Author Archives: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

About Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

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.

Shiva Prohibitions Embody Depersonalization

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.

Death as Estrangement

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).

The mourning laws are a concrete manifestation of the Judaic view of death; namely, that death desacralizes man because it is the end of the dynamic interaction with God that can take place only in life. Death removes man from an intimate relationship with God; he can no longer serve Him, he can no longer perform the mitzvot [commandments], he no longer possesses the nishmat chayim, the breath of life, which is the dis­tinguishing characteristic of the human being.

Experience of Death Diminishes the Living

What of the surviving, living mourner, who alone among the living now knows what it is to experience the end of life and the termination of a meaningful relationship with God? In effect, the law asks the mourner to behave as if he himself were dead. He is now an incomplete person, and his daily life begins to reflect the fact of his incompleteness. His physical appear­ance and his body are neglected. His relationship with God is interrupted. He has no commonality or community with other men. The qualities and characteristics of a living human being are suspended.

According to the midrash, death is one of the aspects of human life which liken man to a beast. In death, man has witnessed the ultimate opposite of life, of God, and of man, and he cannot now summarily leave death behind him and return quickly and easily into the land of the living. He knows now what it is to be without the breath of the God of life, and he can return to normal life and to renewed contact with the sacred only by degrees.

In a word, the mourner must now live as an alien between the two worlds of life and death, moving imperceptibly from the defiled land of tumah [impurity] and death back toward sanctity and life.

A careful examination of the specifics of the mourning legislation indicates that the laws would have the mourner react and behave in a manner consistent with that death force which he has just experienced. He has been touched by the antilife, and therefore he himself becomes less lifelike, less complete as a being. His brush with death causes him, at least for the mo­ment, to lose his identity as a person and as a human. For just as death separates man from God, so it also separates man from the fraternity and community of other men, and sepa­rates man from his essential self, from his essence as a person.