given at Sinai - as if the law were being proclaimed now for the first time, as if the person were hearing it from the Almighty, listening to the voice of God Himself (Hilkhot Hagigah 3:6). Rambam actually has spelled it out in plain terms. The rubric of "In each generation a person is required to see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt" is applicable not only to the Exodus, but to all events which the Torah has commanded us to remember and not forget.


Experiential memory somehow erases the borderline separating bygone from present experiences. It does not just recollect the past, but re-experiences whatever has been. It quickens events which man considered dead and it actually merges past with present - or shifts the past into the present. Judaism has recommended what I would call a "unitive time consciousness" - unitive in the sense that there is a tightening of bonds of companionship, of present and past.


Many modern experiences can be understood only if we look upon them from the viewpoint of the unitive time awareness. Our relationship to the Land of Israel is very strange. After a gap of 1900 years, our relationship is a very weak one in historical terms. I have no doubt that had a Jewish state arisen in Africa or South America, Jews would not feel so committed or dedicated to it. Our commitment is not to the state per se, but to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. This is because of our very distant and remote experiences, which usually would have vanished into oblivion over the years.


Since Jews have a unitive time consciousness, the gap of centuries simply cannot separate them from the past. They do not have to relive the past, as the past is a current living reality. Memory opens up new vistas of the time experience, and the companionship of the present and past is tightened, growing in intimacy and closeness. As a matter of fact, our relationship to our heroes - such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, or even the Patriarchs and the Prophets - is completely different from that which the nations of the world have to their heroes. To us, they are not just ancient heroes. Usually history is divided into antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the contemporary period. However, the word "antiquity" does not exist in our history. The story of Joseph and his brothers, the story of the destruction of the Temple, the story of Moses' death - all used to move me to tears as a boy. It was not just because I was a child; it was not an infantile reaction on my part. It was very much a human gestalt reaction. These stories do not lie in antiquity; they are part of our time awareness, part of our historical experience. Similarly, there is no archaeology in Judaism. There is history but not archaeology. Archaeology refers to something remote, a dead past of which I am no part. It arouses my curiosity; I am inquisitive to know about the origins. But history to us means something living, past integrated into present and present anticipating future.


We all know the aphorism, "He-avar ayyin (the past is no more), ve-he-atid adayyin (the future has not yet come), ve-hahoveh ke-heref ayin (the present is fleeting)." However, in my opinion this is wrong. The past is not gone; it is still here. The future is not only anticipated, it is already here, and the present connects the future and the past. That is what I mean by a unitive time consciousness.


Tish'ah be-Av, the Ninth of Av, would be a ludicrous institution if we did not have the unitive time consciousness. We say in the Kinnot, "On this night, be-leil zeh, my Temple was destroyed." "This night" means a night 1900 years ago; "be-leil zeh" means tonight. Apparently, that night nineteen hundred years ago is neither remote nor distant from us; it is living - as vibrant a reality as this fleeting moment in the present. The unitive time consciousness contains an element of eternity. There is neither past nor future nor present. All three dimensions of time into one experience, into one awareness. Man, heading in a panicky rush toward the future, finds himself in the embrace of the past. Bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences and archaeological history into a vibrant reality.


Of course, historical mourning is based upon this unitive time consciousness. Without that experiential memory it would be ridiculous to speak of mourning due to an event which lies in antiquity. It would be contrary to human nature. Avelut hadashah is a spontaneous response - neither premeditated nor planned - to the sudden attack or onslaught of evil, catastrophe, disaster or death. Avelut yeshanah is cultivated, gradually evolving through recollection and through the unitive time awareness. The main distinction between these two types of mourning expresses itself in the reversal of the order of the stages. Avelut hadashah commences with the most intense, most poignant and highest state of grief - aninut - and slowly recedes into shiv'ah, sheloshim and yod-bet hodesh, until it fades into a lingering melancholy. Avelut yeshanah follows a reverse course. It starts out with avelut of yod-bet hodesh, the mildest form of mourning, which represents a sadness that is usually non-conative and non-explosive. It gradually turns into avelut sheloshim and grows in intensity until it reaches the pitch of shiv'ah.





