Ask the rabbi: Leaving shiva

Should an MK vote while sitting in mourning?

INTERIOR MINISTER Arye Deri at the Knesset
Last week, a small political scandal erupted in Israel when Interior Minister Arye Deri inquired about the halachic propriety of bringing MK Yehudah Glick to a Knesset vote one day after Glick’s wife was buried. Glick remained in his shiva home, Deri apologized, and the parliamentary vote on the controversial “mini-markets bill” was delayed.
Leaving aside that incident, the case raises larger questions regarding the propriety of public servants maintaining their leadership roles during personal mourning periods.
The laws of mourning guide us when it comes to appropriate behavior during sorrowful times. They include mandating practices such as eulogies, sitting on the ground, tearing one’s garments, and other moderate forms of self-negation, while preventing extreme reactions that are harmful or reflect utter despair. These include shaving one’s head, gashing one’s flesh and burying or destroying valuable objects of the departed. The laws aim to give healthy expression to natural emotions that honor the deceased without allowing excessive self-deprivation.
To facilitate an appropriate period of grief and reflection, the mourner is prohibited from engaging in work during the seven-day shiva period. Historically, this included not only the mourner but also his children and workers. For this reason, in fact, many mourners closed their businesses during the period.
The Sages, however, were aware of the financial hardship that this could entail and issued dispensations for the poor to work (preferably in private) after the intense initial three days of grief. They also scorned communities that do not provide for their poor to the point that they have to curtail their bereavement period. Medieval decisors debated whether the dispensation for the poor would also apply to all mourners, if they risked a significant business loss during that period.
The general practice is that we allow others (e.g., workers or partners) to work on the mourner’s behalf, while issuing reluctant dispensations for the mourner himself to work in extreme cases, especially after the first three days. The goal is to afford the worker a full week of concentrated bereavement while not causing long-term financial damage to mourners or the workers and family members dependent on them.
PROBLEMS EMERGE, however, when the public at large is dependent on the work of the mourner. In these circumstances, we run into a conflict between the individual’s obligation to mourn and the need for public service.
One model of such a conflict involves the case of the kohen gadol (high priest). The Bible specifically prohibits him from ceasing to work to mourn anyone, including his parents. “He shall not defile himself for his mother and father, he shall not leave the Sanctuary.” As Nahmanides explains, the high priest is expected to prioritize the dignity of the Temple service over the honor of his loved ones.
His job, of course, entails a unique task, and he may not serve as a paradigm for other positions. Indeed, within the Bible, we find that even kings engage in public mourning.
That said, within rabbinic Halacha, a king is ordered to not appear in public while mourning, so that his disheveled state does not harm his or the country’s image. (Indeed, for this reason, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it was appropriate for him to shave while he mourned for his father in 2012.)
Exceptions, however, are made when a national need is served by the king’s open mourning. As such, the Sages justified King David’s public mourning for Abner, so that the masses would know that he had not ordered his assassination.
Within rabbinic literature, the Torah scholar in mourning became the paradigmatic case. While Torah study is generally prohibited during this period, the Sages permitted great scholars to continue to teach the masses. As the Talmud states, “If the public needs him to teach Torah, he need not refrain. The son of Rabbi Yosei died in Tzipori, yet he entered the study hall and expounded there for the entire day.” Yet clearly not every scholar has such a unique position, and the general rule is that we seek others to fill these roles during that period.
That said, there are times when substitutes are not available. This is certainly true with medical professionals who have unique skills or knowledge within a given area.
Scholars further debate whether mourners may perform more prosaic communal activity. They discuss, for example, whether a slaughterer or bathhouse manager could work before the holidays when their services are particularly needed. Synagogue caretakers, and certainly scribes who could write urgent divorce documents, were permitted to do their work, when necessary. Moreover, as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef argued, mourners are permitted to leave their house of mourning for important needs, even if it is not a mitzva, as long as it is not for leisure purposes. In fact, he allowed them to vote on days of national elections, while suggesting they add dirt or rocks in their shoes as a reminder of their sorrow.
By the nature of parliament, one cannot simply substitute another person for that job. Votes can be delayed, while at other times the parties will engage in a system of “offsetting votes” that allows for the equivalent absence of coalition and opposition members. Yet sometimes a given Knesset member’s presence may be necessary.
Based on what we’ve seen, it seems clear that for an important national need (besides a life-and-death situation), a Knesset member could leave his shiva home to perform his duties.
It also seems to me that the Knesset member alone has the prerogative to choose whether to leave or not. Some votes (think Oslo Accords, pivotal budget decisions, basic laws) are truly momentous; others make a lot of noise but are essentially political grandstanding with few implications. Ultimately, only the grieving leader can balance his civic duties and familial obligations.
The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.