The Expanding Circle

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on April 25, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

When we doused our havdalah candle in wine this past Saturday evening, it had been a very long time since I had so deeply felt the meaning of the words traditional to that ritual moment: "Shavuah tov - a good week." The satirical web-site, The Onion, ran a piece towards the end of last week under the "headline" "Jesus, This Week" - the title meaning to represent the reaction to recent events of the ordinary Americans "interviewed" in the article. Death felt much more present and immediate than usual last week here in the United States (though I recognize that there are places in the world at this moment where it is all too regular and familiar) - from three murdered at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, to fourteen dead in an industrial catastrophe in West Texas, to families of victims of gun violence in the spectators’ balcony of the Senate and by the side of the President. We were, and still are, a country immersed in loss and mourning.

What a strange coincidence, then, that death and grief and the ways in which we should respond also stand out as a prominent theme in the openings of the two parshiyot of last week and this. Last week, we read "Aharei Mot" (together with Kedoshim), whose very name encodes death and mourning; it takes place "After the death" of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu (a story we read three weeks ago in Parashat Shmini). This week’s parashah, Emor, also begins with priests who have experienced loss:

The Lord said to Moses: Speak ("emor") to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him... (Lev. 21:1-2)

Underlying this passage is the biblical understanding that death conveys ritual impurity (a concept found throughout Leviticus in regards to animal carcasses, and expressed regarding human corpses here and in Numbers 19:11). This passage thus teaches that (male) priests, who are expected to maintain an additional level of ritual purity due to their status and roles in sacrificial ritual, are especially enjoined to refrain from contact with dead bodies. Even though the impurity that comes from contact with death can be lifted through certain rituals, (male) priests are to avoid contracting it in the first place. Yet in this very passage where we learn the rule, we also discover that there are exceptions. When the deceased is an especially close relative of the priest, then that priest may and indeed should contract ritual impurity in the process of tending to the preparation and burial of his deceased relative’s body.

In the hands of the rabbis of the mishnaic and Talmudic traditions, this passage would further become a key starting point for the laws of mourning for all Jews.  The passage in Leviticus continues with a list of the relatives that a priest must attend to:

...his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. (Leviticus 21:2-3)

From this starting point, the rabbis begin to derive their understanding of who all Jews must observe mourning rituals for:

Our rabbis taught: All those who are mentioned in "The Torah of the Priests" (a rabbinic name for the opening chapters of this parashah, 21 and 22) that a priest becomes impure for them - a mourner mourns for them.  And these are they: his wife (spouse), his father, his mother, his brother and his sister, his son and his daughter.  (Bavli Mo'ed Qatan 20b)

Note first of all that the rabbis assume the priest's wife, and hence any mourner's spouse, is part of this list though not explicitly named in the Torah; this they explain elsewhere as the true meaning of the phrase "relatives closest to him" in the original verse.  But then the passage goes on.  Having derived elsewhere (by means complex and not directly relevant at the moment) that the priest is responsible only to paternal (half-) siblings but not those with whom they share only a mother, and aware that the Torah itself specifies impurity only for an unmarried sister (that is, in the patrilocal system of caste and family belonging of the Torah, one who has not left the original family unit and become a member of a different one), the rabbis expand the mourning obligation:

And they (the rabbis) added to them (the persons one must mourn, beyond those for whom the priest becomes impure) his (half-) brother and his virgin (half-) sister from his mother, and his married (half-) sister whether from his father or his mother.

At this point, we have now delineated the familiar list that still holds under Jewish law today, of the relatives for whom one is obligated to sit shivah (the seven days following the funeral) and observe shloshim (for thirty days; in the case of a parent's death, mourning extends for a year), and in more recent practice, observe the anniversary of the day of death (the yahrzeit).

But now the text takes yet a further step.  While we typically mourn most intensely for those closest to us, do we limit our mourning to these relatives and no others?

And just as one mourns for them, so too one mourns on those secondary to them; these are the words of Rabbi Akiva...The sages say, anyone whom one mourns for, one mourns with.

In other words, if one mourns for one's father, then one should also mourn those whom the father would mourn: for example, the father's parents (the child's grandparents) or siblings (aunts and uncles) or children (step-siblings).  In short order the text clarifies this to mean that it is particularly when one is in the presence of a mourning relative that one is to observe mourning rituals with him/her so as to honor his or her grieving process, nonetheless an intriguing principle has been laid out here: mourning and grief can, and frequently do, extend beyond the most immediate mourners.

This principle will then reappear in further discussions in the tractate, expanding the potential circles of grief out even further beyond immediate and extended family.  When a teacher dies, those who were his (we would add, her) students are expected to mourn (22b, 25a, 26a).  All are rewarded for mourning the passing of a righteous person (26a).  If a communal judge dies, all institutions of Torah learning in that locale suspect their activities out of respect (22b).  When the nasi, the communal leader of the Jewish community as a whole, dies, the entire community engages in public rites of mourning (22b).  Communal disasters too call for signs of mourning (26a).

Last week and this, through our own unhappily acquired experiential knowledge and guided by these passages in our sacred tradition, we recognize that in many cases, grief extends out, beyond the confines of family, beyond those who were directly acquainted with the one being mourned.  Sometimes grief does and should expand to encompass a wide swath of the population.  In his poem "The Diameter of the Bomb" (you can google it - do go read it!), the Israeli poet Yehudai Amichai even extends this circle to "the throne of God" and beyond.  Let us not distance ourselves from our community but rather acknowledge our share in the grief of the past week.  Let us offer each other comfort, seek to make the world a place in which there will be fewer reasons to grieve in this way, and fervently pray that the week to come, and the week after that and the one after that, will be a "shavuah tov," a better week, a good week.

Shabbat Shalom.