Jewish Wisdom for Goys & Gers

Holidays, Loss

Tisha B’Av & Personal Loss: Part 2

Halakhah (‘Jewish Law’) & the Rehabilitation of the Mourner 

Collective Mourning vs. Individual Mourning

Introduction

In this part of our study, we will compare individual mourning to the collective (i.e., national) mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av:

National/Collective
Period I: Shiv’ah Asar B’Tammuz
Period II: The Three Weeks
Period III: The Nine Day
Period IV: Seudah Mafseket
Period V: Tisha B’Av

Individual
Period I: Aninut
Period II: Kevura
Period III: Shiva
Period IV: Sheloshim
Period V: Yud Bet Chodesh

As you may notice, I have not used words like “stages” and “phases” to avoid the impression that individual mourners go through some sort of “fixed” or “set” chronological order of grieving. As we will see below, the halakhic phases of national/collective mourning do not line up perfectly with individual mourning.

My personal experience and observation of other mourners are that no two individuals experience grief in the same way. Each mourner goes through a labyrinth of phases and stages that are unique to the individual.

So, What’s the Purpose of These Periods?

Halakhic Judaism reveals the stark reality of death and loss, so that we may learn how to: (1) recognize grief (and other associated feelings); (2) express grief; (3) diffuse grief; (4) limit grief, so that it does not become unbearable; and (5) ultimately be restored to a healthy life!

The Jewish Life

To many Jews the collective/national mourning periods of Tisha B’Av seem irrelevant and even senseless. Nevertheless, they are part of a much larger picture.  The Jewish life is a actually cycle of the individual’s first year of mourning. Why?

  • To teach us how to be restored to a healthy life after a loss (Is there really closure, healing?);
  • To instruct us how to apply halakhah in a way that we find the strength within us in the face of life’s adversities;
  • To relive the tragedies that have befallen the Jews and understand the agony of loss, so that we may learn to empathize with others.

Conclusively, every Jew is a mourner who can learn how to stare in the face of calamity and overcome it! This is our history; this is our heritage; this is our faith; and this is our hope!

Now, let’s take a close look at these periods of collective/national mourning as compared to those of the individual mourner.

As we consider their respective rituals, prayers, ceremonies, liturgies, halakhot, mitzvot, minhagim, try to ponder how they can impact us:

  • in light of  Part 1: primary losses, secondary losses, and triggers and
  • on the following levels: spiritual, emotional, psychological, mental, social, and physical.

Period I

Shiv’ah Asar b’Tammuz
The 17th of Tammuz marks the onset of approaching destruction.
Prohibitions: eating or drinking from sunup to sundown.
Observation: loss of appetite is a common symptom of intense grief.

Aninut (‘Intense mourning’)
This is a time of initial inexpressible feelings of shock, trauma, and disbelief. The bereaved are expected to give full expression to their feelings.
No condolences are given: Do not console your friend at a time when his dead lies before him (Avot 4:18).
-In this very short period of time, mourners concern themselves only with preparations for the funeral, which serve to numb the pain.
-The focus here is on the death of the loved one.
-The goal is to “prepare” and not “despair.”
-There can be no distractions, no intrusions, not even consolation.
-Why do you think these activities are prohibited: prayer, tefillin, blessings, work?

Period II

The Three Weeks
Grief and anxiety intensify as the end draws near.
Prohibitions: weddings, haircuts, festive gatherings, live music, dancing, acts that require Shehecheyanu (some waived on Shabbat).
Observation: Normal life is increasingly disrupted.

Kevura (‘Burial’)
This is a time of catharsis: the pain, grief, and distress that the 3 types of grief bring must be expressed and diffused.
-The funeral prayers and rituals are designed to comfort the mourner amidst the confused feelings of “why?”: Hatzur Tamim, El Male Rachamim, Dayan Emet, Kaddish. (See prayers below.)
-Kriyah: the fabric of the mourner’s life has been torn; kriyah expresses the intensity of a torn heart: life will never be the same.
-Mourners come forward to shovel the dirt, allowing them to “wrap their head” around the loss by observing and participating in the filling of the grave. However, the shovel is not passed—we don’t pass on our grief to others and we all must carry our own grief.
-Two rows of comforters and HaMakom: there is comfort knowing that there are others who are grieving in Zion.

Period III

The Nine Days (Semi Mourning)
With the countdown to destruction, grief intensifies.
Prohibitions: home improvement, meat, wine, laundering, bathing for pleasure.
Observations: Daily life is almost completely disrupted!
However, to prevent excessive mourning, grief is limited: meat and wine permitted at a seudah mitzvah, siyyum, and on Shabbat.

