Death as Estrangement

Mourning customs reflect the depersonalization and distance from God experienced by the mourner who has just confronted the death of a close relative.

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Mourning Customs Mimic Inner Estrangement

Therefore, he who has been involved with death and tumah refrains from participating in those aspects of life which ex­press a relationship and connection with God, or fellowman, or himself. His essence as a person has been diminished, and thus he does not cut his hair, for the cutting of hair is a sign of man's concern with his person. (The rabbis declare that an Is­raelite king was required to cut his hair daily, in order to main­tain his dignity.) The mourner allows his hair to grow unattended and uncared for; there is no concern now with his phys­ical is-ness.

For the same reason he allows his garments to become un­clean. And at the moment of death and at the burial he rends the garment he is wearing--and wears that rent garment during the mourning period. Garments and man's concern with them are manifestations of the fully living. For example, it is said of Rabbi Yohanan that he referred to his clothes as "my dignifiers.” That is, clothing dignifies and honors the wearer. As one who is now temporarily stripped of the dignity and honor of being a person, the mourner rends the symbol of this dignity. Further, as a manifestation of his status as a nonper­son, he does not anoint or wash himself.

His is-ness as a person has been reduced, his identity as an individual has melted away, and he has no marital relations--which have the potential of creating a new life and a new iden­tity--nor may he take a new wife.

His essence as a man has been decreased, and he walks barefoot, without shoes, in common with the beasts. Shabbat 152a reports that a Sadducee once saw Rabbi Joshua without shoes and said, "One who is dead is better off than one who goes without shoes."

He has been depersonalized and may not engage in work, since work sustains his life and is a manifestation of his person and of his connection with himself and with others.

He has been touched by desacralizing death and tumah,and he may not study Torah which is called torat chayim--"the Torah of life" (Proverbs 3:2, 3:18, 4:22, 9:11)--and which is an aspect of God and which connects man with Him and His sacredness.

He has a diminished identity as a person and he does not sit, in the accepted mode of persons, on a chair or couch. He sits on the ground, in a configuration of lowness and diminution.

Because of the same consideration he refrains from sleep­ing in the normal mode: He "overturns the couch," and as we have noted above, the reason for this is the concept of demut diyukni natati bakhem--"my image have I implanted in you." The image of God within man has been affected by death. That is to say, once again, that death and tumah have "deimagized" man who was created in the image. By virtue of his contact with death and tumah, the demut diyukni--"the form of my image"--that which makes the essential man, has been diminished. Overturning or inverting the bed during the mourning period is a symbol of this depersonalization. "Turn over the middleman (the bed on which life is conceived)," says the Talmud.

For a similar reason, he does not prepare his own first meal following the burial. He has no relationship to himself, and at least at this one moment, he symbolically possesses no food. Only a fully living person prepares his own food. He may, if he desires, fast. But if he wishes to eat, the food must be prepared by others. And the menu must include such foods which re­mind him of the "nonperson" condition in which he finds himself.

Further depersonalization takes place. The head and face are covered. In effect, the mourner says: I do not exist; I am not I; I am an alien in the land of the living.

Because he is not "I," he may not offer greetings--sh'elat shalom (literally, "asking of peace")--to his fellowman, nor may others offer greetings to him. He remains silent. Only a person, only an identity, can greet and be greeted in return. And shalom--the traditional greeting--is a symbol of community and fraternity. It is significant that shalom [peace] is also considered to be one of the appellations of the deity, according to Shabbat 10b: "Shalom is the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He."

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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.