Chapter 11: The Mitzvah to Mourn & How

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Chapter 11: The Mitzvah to mourn & How[1]


The conclusion of the burial signifies the start of closure for the mourning relatives. For the relatives to properly recover from the loss of the family member they are instructed to follow certain mourning rituals, which are meant to help with bringing closure towards the loss. Likewise, certain customs are followed for the sake of meriting the soul of the deceased. This chapter begins the laws of mourning that will be discussed throughout the coming chapters, which will cover the laws of Shiva, Shloshim, and the first 12 months.

1. The Mitzvah to mourn:

It is a Rabbinical[2] command, instituted by Moshe Rabbeinu[3], for relatives to sit Shiva for seven days upon the passing of a family member [as enumerated in chapter 12 Halacha]. 

The status of the first day:[4] Some Poskim[5] rule that it is a Biblical positive command for the seven close relatives[6] [i.e. father, mother, son, daughter, brother, virgin sister, wife[7]] to keep mourning customs on the first day of Shiva if it is the day of both the death and burial. Other Poskim[8], however, rule that the first day of Shiva, along with the other six days, is Rabbinical even if the death and burial took place on that day. Practically, the custom is like the latter opinion.[9] [According to all opinions, if the burial did not take place on the same day as the death, the first day of Shiva is Rabbinical.[10]]

The mourning rituals: The definition of mourning, and the mourning rituals that are to be followed, were established by the Sages and are recorded in Tractate Moed Katan and later in the Shulchan Aruch.  Some of these rituals were learned from a verse in Yechezkal[11] which discusses the destruction of the Temple with Hashem stating to the Jewish people that they should not mourn like mourners after a death. The verse then enumerates a number of practices that they are not to follow. From this it became understood that in general, mourners are to follow these practices.

Why we mourn: Some Rishonim[12] learn that mourning is done out of respect for the dead, and for the benefit of the deceased. Others[13] learn that it is done for the sake of the surviving relatives, out of their respect and honor for their benefit. The Poskim[14] are unclear as to how we rule.

 The purpose of mourning is for the relatives to repent:[15]

The purpose behind the laws of mourning is for a person to receive a spiritual awakening and make an accounting of his soul. In general, most people do not become deeply motivated through mere thought and contemplation until an action occurs. The action of the [tragic and early[16]] death of a relative with whom one shares a deep love according to nature has a profound effect on the person. The purpose of the mourning person is for the person to contemplate this death and arouse his pain and pity. This will then lead him to make an accounting of his own soul, of its purpose and its current focus. The Jewish religion professes the belief that a death of a relative, and its ensuing pain, is not something that comes on its own, but is due to man’s sins, and when a person recognizes this, he will be brought to Teshuvah. This negates the belief of the heretics who mistakenly think that death is just a matter of time, and just as animals die so too humans.

One is not to excessively mourn the deceased and one who does so it is a sign that he is mourning the death of an additional person.[18]

Crying and eulogies: The proper measurement of mourning is as follows: One is to cry the death for three days[19], eulogize him for seven days, and follow the mourning laws for Shloshim/12 months. [One who does not shed a tear for the passing of his relative has a very bad character, and it reveals that he has a heart of stone and evil and cruel personality.[20]]

Torah Sage:[21] One may however cry for the passing of a Torah sage for up to thirty days, and may eulogize him for up to 12 months.

 Broken heartedness and not depression:[22]

The mourning is meant to be a time of broken heartedness, although not depression. It is for this reason that the Torah instructed one to mourn the death of relatives, even though mourning is a normal natural consequence that follows after a death, in order to turn it into a Mitzvah, and from a Mitzvah cannot come depression.


Saying stories of the deceased:[23]

Although the Chabad custom is not to eulogize, nevertheless, we do say stories of the deceased. 

3. Harming one’s body:

Scratching oneself and causing oneself to bleed: It is forbidden for one to harm his body in mourning of a deceased. One who does so, and scratches deep into his skin[24] as a sign of mourning, transgresses a Biblical prohibition and is liable for lashes.[25] This applies to both men and women.[26] It is forbidden to do so even not in the presence of the deceased.[27] One is held liable on each and every scratch.[28] Some Poskim[29] rule that only a scratch is forbidden, while it is permitted to hit oneself out of mourning, even if it causes one to bleed. Other Poskim[30], however, rule that this too is forbidden.

Pulling out hair: It is forbidden to pull hair off any area of one’s head due to mourning. One who does so, and pulls hair out of his head as a sign of mourning, transgresses a Biblical prohibition and is liable for lashes.[31] This applies to both men and women.[32] Thus, women are to be warned against pulling their hair after hearing of a tragedy, lest they transgress.[33] It is forbidden to do so whether with one’s hands or with a vessel.[34] One is held liable on each and every area made bald.[35] Some Poskim[36] rule that the Biblical prohibition only applies if one removes the amount of hair to make a bald spot which is a Gris [i.e. dime] circumference in size. Other Poskim[37] rule that the Biblical prohibition applies even if only two hairs are pulled out. Other Poskim[38] rule that a [Biblical[39]] prohibition applies if even a single hair is pulled [even though no lashes are given].