Shivah (‘Seven’)
This is the beginning of deep grieving with a support group.
-The mourner stays in one place to be found, but also to eliminate the need to have to “pull oneself together” and go out, bump into people, explain the tragedy. Staying home also allows for a sense of security and protection in the face of anxiety that result from secondary losses.
-The mourner is too overwhelmed to bathe, shave, cut hair, apply makeup, wash clothes—so we cover the mirrors.
-Thoughts are on the departed: no study of Torah, except for passages of woe, no sexual intimacy.
-Mourners sit low on stools to express their low feelings.
-A candle is lit: there will be light at the end of the dark tunnel.
-When visiting the mourner, you extend no greetings nor initiate conversations: people say stupid things. Let the mourner talk about his or her grief and/or reminisce.
-Meal of Comfort (the 1st meal): round food implies the cycle of life—implying that there should be no guilt since death is part of the cycle, but also there will be a return to joy.
-Mourners typically suffer from a loss of appetite, so it is important that others prepare meals.
-Tahanun and passages about regret for sins from Torah readings are omitted to not reinforce any survivor’s guilt.
-The first three days, mourners are not counted in a minyan: they are not ready to move on in society.
-On Shabbat, most mourning laws are suspended: the mourner needs a break from intense grief.
-Shiva is cancelled by major festivals.
-At the end of shiva, one takes a walk: symbolically rejoining the world and avoiding excessive grieving.

Period IV

Seudah Mafseket
This is a restricted pre-fast meal to feel the loss of appetite that mourners experience. It consists of one cooked dish, no delicacies or deserts.
We avoid zimmun.
Some people sit on the floor and eat stale bread and water; others a hard-boiled egg (a sign of mourning) dipped in ash (also a sign of mourning).

Thirty Days (‘Sheloshim’)
After shiva, the mourner moves on a bit but with restrictions. Hence, the restoration of the mourner takes time and requires much patience.
Prohibitions: hair cutting, shaving, parties, festive occasions, listen to music, new clothing, sit in usual seat at synagogue. Why?
Sheloshim is cancelled by major festivals.

Period V

Tisha B’Av
This is a total fast day from sundown to nightfall: full shiva rituals apply to relive the destruction and focus on the grief as we did in part 1 of this study.
Prohibitions: shaving, leather shoes (for comfort), washing or bathing for pleasure, creams/lotions, sexual relations, Torah study, work until noon, greetings.
-During the night service, the ark curtain is removed.
-The synagogue is dark.
-Some sit on the floor for the reading of Lamentations. (The picture in the book is abandonment, loneliness—feelings of the mourner.)
-Tachanun (confession of sins) and similar prayers are omitted.
-The seven weeks after deal in comfort and restoration!

THERE IS HOPE IN THE MIDST OF TRAGEDY!

Avelut
The first year, we recognize our grief and our inability to resume a normal life.
What we may have taken for granted is gone.
Mourners feel like God has abandoned them, God’s eclipse.
The mourner feels abandoned, lonely.
Mourners feel like God didn’t answer their prayers.
Reciting Kaddish three times daily with others provides support, as well as helps us express faith during this rollercoaster of feelings.
Prohibitions: parties, festive occasions, listen to music, sit in usual seat at synagogue, new clothing, buy or rent a home. Why?
Yahrzeit (anniversary): we lite a candle (there is light at the end of the dark tunnel); we give to charity (life goes on—tikkun olam); we visit the grave so the memory doesn’t fade; we stand with others to recite kaddish—there are others grieving with us.

 

The Prayers:

Guilt, anger, and sadness are some of the initial phases of mourning—therefore, the mourner stands in need of much self-compassion and patience.

Read the initial funeral prayers to discover the emphases on the following:

  • God’s justice and forgiveness which acquit us of our guilt.
  • God’s judgement and omnipotence help us in our anger, knowing that God is in control.
  • God’s lovingkindness and mercy—we need to be self-compassionate.
  • God’s patience—we should be patient with our self, regardless of others’ opinions on our progress.

HaTzur

Deuteronomy 32:4: He is the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He.

El Male Rachamim

O God, full of compassion….

HaMakom

May the Lord comfort you with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Dayan Emet

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, our true Judge.

Now read the Mourners’ Kaddish—our expression of faith in the midst of tragedy:

  • The prayer exalts God to turn our focus away from the loss and to God, God’s justice, and the meaningfulness of life (the survivor continues to exalt God through his or her lifestyle).
  • It instills hope in a future world/eternal life and relief for all who suffer.
  • The prayer turns our focus from our own individual loss to universal concerns.
  • Promises peace (shalom—complete wholeness) We will be whole again—different but whole.

Yizkor

Mourners need ongoing healing and never really get over the loss of a loved one. So, we have memorial services to remember those who have passed.

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