Although R. Moshe Isserles (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 551:2,4) rules that the minimum mourning preceding Tish'ah be-Av commences on the Seventeenth of Tammuz, R. Joseph Karo (ibid., 551:1) rules that it commences only on Rosh Hodesh Av, the first day of the month of Av: "When Av begins we lessen our happiness." Does that mean that the whole idea of bein ha-metzarim, the three weeks before Tish'ah be-Av, is not of halakhic origin? If it is, in what does it express itself? What are the prohibitions which the Seventeenth of Tammuz initiates? In fact, the Talmud does not mention bein ha-metzarim at all. The Midrash refers to the period in its interpretation of Lamentations 1:3: "'... all her persecutors overtook her bein ha-metzarim, within the straits' - these are the days between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Tish'ah be-Av" (Eikhah Rabbah 1:29). Interestingly, the Yerushalmi (end of Ta'anit 4:5) says that if the walls of Jerusalem in the time of the First Temple were breached on the ninth of Tammuz instead of the seventeenth, as occurred in the time of the Second Temple, then the date of the destruction of the First Temple must have been the first of Av; the interim period consists of only twenty-one days. The Yerushalmi derives this from the verse, "I see a rod of an almond tree" (Jer. 1:11): it takes the almond tree twenty-one days to blossom and bud. Yet all this does not answer our question: Does this interim period of three weeks have halakhic significance?


The key to the answer is to be found in the fact that during these three weeks we suspend the recital of the haftarot which are concerned with the same motif as the weekly Torah reading and read instead the sheloshah de-pur'anuta, the three chapters from Jeremiah and Isaiah which speak of destruction and exile. Apparently, we consider the theme of catastrophe and hurban (destruction) to be me-inyana de-yoma, "from the topics of the day." Otherwise, the elaboration of such a theme in the haftarah would be out of context. In other words, halakhically, the twenty-one days are linked up with hurban and avelut.


Even though the mourning of an individual constitutes a kiyyum she-ba-lev, an inner, experiential fulfillment of the obligation to mourn, it must be translated into deeds, into technical observance. The inner experience cannot be divorced from objective aspects. The Halakhah demanded that feeling be transposed into deed, subjective emotions into solid objective data, that fleeting, amorphous moods be crystallized into real tangible symbols. The individual does not invite sorrow; the latter strikes him hard and mercilessly. His immediate response is a dual one - subjective and objective. He reacts to disaster with everything he has at his command - thought and deed, feeling and action.


Avelut yeshanah does not establish itself at one bang; the process is generally slow. It begins with the awakening of the unitive time awareness of a memory which not only notes and gives heed to bygone days but also reexperiences, relives, restages and redramatizes remote events which seem to have forfeited their relevance long ago. The Halakhah could not decree observance of mourning at once. The reawakening takes time; it transpires gradually. It would be absurd, therefore, to start out with the practical observance of mourning before the experience has been reproduced and relived in all its tragic, frightening magnitude. The time between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av is exclusively devoted to remembrance, to meditation, to reliving and reexperiencing. Only on Rosh Hodesh Av does the avelut she-ba-lev begin to be recorded on the register of objective mourning and the first signs of observance become visible.





The period of mourning for the Temple which parallels that of the twelve-month period of mourning for one's parents begins on the first day of the month of Av. Both share the avoidance of participation in any festive events, receptions, and so forth. The mishnah (Ta'anit 1:7) states in general terms that "When Av begins we lessen our happiness." The baraita says as follows: From the first day of the month until the fast, ha-am mema'atim, the people must restrict their activities in trade, building and planting, betrothals and marriages. During the week in which the ninth of Av occurs, it is asur, forbidden, to cut one's hair and wash one's clothes (Yevamot 43b).


