At the beginning of the Jewish Ethics GCSE course there is a question about the relevance of laws and texts which are over 2,000 years old. In the class there is always a fascinating discussion about how significant these laws are. There is an attachment to our Jewish tradition and heritage, but they are also aware of the fact that some laws no longer feel relevant. We can all recognise that elements of Judaism remain applicable, while there are others laws and obligations which we would seek to discard. The laws of shiva and mourning appear to be some of the most relevant, pertinent and important guidelines we have.
The Jewish mourning cycle is arranged around distinct periods of time: from death to burial, the seven days of shiva, the first 30 days of shloshim and then the regulations of the initial year. The demarcated periods of time allow for the mourners to gradually adjust to life without their loved ones and slowly return to everyday life.
In this week’s Torah portion the Priests are instructed not to defile themselves by a dead body (Leviticus 21:1). This is in many ways a contribution of the purity laws, as a dead body makes a Priest impure and therefore unfit to serve in the Temple. However family comes first, and the Priests are told “But for his family [he may be defiled] for 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 2:2-3).
To be a Priest and work in God’s holy Temple means to come into the presence of God, and be close to the Divine; for the Biblical Israelites it is the most important task possible, and yet even for this the priest should prioritise family.
In the midst of all of these laws and obligations for serving God we are reminded that family takes precedence. From this list the Rabbis developed the mourning obligations for all Jews. The people for whom the Priests become impure are the family members we mourn for.
Earlier in the Book of Leviticus, during the Holiness Code, two of the Ten Commandments were restated. In Exodus, when we stood at Mount Sinai, Shabbat was Commandment Four (Exodus 20:8-11) and honouring parents was number Five (Exodus 20:12). In the Holiness Code we are instructed: “a person should respect their mother and father and keep my Shabbatot” (Leviticus 19:3). When commanded at Sinai we must keep Shabbat and honour our parents, when we are attempting to be holy, family comes first.
Religion, especially the priestly sacrificial system, can often be characterised as cold and austere. Here, with the laws of mourning, we are reminded of the humanity and compassion which is present within Judaism. Laws and commandments are important, but family comes first.