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Friday, 5 June 2015

Sitting Shivah vs. Celebrating LIfe

Daf Yomi Nedarim 12

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz has spoken and written extensively about the contemporary anti-mourning movement called ‘celebration of life.’  Very often, families decide that they will not sit shivah
‘Rabbi,’ they say, ‘our father lived a good, long life.  We don’t feel the need to mourn his loss.  Instead, we are choosing to celebrate his life.’

Truth be told, if we believe that the neshama (soul) is in a better place, why should we mourn at all for anyone?  Shouldn’t we be celebrating every passing as a joyous occasion as we take comfort in the fact that they are smiling down upon us from Heaven?

What is the meaning of the ‘issar’ vow mentioned in the Torah?
If one said, ‘I hereby commit to not eating meat or drinking wine, like the day father died or like the day teacher died, like the day Gedalia ben Achikam was killed or like the day I saw Jerusalem in ruins.’
Rabbeinu Asher explains: It is proper to afflict oneself on the yahrzeit of one’s father or teacher.

In earlier generations, it was common custom to fast on the day of a yahrzeit.  Why?  It’s an annual reminder of the temporary, fragile nature of life on this earth.  It’s a mini Yom Kippur, a day of introspection, self-reckoning, and repentance.  Your loved one is no longer here, their time is up, how are you going to spend your short time in this world?

Yes, you should ‘celebrate’ the life of your loved one, remembering their achievements, taking comfort in the wonderful years you had with them.  But the shivah, shloshim and yud-beis chodesh (twelve months) of mourning are so much more than that.  It’s a time for you to think about your own life and reckon with the fragility and temporariness of life.   Choosing to shift your attention to mere ‘celebration’ is missing the point of aveilus (the Jewish rites of mourning).

Indeed, the rigid impositions of aveilus are not comfortable for anyone.  The devoted Torah scholar is prohibited from learning, the prodigious musician may not touch her instrument, married mourners must restrain themselves from their spouses, the friendliest mourner may no longer greet people as they enter the room.  You can’t shave, you can’t even floss your teeth in front of the mirror.  It’s not fun, it’s not a celebration.  It’s a reminder of the intense focus on life and death one must engage in constantly during this period.


Mature people know how to enjoy life and have fun when life calls for celebration.  But they also know how to focus and be serious when life calls for introspection and self-reckoning.  May you merit abundant occasions of simcha and celebration, and yet never avoid facing the more painful moments in life.