Talmudic pages

Moed Katan 8

Sense and sensibility.

Literature fans are likely familiar with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the British novel that centers on the fortunes and misfortunes of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor is logical, rational and relies on common sense, while Marianne is more emotional and romantic, making her “sensible” in the 19th century meaning of the word. Separated by hundreds of years, these two approaches find their counterparts in two rabbis on today’s daf.

We’re in the midst of reviewing what type of work is permitted on the intermediate days of a festival and our attention has turned to heavier matters: how to mourn loved ones who have passed on. After a discussion about specific post-death practices, we explore whether one is allowed to give a eulogy in the lead up to a festival. The mishnah is pretty clear: 

A person may not arouse lamentation for his deceased relative, and he may not eulogize him during the 30 days before a pilgrimage festival.

What exactly does “arouse lamentation” mean exactly? The Gemara provides an explanation:

Rav said: In the West (Israel), whenever a eulogizer would circulate, they would say: Let all those of bitter heart weep with him. 

In talmudic times, it wasn’t uncommon for professional eulogizers to wander about making speeches about the departed. The point was to arouse the pain of those who had suffered the loss of a loved one. But why the 30-day restriction? Given the number of festivals in the Jewish calendar, this would mean that eulogies are prohibited for over a quarter of the year.

To this question we get two very different responses. Our first answer comes from Rav Kahana:

There was an incident involving a certain man who saved up money to ascend to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival. A eulogizer came and stood at the opening to his house and the man’s wife took the money that he had saved and gave it to the eulogizer for his services. (As a result, the man did not have enough money and he) refrained and did not ascend.

According to the story, a wife gave money to a professional eulogizer, preventing her husband from using it to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festival. To avoid that happening, the rabbis instituted a 30-day ban on eulogies prior to a festival. Very practical, and very Elinor.

Shmuel brings a second, more sentimental response:

It is because the dead are not forgotten from the heart and put out of mind for 30 days.

Shmuel’s approach is very Marianne. The emotional impact of recalling a loved one lingers for a month and will likely taint the joy that’s an integral part of the festival celebration. For this reason, mourning in the lead-up to a festival is forbidden.

Does it make a difference which of these rationales we adopt? The Gemara says yes: 

What’s the difference? The difference between them is (in a case where) the eulogizer performs the eulogy free of charge. 

If the eulogizer offers his services for free, we no longer need to worry about spending money that ought to be spent on the festival. But we still need to worry about lingering pain that will impair enjoyment of the holiday. 

The Gemara doesn’t tell us which line of thinking is more persuasive (although the Mishneh Torah implies that Shmuel is correct). What we can conclude is that the polarities of rationality and emotionality can appear on pages of the Talmud as much as they can play out in some of our favorite novels. Moreover, each is considered equally legitimate and given comparable consideration. 

Read all of Moed Katan 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 20th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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