When the baraita spoke of Rosh Hodesh Av, it used the term mema'atim, whereas within the week in which Tish'ah be-Av falls, the term asur was used. Why this change in terminology? Apparently, there is a basic difference between the avelut which commences with Rosh Hodesh Av and that of the week in which Tish'ah be-Av falls. If one violated the law pertaining to the mourning of the latter, he or she has committed a ma'aseh averah, an illicit act which itself is culpable and is considered to be sin - like a mourner who failed to observe the laws of mourning. However, in the days preceding the week, there are separate injunctions against certain activities. The baraita did not speak of issurim, of prohibitions. The positive aspect, not the negative, was formulated. If one abstains from all those pursuits, as suggested in the baraita, the result is a kiyyum avelut, a fulfillment of the obligation to mourn. However, the failure to comply results not in a commission of a sin, but in a forfeiture of a kiyyum mitzvah and the guilt of shev ve-al ta'aseh, of an omission. The positive aspect is emphasized - it is important to withdraw temporarily from those activities: "The people must restrict their activities in trade, building and planting, betrothals and marriages." The term avelut is not employed. As a matter of fact, the baraita speaks of reducing, of doing less. If a prohibition were attached to such activities, the amount and volume of business and construction would not matter at all. This type of work is either prohibited or sanctioned; the amount, how much, would not be an important factor. However, if the activity per se is not culpable, then only the avelut she-ba-lev is robbed of an opportunity to express itself in deed. Partial abstention is also important because through it avelut she-ba-lev is realized and consummated. If this be true, even restricted activity is relevant.


Maimonides omitted the baraita in Yevamot from his Code. He quoted (Hilkhot Ta'anit 5:6) only the mishnah in Ta'anit: "When Av begins we lessen our happiness." He did not, however, specify or enumerate the forbidden activities; per se they are legitimate. They serve only as media through which the mourning expresses itself. Hence, the kiyyum avelut she-ba-lev, the fulfillment of inner mourning, can also be realized through other means andby abstaining from such activities which usually please the doer and give him a certain amount of contentment. In fact, the baraita says "ha-am, the people" - those activities which have been classified by the people as joyous.


However, they are not the only ones from which one must refrain. Any engagement which results in joy and satisfaction is to be avoided. That is why Rambam omitted those specific pursuits. They are not the only ones which come under the rubric of simhah, of happiness. There is no objective criterion; the choice is subjective and varies with the times.





Shavua she-hal bo, the week during which Tish'ah be-Av falls, corresponds to sheloshim, the thirty-day mourning period, as both include the prohibitions of cutting one's hair (tisporet) and pressing one's clothes (gihutz). The two periods differ, however, with regard to three other specific actions, washing one's clothes (kibbus), commerce (massa u-mattan), and betrothals (erusin), as the Gemara (Yevamot 43a) discusses.


Washing one's clothes and commerce are prohibited in the week before Tish'ah be-Av and permitted during sheloshim, while betrothal is handled in the opposite manner: betrothals are permissible during the week of Tish'ah be-Av and forbidden, according to Ri and Ramban (Yevamot 43b, s.v. shanei), during sheloshim.


This distinction can be explained by the fact that there is one aspect of historical public mourning that has almost no application to personal mourning, namely, heseah ha-da'at, any distraction or diversion of attention. The content of avelut she-ba-lev - the inner mourning of the heart - for an individual grieving over the loss of a member of the household expresses itself in sharp unbearable pain, black despair and bitter protest against evil and absurdity in the universe. One has the impression that God has absented Himself from human destiny and delivered man into the hands of laughing Satan. In a word, avelut she-ba-lev expresses itself in the experience of the dark night.


With communal mourning, however, no matter how imaginative the person, and no matter how powerful his intuitive time awareness and experiential memory, the pain is not as severe as in the case of recent disaster, the grief not as sharp and distressing as in the private encounter with death. Since there is no sudden plunge into the night of mourning, the emotional loss is not complete. However alive the experience of hurban (destruction) might be, it is nurtured by human reflection and meditation. It is the intellect which commands the emotions to respond to the historical memories of a community. The emotions are aroused not spontaneously but rather by meditation and concentration. They do not explode under the impact of disaster; they are just lit by the fire which memory brought forth. It is measured pain, rational grief, whose cause lies outside of the emotional sphere. Any distraction, any diversion of attention, any heseah ha-da'at breaks up the avelut.


That is why the mourning of the week in which Tish'ah be- Av falls revolves around the concept of heseah ha-da'at. Whatever may cause diversion or dissipation of emotional tension has been prohibited. Engaging in commerce is a steady occupation. If you engage in commerce for only a quarter of an hour each day, you'll go bankrupt - just as you cannot become a scholar by studying only fifteen minutes a day. In addition, as Tosafot note (Yevamot 43b, s.v. shanei), commerce is done publicly, so people will say that the community does not care about the destruction of Jerusalem. The same reasoning is also applicable to washing one's clothes. In olden times, washing one's clothes meant continuous public work at the river. Avelut yeshanah is stricter with those matters which are public and continuous.


