Vort from the Rav: Vayechi

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Gen. 50:10

וַיַּעַשׂ לְאָבִיו אֵבֶל שִׁבְעַת יָמִֽים-
and he made for his father a mourning of seven days.

Basing their opinion on this verse, many Rishonim and early Geonim maintain that all seven days of mourning (shivah) are Biblical in origin (de’oraisa). Maimonides, on the other hand, maintains that only the first day of mourning is de’oraisa, while the remaining days of shivah are rabbinically mandated (derabanan). In that case, how could mourning be observed here for seven days when the rabbinical mandate did not take effect for millennia?

The Rambam reconciles this apparent anomaly by maintaining נִתְנָה תּוֹרָה וְנִתְחַדְשָׁה הַלָכָה: When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, all the practices preceding it were recast. Although the original practice was to mourn for seven days, as indicated in this verse, after the revelation at Mount Sinai this halacha was modified. The one day of mourning that is de’oraisa is known as aninus, the state of mourning that exists before the burial.

There is, however, an apparent contradiction within the explication of laws surrounding mourning. Maimonides states that a mourner may not offer a sacrifice during the seven day mourning period. If the Biblically prescribed mourning period lasts only one day, why is there a prohibition to offer a sacrifice for seven days?

When Maimonides speaks of the prohibitions surrounding the mourning period in Hilchos Aveilus, he refers to washing, the study of Torah, and wearing shoes. According to Mamonides, these prohibitions indeed apply only on the first day. However, when he speaks of the prohibition of offering sacrifices, he discusses this halacha among other laws of the Temple, Hilchos Bi’as Mikdash, and not in Hilchos Aveilus. According to the Rambam, there are two aspects to mourning: the actions precluded to a mourner (the issurei aveilus), and the person’s status as a mourner (a “gavra of aveilus”). When the Rambam stated that only the first day of mourning is mi de’oraisa, he was referring only to the issurei aveilus, which are limited to one day. However, one is a “gavra of aveilus” for seven days. The status of mourner precludes the joy of being in the presence of God and offering a sacrifice in the Temple for seven days.

The rules of mourning are suspended on Yom Tov (festivals) for this same reason. Per se, there is no prohibition to take off one’s shoes, to sit on the floor, or to neglect to wash one’s face on Yom Tov. The reason these mourning activities are not performed on Yom Tov is because it is impossible simultaneously to maintain one’s status both as a Yom Tov celebrant, fulfilling the imperative of וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בּחַגֶּךָ – and you shall rejoice in your holiday (Deut. 16:14), and as a “gavra of aveilus,” a mourner. The two ideas are antithetical, each rooted in contradictory human emotions.

Maimonides states that Moses took the initiative to reinstitute seven days of shivah upon the death of a family member, in order to maintain the gavra aspect of mourning. At the same time, he instituted the seven days of rejoicing after a marriage. Why did Moses include both in the same edict? What is the conceptual link between mourning and rejoicing after marriage?

The seven days of rejoicing after a marriage is part of the same ruling because both marriage and death connect to the tragic experience of loneliness. If man did not experience loneliness, he would neither mourn the passing of a relative nor rejoice much at his marriage. לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ – It is not good that man is alone, I shall make him a helpmate (v. 2:18). לְבַדּוֹ is man’s worst existential tragedy. It is both the reason behind man’s desire to marry, as well as the experience of mourning. The period of rejoicing following a marriage is related to man’s desire to join someone else, for he is mortal and lonely. For the same reason, the vacuum created by death is cruel, the pain excruciating. God introduced the laws of mourning so man could find himself again; so he would not be completely overwhelmed by that which cannot be changed.

One should not mourn a death for more or less than seven days, nor should one rejoice for a marriage for more or less than seven days. This idea describes how Judaism, in worldview as well as in practice, relates to the tension and stormy emotions of the person experiencing either joy or mourning. (Divrei Hashkafah, pp. 36-38; Boston 1980)

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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