My grandfather’s funeral was the first funeral which I attended for a close family member. At the time, I had already officiated at several funerals, and had also been a part of the community at many others. I was aware that technically I was not a mourner, and I knew that I therefore was not obliged to take part in the ritual of keriah (the tearing of a garment), but none the less my sister and I wanted to express our mourning through this ritual. A friend of the family felt the need to tell us later that of course we didn’t need to tear our clothing, but we were undeterred and wore our torn shirt throughout the period of shiva.
It is interesting to think about the fact that Judaism prescribes people we ‘should’ mourn for, and others that we don’t need to mourn for. One might assume that, in the first instance, it should be up to the individual to choose whether or not they want to participate in the Jewish rituals of mourning for a deceased friend or relative.
The original idea that there are seven people for whom we should mourn, comes from this week’s Torah portion in connection to the laws of the priesthood. God begins by instructing Moses to tell the priests ‘For a dead person no priest is to defile himself among his people’ (Leviticus 21:1). It is for this reason that there is regularly a separate room for priests at cemeteries and they will often avoid situations which bring them into close contact with dead bodies.
However, God recognized that there were family members for whom they would what to defile themselves (in a ritual purity sense) and so added ‘except for his close relative who is near to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and his virgin sister who is close to him’ (Leviticus 21:2). His close relative is understood as being his wife, so that there are seven people for whom a priest should defile himself.
The Rabbis took this list, and added to it all siblings, and suggested that if the priest should defile himself for all of these relatives then we should also mourn for these people. In a further injunction the Rabbis also added that a person should mourn with anyone they mourn for; such as a father’s father or sister’s child. I appreciate the Rabbis broadening the network of mourning. They recognized the need to mourn for other relatives, and so extended the list from the Torah, expanding the networks and relatives for whom we may mourn.
What I think is most striking though is that the Torah injunction for the priest to defile himself would mean that he could not serve in the Tabernacle or Temple while in a state of ritual impurity. And yet God recognized that mourning for a family member was more important than that, there was compassion for the need of the mourner, even when it would impact the service of God in the Temple. Coming so soon after the silence following the death of Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:1-3) this law may be a way of bridging the chasm of that loss, and learning from Aaron’s painful experience to create a more compassionate Judaism for all.