On the other hand, heseah ha-da'at plays no role in the personal encounter with individual grief, because intellectual concentration or even emotional fixation are not responsible for the emergence of the mourning. The latter leaps out of nowhere, it befalls, overpowers and breaks man - unexpectedly and completely. In fact, the mourner cannot concentrate and is unable to relax or to think of something else. He cannot think or rationalize at all because he loses the focus of his personality, and his inner life, including his intellectual capacity, is in disarray. The prohibitions pertaining to private mourning are concerned not with the possibility of heseah ha-da'at but with different aspects such as untidiness (nivvul), feeling pain (tza'ar), etc.


The prohibition of betrothal (an act which requires only two witnesses and is therefore not considered public) is not rooted in heseah ha-da'at. The private mourner is enjoined from betrothal for a different reason entirely, namely, the apparent worthlessness of life and its irrational, absurd vicissitudes. There is no need to engage in any act which is related to the survival and continued existence of man. He is not worth the effort he himself makes in order to assure his survival. This prohibition is symbolic of the experience of human failure and full bankruptcy through which one lives during the days of mourning.


Matrimony is in fact related to the bitter human destiny which ends in death. There is no doubt that the procreative urge in man reflects his anxiety over and fear of death. In the child he finds continuity and immortality. He sees himself redeemed from the curse of nihility by continuing to live through the child. However, when man reaches the state of resignation and utter insensibility, when he finds himself in a stage of total deprivation, when everything that used to matter is not worth one's attention - then the urge to live and to persevere and to defeat evil vanishes. That is the foundation of the prohibition of betrothal.


In light of the above, we understand yet another distinction between avelut de-rabbim and avelut de-yahid: that which involves white and colored clothes. Maimonides writes, "Just as it is forbidden for a mourner to wash his clothes, so too it is forbidden to wear white, new ironed, clothing, etc...." (Hilkhot Avel 5:3). Maimonides limits the prohibition of wearing new clothes to white ones. However, in his Hilkhot Ta'aniyyot 5:6, he did not distinguish between white and colored clothes. The answer again is the same. The prohibition of washing one's clothes and wearing newly ironed ones during the week of avelut de-yahid is motivated by the law of untidiness, the requirement that grief should express itself in the neglect of one's appearance, in carelessness as to dress - and a distinction between colored and white clothes is relevant.


The identification of avelut with untidiness is an outgrowth of the traumatic experience of death as destroying human distinction and chosenness, as testimony to the pessimistic statement, "Man has no preeminence over the beast" (Eccl. 3:19). Neatness in dress and appearance is inseparably associated with the dignity of man who was created in the image of God. Man bears a resemblance to God, a likeness to Him, and therefore cleanliness, tidiness and neatness are worthwhile qualities. When his disciples asked Hillel where he was going, he answered that he was going to perform a mitzvah, for he was on his way to the baths (Lev. Rabbah 34:3). One serves God by respecting his own personality and observing kevod ha-beriyyot, human dignity. Therefore, after one's encounter with death, which erases human dignity and leaves man deprived of all those traits, the grief over the loss of humanity manifests itself in a state of neglect in appearance, dress, etc.


All this cannot fit into the whole context of historical grief; the hurban did not deprive us of our dignity. What we are worried about is heseah ha-da'at, that the mind should not be distracted, that the passional meditation about the historical destiny of our people - about its past and future - not be discontinued. As far as this aspect is concerned, there is no difference between white and colored clothes; the activity was forbidden, the color matters not at all. Thus in Hilkhot Ta'aniyyot 5:6, Mdoes not distinguish between colored and white clothes in noting the prohibition of washing and wearing them during the period of avelut de-rabbim.