4. Attribute of judgment hovers over the relatives:

Like a sword is over one’s neck:[40] Throughout the first three days of mourning, the Avel is to view as if a sword is resting between his shoulders. From the 4th day until the end of Shiva the Avel is to look upon himself as if a sword is resting in a corner opposite him. From the end of Shiva until the Shloshim the Avel is to look upon himself as if a sword is passing in front of him in the marketplace. Throughout the entire year, the severity of judgment hangs over the family of the deceased. However, if a male child is born to the family, the entire family is healed.

Friends:[41] One whose friend [or community member] passed away, the entire community is to be of worry.

Teshuvah:[42] One who does not mourn as commanded by the Sages is considered cruel. He is rather to be fearful and worry and perform a Cheshbon Nefesh and do Teshuvah. [“Vehachaiy Yiten El Libo/And the living should take to heart” means that he should contemplate that perhaps he too will suddenly die, and he should thus be aroused in Teshuvah.[43]]


[1] Gesher Chaim 19-20

[2] Michaber 398:1 that all the other days are Rabbinical; See next regarding the first day!

[3] Rambam Avel 1:1; Yerushalmi Kesubos 1:1; Gilyon Maharsha 398

[4] See Pnei Baruch Chapter 12; Nitei Gavriel Chapter

[5] 1st opinion in Michaber 398:1; Rambam Avel 1:1; Geonim, brought in Rif Brachos 2; Tur 398 in name of Ramban in Toras Habayis; Taz 342:1 writes that the Michaber ibid gives no arbitration and in Beis Yosef 399 he rules like this opinion. The Taz ibid hence concludes to be stringent like this opinion

[6] This refers to the seven relatives that the Torah commanded a Kohen to impurify himself to. [Michaber ibid]

[7] Shach 398:1

[8] 2nd opinion in Michaber 398:1; Rabbeinu Yona on Brachos 16b in name of Rabbanei Tzarfat; Tur 398 in name of Rabbeinu Tam and Riy; Rosh

[9] Rama 399:13 “The world holds like the opinion that says that there is no day of Biblical Aveilus”; 374:5; Shach 342:4; 374:4; 398:2

[10] Taz 398:1

[11] Yechezkal 24:21-24

[12] Rambam Aveilus 1, as explained in Kesef Mishneh and Rav Akiva Eiger 344; Rav Akiva Eiger ibid concludes that the Michaber 345 rules like the Rambam; Biur Hagr”a 341:18

[13] Ramban, as explained Rav Akiva Eiger 344; Shut Ranach regarding the Shiva and Shloshim

[14] Darkei Moshe 344 “I don’t know if it is for respect of the living or the dead”; However, see Rav Akiva Eiger ibid who concludes that the Michaber 345 rules like the Rambam that it is done for respect of the dead

[15] Sefer Hachinuch Mitzvah 264; See also Ramban in Hakdama to Toras Hadam; Rambam Avel 13:12; Nimukeiy Yosef Moed Katan 18a; Radbaz 3:555; Michaber 394:6; Beis Hillel Y.D. 381 “the main reason for Aveilus is for Teshuvah”

[16] Ramban ibid

[17] Michaber 394:1; Moed Katan 27b

[18] Michaber ibid; Gemara ibid that a certain woman who mourned excessively had seven children pass away.

[19] See Shulchan Gavoa 380:5 that there is a dispute amongst Rishonim in whether this three-day crying is an obligation, or simply an allowance.

[20] Radbaz 985 [3:555]; brought in Pischeiy Teshuvah 394:3; Birkeiy Yosef 394-see there that one may refrain from crying in order so the tears do not damage his eyes, as the main thing is a broken heart.

[21] Michaber 394:2

[22] Yalkut Oros Rabboseinu in name of the Yismach Yisrael of Alexander

[23] Likkutei Sichos 2:504, printed in Shulchan Menachem 5:270

[24] Seemingly, the scratch must reach into his second layer of skin, similar to the law of a tattoo.

[25] Michaber Y.D. 180:5

[26] Rama 180:12

[27] Michaber 180:6

[28] Michaber 180:8

[29] 1st opinion in Michaber 180:7; Tur 180 in name of Ramban in Toras Habayis based on story with Rebbe Akiva

[30] 2nd opinion in Michaber 180:7; Rosh

[31] See Michaber 180:10

[32] Michaber 180:12

[33] Rama 180:12

[34] Michaber 180:9

[35] Michaber 180:10

[36] 1st opinion in Michaber 180:9; Tur 180 in name of Rambam as rules Rebbe Yochanan

[37] 2nd opinion in Michaber 180:9; Tur 180 as rules Rosh

[38] 3rd opinion in Michaber 180:9; Rosh

[39] Gloss of Rav Akiva Eiger ibid

[40] Michaber 394:4; Yerushalmi end of Moed Katan

If relative was murdered: Some Poskim rule that if the relative was murdered, then the attribute of severity does not hover over the family members. [Daas Kedoshim, brought in Nitei Gavriel 113:6]

Relative was of old age: Some Poskim write that if the relative who died was past 70 years of age, then the attribute of severity does not hover over the family members. [Daas Kedoshim, brought in Nitei Gavriel 113:7]

[41] Michaber 394:5; Shabbos 105b

[42] Michaber 394:6; Rambam Avel 13:12; Chinuch Mitzvah 264

[43] Derisha 403:1; Miseches Semachos 12

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