Who Mourns for Whom?

Jewish law details which family relationships require traditional mourning practices.

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Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Relatives for Whom One Sits Shivah And Says Kaddish

When the Torah talks about the exacting standards of holiness that apply to kohanim (priests) who serve in the Temple [including the obligation to avoid contact with death and dead bodies], it goes on to say that these rules are relaxed if a kohen's close relative dies: He is instructed to defile himself for his mother, father, son, daughter, brother [including a half-brother on the father's side], and unmar­ried sister (Leviticus 21:2, 3). This short list makes it fairly obvious that the Torah links mourning with flesh-and-blood relatives, what the text calls she'ero ha-karov.

 

The rabbis of the Talmud took the Torah's short list of relatives, expanded it to include one's spouse, married sisters, and half-siblings [on the mother's side, and ruled that it is for these relatives and no others that a Jew--kohen, levi, or Israelite--sits shivah (Mo'ed Katan 20b). That is, the only people for whom one is obligated to sit shivah and observe the other rites of mourning are one's immediate family: parents, siblings, spouse, and children.

Step-Relatives

Today, given the prevalence of complicated family configurations, attributable in many instances to death, divorce, and remarriage, a vari­ety of questions arises. What if a divorced parent's second spouse dies: Are step-children required to sit shivah? Does one sit shivah for step­siblings? The rule seems to be that the obligation for mourning still falls only on blood relatives. As for siblings, only those who are blood rela­tives, like half-siblings, are included, but not step-siblings. Similarly, one is not required to observe the mourning rites for step-parents or step-children.

Adoptive Parents and Children

The question of adoptive parents and adopted children is trickier, given the deep emotional attachment between them, identical to that of natural parents and children. In all of these cases Jewish law holds that although there is no absolute obligation to sit shivah and say kad­dish, it certainly is permissible and commendable to do so.

Neonatal Loss

If a child dies before it is 30 days old, Jewish law does not prescribe any rites of mourning (Mo'ed Katan 24b; 374:8). As insensitive as this rule may seem, the explanation appears to lie in the fact that shivah honors the dead, and the talmudic rabbis did not deem it appropriate to honor such a young child.

Today, more and more people, in particular women, find it meaningful and emotionally restorative to conduct a rite of mourning for the loss of a fetus. Suggestions have been made to recite a mi shebeirakh prayer in the synagogue after the miscarriage and, following her recovery, to invite the mother to recite publicly birkhat ha-gomel (a blessing said upon recovery from illness). In this way the community can be called upon to offer the couple emotional support and assistance in coming to terms with their grief.

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Judith Hauptman

Judith Hauptman is a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. A popular lecturer on Judaism and feminism, she is the author of Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman's Voice.