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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According to some opinions, greeting a mourner is permitted as long as the word shalom is not mentioned in the context of "peace unto you." According to these opinions, at least, the de­sacralizing aspects of death and mourning are now clearly man­ifested: not only is shalom avoided because of its connotations of peace, community, and fraternity--of which the mourner is a direct opposite; shalom is avoided because of its additional con­notations of the sacred, from which the mourner is now estranged.

In sum, the mourner is a diminished person, one who has been touched by the anti-life of tumah, and he sits in rent gar­ments, on the ground, without shoes, unkempt, unwashed; he engages neither in work nor in study of Torah; his head and face are covered; he greets and recognizes no one and, in turn, is greeted and recognized by no one . And since he has ex­perienced the desacralizing force of death, the mourner may not offer up a sacrifice for seven days.

The rigorous halakhah [Jewish legal framework] of mourning thus underscores, paradoxically, the heavy Judaic stress on life, and on man's constant relationship with God, community, and himself. The dynamic interaction with God can take place only in the context of life; "the dead do not praise the Lord" (Psalms 115:); the mitzvot cannot be performed in a state of nonlife.


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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.