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Friday
Dec022016

Grieve and Be Silent?

The Talmud (Moed Katan 15a) says, "A mourner is forbidden to greet others / אבל אסור בשאילת שלום" for the Merciful One said to Ezekiel [after telling him his beloved wife would fall victim to a plague and the Temple would be destroyed], "Grieve and be silent / האנק דם." The matter of how a mourner should greet others and be greeted is explored further on in the Talmud (MK 21b), "Rav Idi bar Avin said: [Once shivah has passed] one may greet others [literally: one may ask after the peace/shalom of another but] others may not ask after the peace of the mourner [until after sheloshim or, if one's parent died, until after 12 months] since [until then] the mourner is not at peace.
I admit: part of me finds such rules annoy-some. Life happens; it cannot be scripted, especially in life's most tender moments. I don't take the rules literally. I imagine the rules reflect what people did as much as they prescribed how people should behave. But I try to ask what wisdom is behind the rules and these practices. Why is a mourner told not to greet others? Why can a mourner ask about the peace of others after shivah but s/he must wait much longer (30 days or 12 months) until others should greet him/her?
Why is a mourner told not to greet others during the first seven days? During shivah, chit-chat is a burden. Social graces impose a painful obligation from which the halakhah hopes to free the mourner. Grieving needs the opportunity for silence. Only when it is quiet can I hear the echoes of dirt hitting the coffin or the sound of my father's voice the last time we spoke. Only absent the chatter of constant conversation can I remember the comfort I felt as my young nephew shoveled dirt. 
Why should others not greet a mourner for 30 days or, if a parent died, 12 months? Many authorities explain that this rule does not apply to greetings like, "Hello." It applies to the word, shalom. Shalom means "peace," "wholeness," "perfection." As Rav Idi explains, "the mourner is not at peace." Using the word shalom casually around a mourner is insensitive, even cruel. Like casually using the phrase, "ground zero," around someone who fled the World Trade Center on 9/11. The word shalom stings. Peace? Wholeness? My loved one is gone.
One other lesson (MK 21b). "One who meets her friend who is mourning during the 12 months offers her condolences but does not greet her. After 12 months, one greets her but does not offer condolences; rather, one may speak to her [about her loss] indirectly." We must acknowledge a person's loss while she mourns but we must also let her heal; she cannot be defined by her loss for the rest of her life. "To what can this be compared? To a person whose foot broke and then healed. A doctor met her and said to her, 'come to me for treatment; I can break it again and cure it, so you should know how fine my remedies are." One commentary explains: "[S]uch a "treatment" is of no value to the patient, who has already recovered; after a year has passed the mourner has recovered from the loss and someone who offers [her] condolences is needlessly reopening an old wound."
As for all these rules, I would only add: maybe. "After a year has passed the mourner has recovered from the loss" - maybe. Or maybe not. I have known people who remained in deep mourning for much longer. The rules don't apply in such a case. Perhaps speaking about the loss "indirectly" would be more painful, not less, because the wound is still fresh and continues to need the balm of acknowledgment and sympathy. But there are still lessons to be learned; tensions to be considered. Are there words that sting that we should avoid? Can we pay close enough attention to those we love so that we know if their wounds are still fresh and need to be acknowledged? Or if their wounds have healed and they want to move on?  

 

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