The mourning of Tish'ah be-Av itself is like that of shiv'ah. The baraita says, "All the restrictions which are noheg (observed) during shiv'ah are observed on Tish'ah be-Av" (Ta'anit 30a). "All" should not be taken literally, as there are a number of basic distinctions between the two. First, according to the Gemara (Mo'ed Katan 15a), the mourner does not put on tefillin on the first day, while we do don tefillin on Tish'ah be-Av. (In this connection there is no significance to the fact that we postpone putting on tefillin until the afternoon. Apparently, our view is that putting on tefillin is obligatory on Tish'ah be-Av.) We all know Rambam's view in Hilkhot Avel 1:1 that the first day of avelut is biblical in origin, while the rest of shiv'ah is rabbinically ordained. Rambam derives a proof from the fact that the onen, the mourner on the day of his relative's death, is enjoined from eating sacrificial meat (kodashim). But how could Rambam derive avelut from this law regarding kodashim? Rambam says observance of avelut refers to ten prohibitions, such as the wearing of shoes, and so on. The onen was enjoined by the Torah from eating sacrificial meat, but it did not say that an onen is supposed to take off his shoes, or not wash, or not apply cosmetics or ointment, and so on.


I would explain the matter as follows. There are two halakhot in avelut, two aspects of the laws of mourning. One pertains to nihug avelut - the practical observance of avelut, the compliance with Rambam's ten injunctions. Then there is another Halakhah which applies to the gavra, to the person who is called avel. Being an avel is an attribute of the gavra, an adjectival description of the person, and the gavra can be an avel even without the nihug avelut. Rabbenu Tam (cited in Kesef Mishneh, ad loc.) disagreed with Rambam and with Rav Alfasi, and thinks that avelut has only rabbinic status even on the first day. But Rabbeinu Tam is in disagreement with Rambam only about nihug avelut and not about the fact that the personal status of the gavra changes into that of an avel. About this, Rabbeinu Tam could not disagree.


I will demonstrate this to you. Rambam says, "An avel may not send his sacrifices for a full week" (Hilkhot Bi'at ha- Mikdash 2:11). This is drawn from a gemara: "The avel does not send his sacrifices. Rabbi Shimon learned: 'The shelamim sacrifices' - when he is shalem, complete, and not when he is haser, incomplete" (Mo'ed Katan 15a). When the avel is incomplete, he is not capable of entering the Temple and offering a sacrifice.


Now Rambam, who claimed that the first day's observance is of biblical status, admitted that the rest of shiv'ah is rabbinic. Yet he says that the mourner may not send sacrifices for the whole week, an exclusion which is certainly biblical. The explanation is that as far as nihug (observance) is concerned, his avelut is limited to the first day, but the classification of the gavra as an avel continues through the whole week. Rambam did not mention the law that an avel cannot offer a sacrifice among the ten prohibitions imposed on the avel because he deals there with nihug avelut, while the prohibition against his sending a sacrifice stems from the person's classification as an avel.


As an example of the distinction beween the two laws embodied in mourning, consider the opinion of the Rif (18a in the Alfasi) - it goes back to the Geonim - which Rambam (Hilkhot Avel 13:4) and Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 376:3) also quote: If a person who died has no relatives, ten people come and they observe avelut. It would be ridiculous to say that the strangers are avelim; they are rather engaged in nihug avelut. Now, with reference to Tish'ah be-Av, the baraita said that "all that is noheg during avelut is noheg on Tish'ah be-Av," not that "all Israel become avelim on Tish'ah be-Av." With regard to historical mourning, avelut yeshanah, Jews can observe avelut, engage in nihug avelut and comply with its laws. But they are not avelim wth respect to their gavra, their personhood. The prohibition against putting on tefillin as a mourner is not part of nihug avelut. Rather, the gavra as an avel is relieved of tefillin. A gavra who is an avel somehow cannot be crowned with tefillin, cannot adorn himself with them. Rabbi Akiva Eiger related this to a practical question (Yoreh De'ah 388:1). If someone died and was buried during hol ha-mo'ed, the intermediate days of a festival, there is no nihug avelut until after the holiday because the observance of avelut is in conflict with the joy of the holiday. Nevertheless, should a person who usually puts on tefillin during hol ha-mo'ed put on tefillin on what would have been the first day of avelut - the day of death and burial? There is no nihug avelut, but the gavra is still an avel, as witnessed by the fact that hol ha-mo'ed counts as part of sheloshim. The prohibition against putting on tefillin is not part of nihug avelut but rather a result of the gavra being an avel. But this all has no application to Tish'ah be-Av. Avelut yeshanah, historical mourning, imposes observance of avelut, but it cannot change the gavra into an avel. Therefore tefillin are worn on Tish'ah be-Av. The gavra is not an avel on Tish'ah be-Av. Similarly, betrothal is not part of nihug avelut. The prohibition of betrothal stems from the individual's reaction to death, as we explained earlier. It depends on the fact that the gavra is an avel. That is why the prohibition is applicable to avelut hadashah, individual mourning, and not to avelut yeshanah.


