Moed Katan 24


Rituals can act as a balm because they give us structure at moments that feel chaotic and uncertain. Through most of this tractate, we’ve been discussing the laws of labor on the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot. In recent pages, however, we’ve focused largely on rituals of mourning. These seemingly disparate topics are united by a shared dilemma: How should our practice change during periods of “in-betweenness,” of liminality? 

Mourning plunges the individual into a profound period of liminality — a time when they must negotiate between the world they knew with their loved one, and the new world without; and a time when they must balance their unique obligations as mourners and their other commitments. Today’s daf today brings this theme to the fore in a discussion of kriah, the ritual in which a mourner tears one of their outer garments as a physical sign of their bereavement. 

To help define the parameters of this new and uncertain time, Shmuel states that the tearing should happen at the moment of peak grief. In this way, it is a ritual to mark a turning point. He says that if the garment is not torn at that moment, it does not fulfill the mourner’s obligation.

But how can we know when the peak of grief has hit? Indeed, the Gemara then leads into a curious story about Shmuel’s own experience of mourning that seems to contradict his teaching:

But when they said to Shmuel that Rav had passed away, he rent twelve garments on account of him, and said: The man of whom I was in fear, owing to his great learning, has gone and died.

Similarly, when they told Rabbi Yohanan that Rabbi Hanina had passed away, he rent thirteen expensive wool garments on account of him, and said: The man of whom I was in fear has gone.

Whereas traditionally one rends a single garment, Shmuel and Rabbi Yohanan tear multiple and, in Yohanan’s example, expensive garments. Why? The Gemara’s answer is profound:

The sages are different. Since their teachings are mentioned all the time, every time they are mentioned is like the time of most intense grief, as the pain over their death is once again renewed.

Though the text refers specifically to the sages, it shows keen insight into a common experience of mourning. Mourning can be a lasting experience with no clear time boundaries — grief does not necessarily hit a single peak moment and then decline, but can linger, wax and wane, and return, unexpected and uninvited. We might think we know when the moment of peak mourning has hit. And we might very well be wrong — a dozen times or more.

Read all of Moed Katan 24 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 5th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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