Moed Katan 21

Mourning together.

As we approach the end of Moed Katan, we find ourselves in the midst of a block of material primarily devoted to the laws of mourning. Today’s daf describes a very specific and sad case of someone who has just lost a family member when they hear that someone else is also bereaved. Can they go to their friend’s shiva?

Our rabbis taught: A mourner during the first three days after his bereavement may not go to another mourner’s house. From this point forward, he may go, but he may not sit among the consolers, but rather in the place of those being consoled.

Where one sits at a shiva house is highly regulated. We read in Moed Katan 15a that mourners should sit in low chairs or on the ground, while visitors sit near them but in standard chairs. This beraita states that after the immediate shock of his own loss, the mourner can visit their bereaved friend, but must sit with the mourners, not the visitors. 

But why? The Gemara doesn’t say but I’d like to propose two answers. 

First, the practical. The Gemara cites another braita immediately after this one: 

Our rabbis taught: A mourner, during the first three days, is prohibited from extending greetings. From the third day to the seventh day, he may respond, but he may not extend greetings to them. From this point forward, he may extend greetings and respond in his usual manner.

Mourners are prohibited from extending greetings to others during the entire seven days of their shiva. But human beings are social animals and greeting each other is a key social ritual; most of the time, not saying hello to someone is considered rude and it might be difficult to do. Perhaps one reason that the visiting mourner sits with the other mourners is to signal to others  what laws they are meant to follow, so they know why this non-family member is not saying hello.

Second, the emotional. To put it mildly, mourning is hard — emotionally and even physically painful. Sadness and grief can be suppressed or ignored, but those feelings will usually find a way to bubble up at some later date. Shiva gives people time to process, alone and in community, before moving forward with their lives. When a mourner hears of someone else’s loss and runs to comfort them, that abrupt and premature shift out of their own mourning could rob them of time they need to process their own grief. 

Airplane safety videos always warn passengers that in case cabin pressure drops and oxygen masks are deployed, one must “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.” While this is an important safety rule for air travel, it also applies self-care: When times are really hard, the rabbis remind us, tend to yourself before taking care of others. 

Today’s daf offers an intelligent solution to this dilemma, a way for the mourner to care for themselves while also caring for others. You should put aside your own mourning, the rabbis counsel, but you have to keep your own oxygen mask on to be able to help others.

Read all of Moed Katan 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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