World of the Sages: Missing our beloved deceased

Though Jewish law mandates a mourning period, there will always be moments that we will suddenly recall our beloved deceased.

When the great talmudic sage Rav passed away, his students accompanied his bier as it was taken to his burial place (B. Berachot 42b-43a). When they returned from the funeral they said to one another: "Let us go and eat bread on the Danak River." After they had eaten their fill, they were faced with a halachic dilemma: The Mishna tells us that if people recline to eat together then one person recites the Grace After Meals and discharges the obligation of all those present who have partaken of the meal (M. Berachot 6:6). The basis of this allowance is the rule that "one who listens is like one who speaks," namely, by listening to a peer's recitation, you can discharge your halachic obligation (B. Succa 38b). While this general rule applies in many scenarios, with regard to food our sages mandated an additional condition - a certain level of commonality. In talmudic times, reclining together was indicative of joining together at a common meal. If people merely sat together without reclining, it was like eating separately and people recited the blessings on their own. Later authorities add that since we do not recline today, the distinction between reclining and sitting no longer applies. Nowadays, sitting at the table together is classified as sharing a common meal for the purposes of Grace After Meals (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). The question that bothered the students by the Danak River was whether saying that they would go and eat bread together at a particular location was akin to reclining together and thus sufficed for the requirement of commonality. The question was not a theoretical issue; the students did not know whether one of them should recite the Grace on behalf of all. As they sat pondering the question, they realized that they had no answer at hand, and the impact of the absence of their deceased teacher was magnified. One of the students, Rabbi Ada bar Ahava rose and turned his shirt around so that the tear he had made previously in mourning for his teacher was behind him. He then proceeded to rend his garment in the front. Thus fulfilling once again the stipulations for rending garments in mourning for the deceased - tearing while standing, on the front of the shirt, for a deceased teacher (Shulhan Aruch YD 340). As he tore his garment, Rabbi Ada bar Ahava lamented: "Rav has died and we have not learned the laws of Grace After Meals!" The students sat there perplexed until an elderly man came along and pointed out that the aforementioned rule of the Mishna contradicted another rabbinic tradition that defined sitting together as a sufficient act to bind a group of diners. The man resolved the contradiction by explaining that the key factor was not whether they were sitting together, the question that must be asked is whether they ate together. A group of people who say, "Let us go and eat bread in such and such a place," has clearly decided to dine in concert, and just like when they recline together, one may say Grace for all participants. Thus the conundrum of the students by the Danak River was solved after they had lapsed momentarily into mourning for their deceased teacher. One Torah commentator explains the biblical account of the mourning for Jacob (Genesis 50:1-14) in a similar vein. Following the death of Jacob and a mourning period of 70 days, Joseph makes plans to take his father's body for burial in the Land of Israel. A great convoy accompanies the deceased Jacob - the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of Egypt, Joseph's entire household and the brothers. Only the children and the livestock are left behind, as the grand procession is accompanied by chariots and horsemen. The Bible relates that when they reached the threshing-floor of Atad, named after a rough, prickly bramble, eulogies were once again said and another seven-day mourning period was observed. What happened at this mysterious threshing-floor that the great convoy was so suddenly moved? Moreover, why did the Egyptians in the traveling party mourn; Jacob's death was hardly their loss? Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz (1550-1619, Lwów-Prague) relates to this passage in his Torah commentary, Kli Yakar: Our sages tell us that the presence of a righteous person brings good fortune to the world. When the righteous person dies, however, the good departs and in its place retribution comes. Thus as long as Jacob was alive and living in Egypt, the famine was kept at bay. Alas, as soon as our forefather died, the famine returned (T. Sota 10:1, 9). The threshing-floor was unique in that it was encircled by prickly shrubs and the entrance was barred; certainly a thorny situation for an area that was to be used for threshing produce. When the convoy reached this threshing-floor that was entirely surrounded by thorns they remembered when there was no grain to be threshed and wild bushes sprouted on the pathways to the granaries blocking the unused entrances. This image conjured up images of famine in the travelers' minds, as if symbolically to say that without Jacob there would be no grain and once again a clear path to the threshing-floor would not be necessary. Jacob's death was also a cause for Egyptian mourning, as they lost the good fortune brought by this righteous person's presence in their land. Thus the impact of the passing of Jacob was felt anew, even by the Egyptians, when the party reached this threshing-floor and they appropriately responded by mourning once again. There are always going to be moments when we are unexpectedly reminded of our beloved deceased. It may be an image, a melody, but whenever that moment comes we rightly mourn anew the loss of our dear ones. Though Jewish law mandates a mourning period, there will always be moments that we will suddenly recall our beloved deceased. Such feelings need not be quashed; though the official mourning period has passed it is still legitimate to once again lament their loss. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.