Years ago, I read an article about a newlywed struggling with what to call her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law insisted on being called “mom,” but the writer felt that title was taken by her own mother. She was open to pretty much anything else, but acting as if her mother-in-law was her mother felt inappropriate.
Today’s daf brings us a sadder version of that question: For mourning purposes, do you respond to an in-law’s passing the same way you would the loss of your own parent?
A a general matter, the Talmud states that a person should mourn for first-degree relatives:
The sages taught: All relatives mentioned in the passage referring to priests, for which a priest becomes impure, a mourner must mourn for them. And they are: His wife, his father, and his mother, his brother and his unmarried sister from the same father, his son, and his daughter.
The passage in question is from Leviticus, which states that priests may “defile themselves” for close relatives. As a general matter, priests are to remain pure and avoid coming into contact with a dead body, but they may do so when mourning a particularly close relative: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister.
Based on this, the rabbis of the Talmud hold that Jews in general are required to observe mourning rituals for these close relatives. They even expand the list to include brothers and unmarried sisters from the same mother, married sisters (regardless of parentage), and second-degree relatives like a father’s father, a son’s son, or a brother’s son. Some of these distinctions (such as between maternal and paternal brothers) may seem arbitrary and the text gives no reason for them.
What about in-laws? Leviticus specifically states that a priest “shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.” And while the talmudic rabbis look to the surrounding biblical verses to anchor their decisions on who’s a close enough relative to warrant mourning, they ignore this point. Instead, they quote the instructions both Rav and Rav Huna gave to their respective sons when each one’s wife was in mourning for her own (unspecified) close relative:
In her presence practice mourning, but out of her presence do not practice mourning.
The Talmud then presents a series of teachings about mourning in-laws, with two of them appearing to contradict each other. The first directs both husband and wife to mourn the loss of the other’s parents:
One whose father-in-law or mother-in-law died may not force his wife to paint her eyelids or put rouge on her face. Rather, he should overturn his bed, and observe mourning with her. And similarly, when her father-in-law or mother-in-law dies, she may not paint or put on rouge. Rather, she should overturn her bed and practice the rites of mourning with him.
The second teaching permits a wife to engage in her own personal mourning for a close relative, but appears to allow her husband to continue his life as usual:
Even though the sages said that a husband may not force his wife to paint or put rouge (when she is in mourning), actually, they said she may pour his cup, make his bed, and wash his face, hands, and feet.
We can see the tension between these two teachings. The first requires each spouse to mourn their in-laws as if they were their own parents. The second suggests that even as a wife is mourning her parents, her husband may continue his regular activities — and the mourning wife may even attend to his needs.
The Talmud resolves this by determining that the first case refers to a spouse mourning for a parent and the second refers to a spouse mourning for a non-parental relative. The upshot? You join a spouse in mourning when they are grieving the loss of a parent, but not for other relatives.
In other words, your parents-in-law are, in fact, like your parents — at least in the context of mourning — regardless of what you might call them.
Read all of Moed Katan 20 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.