World of the Sages: A lot can happen in a year

After extended periods of separation from friends, the Talmud mandates appropriate blessings.

After extended periods of separation from friends, the Talmud mandates appropriate blessings (B. Brachot 58b). Thus if you haven't seen your friend for 30 days, the sheheheyanu blessing is authorized: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time." If a full 12 months have passed since seeing this friend, a different blessing is called for: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who resurrects the dead." At first blush, this second blessing appears to be out of place: Even if you haven't seen this friend for a full year, there is hardly a comparison to the finality of death or the miracle of resurrection of the deceased. The Talmud explains why a blessing over the revival of the dead is appropriate after a yearlong separation by stating that the deceased are not forgotten from the heart until after 12 months. Twelve months is the time that it takes for a person to forget or at least to stop thinking actively about a friend. In this sense 12 months of disengagement may be brought about by death or merely separation, but the result is the same: The memory of the person begins to fade or to recede from the foreground to the recesses of the heart. The Talmud adds a biblical proof text for the analogy between death and extended separation: I have become forgotten as the dead from the heart; I have become like a lost vessel (Psalms 31:13). A live person can thus be forgotten from the heart, just as with time the deceased are not constantly on our minds. The quoted verse adds a third comparable element - a lost vessel. The Mishna discusses the laws of returning lost items. The basic requirement is that an item found must be returned to its rightful owner. The problem of course lies in locating the owner. Our sages declared that if the object has an identifying mark, the finder must publicly announce that an item has been found and the rightful owner is invited to come forward and claim the possession after demonstrating ownership by describing the identifying mark. To what extent must the finder announce the find? The Mishna offers two opinions (M. Bava Metzia 2:6). The first opinion requires announcing the find such that local neighbors have been sufficiently notified; at that point the finder is considered to have made a reasonable effort to alert the owner and to have provided ample opportunity to reclaim the lost item. The second opinion requires an announcement that is more extensive: The find must be announced in Jerusalem at the each of the three festivals, Pessah, Shavuot and Succot, and an additional week. Indeed, there was a special place in Jerusalem marked by a large stone that served as the official location for announcing lost objects. This site was known as even hato'en, the stone of claims (B. Bava Metzia 28b). What was the logic of this thrice-yearly Jerusalem requirement? Unlike the pilgrimage itself, the Bible does not mention a need to make the journey to Jerusalem for returning lost articles. People do not only lose objects locally, thus the find needs to be announced to a broader audience. The thrice-annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals provided the perfect forum to notify as many people as possible. But why three festivals and a week; wouldn't an announcement at one of the festivals suffice? The announcement at one festival may serve to notify the public about the item. Individuals could then return home and check whether they had lost such an item, returning next festival to claim ownership. It would seem from this that announcements at two festivals would be adequate; what is the need for the third announcement? According to some commentators, the additional festival serves as a precaution, lest someone missed one of the three annual pilgrimages. The extra week provides the opportunity to travel home for three days, have a quick look to find the object and return to Jerusalem for another three days and then claim the object. Another explanation of the three festivals and the week brings us back to the 12 months (Rashi, 11th century, France). If a person loses an object on the day after Shavuot, for instance, the finder will post an announcement on Succot, Pessah and Shavuot of the following year. With the extra week, a full 12 months has passed and the finder can safely assume that the owner has forgotten about the item, for an absence of 12 months dulls the memory. Thus the psalmist tells us that just as people are forgotten after 12 months, so too are objects. The 12-month rule can assist us in understanding another law connected to comforting those who lost relatives (B. Mo'ed Katan 21b). The Talmud criticizes people who offer comfort to mourners after more than 12 months has passed since the death, offering a parable to illustrate the point: Imagine a person who broke his leg, which in time thankfully healed. When this person chances upon a doctor, the doctor says to him: "Come to me - I will break your leg again and then cure it, so you can see how fine my remedies are." This suggestion is of course foolish; such a course has no value for the poor chap who broke his leg once and has fortunately recovered. Let the doctor show his prowess elsewhere, not by opening old wounds. Comforting someone more than 12 months after a death is in effect opening an old wound. The 12 months gives a chance to the mourner to recover. It is during this period that the damage in the heart heals as the memory of the loved one recedes. Indeed the comforter may well have consoling words to tender, but just for the sake of being able to offer these words it is unnecessary to reopen the hurt of losing someone close to the heart. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.