Shiva Prohibitions Embody Depersonalization

The specific prohibitions on mourners during the shiva period reflect the mourner's sense of estrangement from the life force.

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Excerpted with permission from Feldman’s essay "Death as Estrangement: The Halakhah of Mourning," published in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

 

Please note: while this article refers to the prohibitions for a male mourner, the same prohibitions apply for a female mourner as well, especially in liberal communities.

The initial seven-day period immediately following death is the most intensive period of mourning. During this time, the following are prohibited:

1.     Cutting of the hair. This is based on Leviticus 10:6.

2.     Washing one’s clothes. This is based on II Samuel 14:2: "And Joab sent to Tekoah and he took from there a wise woman; and he said to her, ‘Do thou mourn and wear mourn­ing clothes, and do not anoint thyself with oil, and thou shalt be as a woman mourning for her husband for many days.’" The Talmud sees in the phrase "mourning clothes" a clear implica­tion that the clothes she was bidden to wear were to be un­washed. According to one talmudic opinion, the washing of clothes itself is not forbidden; the prohibition extends only to the wearing of newly washed garments.

3.      Anointing or washing oneself. This too is based on the above-cited passage. Moed Katan 15b also cites Psalms 109:18, in which water is parallel to anointing with oils. That washing is normally a part of anointing is indicated from Ruth 3:3, which mentions them together: "Wash and anoint thyself." According to Berakhot 2:7 in the Palestinian Talmud, they are forbidden because they give pleasure. By the same token, if the mourner is unusually dirty and washes only for the purpose of cleansing himself, but not for pleasure, this is permitted.

4.     "Use of the [conjugal] bed": i.e., marital relations. This is derived from II Samuel 12:24, concerning David and Bathsheba. The passage implies that she was forbidden to him prior to the end of the mourning period. A mourner may not marry a wife during the mourning period, even if he does not physically consummate the marriage. Betrothal, however, is permitted.

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Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, presently living in Jerusalem, is a distinguished rabbi, writer, and teacher. He led Atlanta's Congregation Beth Jacob for almost 40 years. He has served as Editor of Tradition magazine, and he has published six books, including The Shul Without a Clock, Tales Out of Shul, and On Judaism.

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