THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shemini – פרשת שמיני
March 30, 2019 – כג אדר שני תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Sisterhood in honor of the birth of Abigail Zoe Reuben, granddaughter of Honey & Sol Neier.
Silence in the House of Mourning
Rav Pappa asserted that the reward accruing from one’s presence in a house of mourning is earned primarily by one’s silence there אגרא דבי טמיא שתיקותא (Berakhot 6b). Some commentators understood him to be referring to one who guards a corpse before burial. It is forbidden to engage in idle conversation or even to study Torah in the immediate vicinity of a dead body (Berakhot 3b; Yoreh Deah 344:16). Counter-intuitively, one is rewarded for refraining from Torah study, because, in this limited case, it is in compliance with the halakhically mandated silence.
Most commentators, however, understood Rav Pappa’s words as applying to visitors to a house of mourning. The intention of those visitors is to provide consolation to the bereaved. In a late Midrashic work, the sages wondered why it is customary to serve eggs in a house of mourning. Answer: Just as an egg is completely round and has no mouth, so too should one avoid being overly talkative in a house of mourning (Sekhel Tov Genesis 25). In addition to quoting Rav Pappa’s dictum, the Midrash cites two verses: “Let him sit alone and keep silence, for the Lord has laid it upon him (Lamentations 3:28).” “Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord meant when He said: “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.”’ And Aaron was silent (Leviticus 10:3).”
The above verse from Lamentations is an admonition for the punished nation of Judah to silently accept its deservedly miserable fate. There is no consoler. The verse from Leviticus is culled from the story of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Moses did his best to console his brother Aaron. Whether Aaron accepted the logic of Moses’ words is unclear. All we know is that he was silent. Ramban suggested that Aaron was wailing and that Moses’ words caused Aaron to quiet down. Pseudo-Jonathan adds that Aaron was rewarded for his silence. Rashi noted that Aaron’s reward was that God transmitted directly through him – not through Moses, the usual human conduit for disseminating knowledge of the Divine will – the law banning performing Levitical service while inebriated.
Why is it so important for mourners to be silent? The Midrash offers an embellished version of the story in which Aaron questions the righteousness of God’s judgment. Moses, seeking to provide his brother with some comfort, offered these words: “God informed me on Mount Sinai that the Tabernacle would be sanctified by the demise of a great person. I speculated that it would be me or you. Now that it was Nadab and Abihu who perished, we know that they were even greater than you or I am.” Aaron accepted Moses’ interpretation of the Heavenly decree and acknowledged the righteousness of Divine judgment. The Midrash further notes that Abraham and Jacob, too, accepted the less pleasant aspects of life by acknowledging the fairness of God’s ways (Sifra Shemini 1).
Concern that a newly bereaved person – even a pious believer – might say something blasphemous led the doctors of the liturgy to impose upon mourners repeated utterances confirming their acceptance of the Heavenly decree. Upon hearing the news of the death of a close relative, the bereaved is bidden to recite “Blessed art Thou, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who art the righteous judge” (Berakhot 46b). At the burial, as the grave is filled with earth, the mourners recite a lengthy selection of Scriptural passages beginning with “The Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice; A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, Just and right is He (Deuteronomy 32:4).” At the conclusion of the funeral service, the mourners chant the Burial Kaddish, a text that expresses the utmost glorification of God and implicitly rejects the notion of God as a malevolent author of premature or unjustified human deaths.
Rabbi Yochanan ruled that condolence callers are forbidden to speak until after the mourner initiates conversation (Moed Katan 28b). The Scriptural basis for his ruling is the account of Job’s friends visiting him as he mourned the loss of his children. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering (Job 2:13).” The silence was finally broken by Job, who cursed the day of his birth (3:1). The Shulhan Arukh codifies this rule, further stating that once the mourner gestures for the consolers to exit they must expeditiously leave the premises (Yoreh Deah 376:1).
Considering the importance attached in Rabbinic Judaism to the mitzvah of comforting the bereaved, why does the halakhah partially muzzle the consoler and instruct him or her to look for nonverbal cues that the time has come to cut the visit short? A hint of an answer can be inferred from the words of the Tur: גדולי החכמים מנחמין כל אחד ואחד כפי מה שרואה לדרוש בנחמה (Tur Yoreh Deah 376). Offering effective condolences is not a science. It is an art. No fully reliable method of comforting the bereaved exists. Each mourner is different; each episode of bereavement is different. We consolers and shiva attendees try our best, but we often fall a little (or even a lot) flat. Despite being well-intentioned, some consolers say silly, insensitive, or even offensive things in a shiva house. We serve the purpose of easing the mourners’ pain more by our physical presence that by any specific words we say. Protracted and awkward silence, followed by the muttering of boilerplate verbiage about the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, is often the best (or least bad) we can do.
In rabbinic literature we find that even the sages themselves occasionally failed in their efforts to comfort mourners, and that sometimes such efforts exacerbated the mental anguish of those already suffering. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s son passed away, his students visited him and attempted to console him. Rabbi Eliezer recalled how Adam eventually overcame the death of his son Abel. Rabbi Joshua recalled how Job overcame the deaths of his many children. Rabbi Jose Ha-Kohen recalled how Aaron overcame the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. Rabbi Simon ben Netanel recalled how David overcame the loss of his baby born to Bathsheba. After hearing each of these feeble attempts to comfort him, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai lashed out at his disciples and said that “It is bad enough that I am pained by my own loss; now you have made matters worse by reminding me of the suffering of a Biblical hero.”
But the fifth disciple, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh, was able to console his teacher by taking an altogether different tack. He compared his teacher’s son to a precious item deposited by a king with a commoner for safekeeping. The commoner is desperate for the king to take back the item before it sustains any damage. Eleazar ben Arakh consoled RYBZ by acknowledging that God’s gift of a precious child was returned to the celestial realm in pristine condition, filled with the study of Torah and devoid of sin (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 5).
Many readers focus on Eleazar ben Arakh’s words and try to replicate his success by stealing his line when consoling mourners who have lost a child. Arguably, however, the story’s more important lesson is that eighty percent of the disciples failed miserably. Leading lights of the rabbinic community said things they thought would be well- received but that were taken, by their own teacher, as inane platitudes that made him feel worse.
And yet, Notwithstanding the great difficulty in offering effective words of consolation, we are bidden to try and we may not shirk that responsibility. When Jacob was told that Joseph had been mauled to death by a wild animal, he fell into a morose and mournful state. “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted (Genesis 37:35).” Those on the back of the condolence line saw that Jacob was unreceptive to the efforts of his progeny to comfort him. Yet the line kept moving and everyone took a turn.
We engage in the loving kindness of nichum aveilim even when we have little of substance to say. And precisely because we have little to say, let us, in that delicate moment, be as measured as possible in the use of our words. Or, even elect to say nothing but offer simply our physical presence in the house of mourning.