Moed Katan 23

When Torah is too much.

We’ve already discussed (Moed Katan 21) some of the rules of sitting shiva: The mourner is not allowed to greet or respond to greetings for the first three days of their mourning; for the next four they can respond to but not initiate greetings.

But human interaction is not only greetings — after all, greetings are usually the prelude to a longer conversation. Today’s daf articulates another rule of conversation relevant to a mourner:

“One may not speak about halakhah (Jewish law) or aggadah (biblical exegesis) in a house of mourning.

Often in moments of tragedy, we turn to our tradition for inspiration and solace — so why is discussing Torah prohibited in this moment of need?!

To understand this prohibition, we have to go back to something we read two days ago, on Moed Katan 21a. There, a beraita states:

The sages taught: These are the activities that a mourner is prohibited from: He is prohibited from working, and from bathing, and from anointing, and from engaging in sexual relations, and from wearing shoes. And he is prohibited from reading in the Torah, and in the Prophets, and in the Writings, and from studying in the Mishnah, in the midrash, and in the halakhot, and in the Talmud, and in the aggadot.

The study of sacred Jewish texts (and this list offers a handy description of what those were, for the rabbis) has for millennia been a way that Jews sustain ourselves — physically, spiritually and emotionally. The medieval commentator Rashi also points out that these texts bring us joy — something much lacking in this moment of grief. 

I’ll be honest — depending on what part of the great sea of written and oral Torah I’m reading, joy may not be the main emotion I feel. Torah is challenging, troubling, spiritually powerful and deeply intellectually engaging. I’m sure everyone who is doing the daily daf has numerous examples of times when the main emotion they felt was not joy (Tractate Eruvin, anyone?).

And yet the privilege of learning Torah, of being part of that great sea, is a cause for joy. Having enough access to our traditions to be challenged, troubled, spiritually uplifted and intellectually engaged is a joyful thing. 

Perhaps it is that very joy which the rabbis are thinking about two pages later, when they state that not just reading and studying but even talking about Torah is prohibited in a house of mourning. Even this verbal engagement is too joyful a prospect to be appropriate when trying to create space for true mourning. 

Many of the halakhot on today’s daf are designed to create silence, to require sitting quietly with one’s thoughts and feelings after a momentous loss. It’s not about filling that void, with joy or education or rationalization or even distraction. That can be really hard to do. We might think: Where better to shift our attention than the Torah? After all, it’s a mitzvah to study Torah! But today’s daf insists that we need and deserve real space — even from Torah — to mourn. 

Read all of Moed Katan 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 4th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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