Another distinction between individual and historical mourning is that originally, the mourner would cover his face down to the tip of his nose (atifat ha-rosh), but this was never done on Tish'ah be-Av. Atifah is rooted in the idea of covering a face which has lost its tzelem, its Godly image. Another distinction involves the prohibition against the study of Torah. The Gemara (Mo'ed Katan 15a) derives the prohibition for a mourner from the verse, "Be silent" (Ez. 24:17) - "From here we learn that the mourner may not study Torah." With regard to Tish'ah be-Av, however, the Gemara explains the prohibition differently: on Tish'ah be-Av one should abstain from engaging in any pursuit or in any activity which results in pleasure or comfort, and the study of Torah is linked up with the feeling of joy.


A final distinction between Tish'ah be-Av and avelut relates to kefiyyat ha-mittah, turning the bed upside down, which is not done on Tish'ah be-Av. (We no longer do this during avelut - something of which the Tosafot [Mo'ed Katan 21a, s.v. elu] were already aware. Originally, the beds were constructed in such a way that you could turn the bed upside down and still sleep on it. But, our beds cannot be turned upside down, so this was eliminated, and we cover the mirrors as a substitute.) All laws of mourning were derived in Mo'ed Katan (15a-b) from two sources: the Divine commandment to Aaron and those to Ezekiel. The exception is kefiyyat ha-mittah. As regards this manifestation of avelut, the Talmud introduces a strange reason without attempting to derive it from a biblical text: Bar Kapparah taught his disciples, "God says, 'I have set the likeness of My image in them, and through their sins have I upset it. Let your beds be overturned on account of this'" (Mo'ed Katan 15a). Enigmatic words. However, the central motif here is that death impinges upon the worth of human dignity and the human divine nature. Man dies deprived of dignity and without his divine humanity. The symbol of humiliated man, of man who goes down in defeat, insult and shame, is an overturned bed. The bed is a metaphor for the moral integrity of the family ("mittato shelemah") or the human personality in general ("mittato porahat ba-avir"). This whole manifestation is alien to avelut de-rabbim.





In individual mourning, betrothal is forbidden. Man, vanquished by death, suffers self-deg. There is no use in continuing the struggle, and he submits himself to his cruel fate. But it is permissible to betroth on Tish'ah be-Av. The whole dimension of despair and resignation, the notion of the mourner being unworthy of his own existential experience, sitting like a leper on a heap of ashes, bankrupt and forlorn, is contrary to the very gist of avelut de-rabbim. There, the mourner is not the individual but the nation, the covenantal community, which must never lose hope or faith. No matter how difficult times are, no matter how great the loss is, however dreary and bleak the present seems, the future shines with a brilliant glow full of promise. The messianic hope has never vanished; the people have never been enveloped by the dark night of despair. While the Temple was being consumed by the purple flames of destruction, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai was already planning the future redemption. He introduced takkanot zekher la-mikdash, ritual reminders that although we have lost a Temple built by human hands, we will instead find a sanctuary constructed by the Divine hand, "... the sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy hands have established" (Ex. 15:17). The more intense the callousness, the drearier the boredom, the more cruel and ruthless were the Roman edicts of religious persecution - the louder Rabbi Akiva used to laugh at the dismal, detestable present and the stronger was his faith in the future (Makkot 24b).


Nehamah, consolation, is intertwined in the texture of avelut de-rabbim. There the whole method of manifesting despair is out of context and contradicts the very essence of avelut derabbim, which is a dialectical moving between grief and hope, darkness and a dazzling light, spiritual emptiness and a transcendent vision, bleak autumn and a glowing summer.



[Printed by permission of the Toras HoRav Foundation.

This essay is a chapter from Rav Soloveitchik's book, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition (2003). The book can be ordered from]


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