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The Mourner and the Mourned

The Mourner and the Mourned


Who Is a Mourner?

Jewish law formally considers the bereaved to be those who have lost any one of the seven close relatives listed in Leviticus (21:1-3): father, mother, wife (or husband), son, daughter, (married or unmarried), brother, and sister (or half-brother and half-sister). The Bible originally enumerated these relationships with regard to the ritual impurity of the kohen or priest. The priest who ordinarily was to have no contact with the dead, was, however, permitted to defile himself in order to bury these relatives. The oral tradition considered that these relationships apply to the laws of mourning as well. (The concept of priestly defilement is discussed in a special chapter below.)

1. Adopted relatives. There is no requirement to mourn for adoptive parents, adopted brothers and sisters, or adopted children. But while there is no legal obligation to mourn, there should be "sympathetic mourning," namely abstention from public rejoicing and similar activities' in order to demonstrate a full measure of sorrow.

2. Minors have no obligation to observe the laws of mourning. Thus, a boy under the age of thirteen and a girl under the age of 12, need not "sit" shiva or follow the other observances. However, their clothes should be rent for them, and they should be encouraged to restrict, somewhat, their daily activities. This procedure should be followed especially in the case of more mature children, although they are still minors.

Bride and Groom

  1. During the first seven full days following the wedding, bride and groom are not at all obligated to observe the laws of mourning, even for a parent, but they do attend the funeral service. However, immediately following these seven days of formal rejoicing they must begin the observance of Shiva and sheloshim. Now, the law distinguishes between a case where the death occurred before the beginning of the seven days of rejoicing, and one where the death occurred in the midst of this week. In the former case, the bride or groom begin the complete period of shiva and sheloshim immediately after the week of rejoicing is over. In the latter case, he or she rejoins the rest of the family which is observing shiva and finishes the shiva observance together with them. A widow and widower have a formal period of rejoicing of three days, rather than of seven, after marriage.

  2. If a holiday, which normally nullifies the entire mourning period of shiva, occurs during tire week of rejoicing which is co-extensive with shiva, the bride and groom must, nonetheless, fulfill the shiva after the holiday. Thus, if the wedding occurred on Saturday night and the death of a parent occurred on Sunday, the holiday which falls during that week nullifies the shiva period only for those who have observed the mourning period. But the bride and groom, because they were not obligated, and did not mourn formally, must observe the complete shiva after the conclusion of the holiday.

  3. Bride and groom do not rend the clothing until after the week of rejoicing. They do, however, recite the blessing, dayan ha.'emet ("the true judge") with the other mourners at the funeral service, as this is an expression of immediate and spontaneous grief, and cannot be meaningfully delayed.

  4. During their honeymoon week they are, technically, not considered mourners. By law, they are not required to be visited and consoled in the manner of others observing shiva.

  5. Bride and groom need not accompany a deceased parent to the cemetery, but, by all means, should follow the hearse from the home or funeral parlor for several blocks, so as to give honor to the parent.

  6. The groom is obligated to don the tefillin even on the day after death, which is not obligatory upon other mourners, for he is considered to be in a state of rejoicing rather than mourning.

  7. In the event of the death of a parent of the bride or groom prior to the marriage ceremony, or even after the ceremony, but prior to the consummation of the marriage, qualified authority should be consulted.

All these foregoing cases concern bride and groom during their formal seven-day honeymoon period, when they have set aside these days exclusively for each other. If, however, they have returned to work or school prior to the death, but during this week of rejoicing, they are obligated to mourn in the usual manner.

Divorced Mate

A divorced mate need not observe any of the mourning laws, and need not attend the funeral. If one of the mates contemplated divorce, but took no legal action, he is obligated to mourn. If both agreed in principle to the divorce, and definitely determined to proceed with it, although no legal action was officially started, there is no requirement to mourn.

Converts to Judaism

There is no obligation upon a person who had converted to Judaism to mourn his non-Jewish parents in the prescribed Jewish manner. While it is expected that the convert will show utmost respect for his natural parents, he is, nonetheless, considered detached from them religiously. The grief that the convert expresses, although technically not required by Jewish law, should possess a markedly Jewish character. Therefore:

  1. The convert may say Kaddish if he so desires. It is preferable, however, since the deceased was not a Jew, for him to recite a Psalm instead, or to study a portion of Torah in honor of the deceased, as is customary on yahrzeits. In that way, a distinction is made between mourning a Jew and a non-Jew. The decision to do either rests with the bereaved.

  2. Likewise, the Shiva procedures should, preferably, not be observed as in full mourning for a Jewish parent. Full observance may indicate to friends, not intimately acquainted with the family, that the parent was Jewish. This may give rise to difficulties. For example, it may encourage the marriage of the convert to an unsuspecting kohen, a union which is not permitted.

The converted Jew should not feel that his emotions of grief must be restrained because of the religious difference. It is only the religious observance which is at issue. Indeed, those mourners who are converts should be shown special kindness during this period.

Which Relatives Are Mourned?

A life duration of more than 30 days establishes the human being as a viable person. If a child dies before that time he is considered not to have lived at all, and no mourning practices are observed, even though the child may have been normal, but was killed accidentally.

Any human being who has lived beyond this minimum span must be mourned. There are, however, several exceptions


A defector from the faith, who denounces Judaism openly, and adopts another religion without compulsion, is not to be permitted burial in a Jewish cemetery and is not to be mourned at all. For all intents and purposes, his defection is accepted as de facto severance from the faith-community and he is, therefore, not honored by the faithful. Permitting burial or any other religious observance for an apostate would leave the door open for others to follow, and would encourage the defection of others. The realization that all privileges and honors of the Jewish people will not be accorded the apostate may serve as a deterrent to those considering such action.

Arrogant Sinners

Those who publicly, purposefully and arrogantly, disown the ways of Israel, her faith and practices, her laws and traditions, but do not formally defect from Judaism by embracing another faith, are granted the rights of taharah (purification) and the wearing of shrouds. They are also interred, albeit in an obscure part of the Jewish cemetery. However, there is no mourning, such as the rending of the clothing, aninut, or shiva. The Jewish community must be forgiving up to a certain point; beyond that it must safeguard its own existence. By such treatment of the deceased sinner does it hope to prevent others from following his example.

Non-Intentional Sinners

Those who violate the laws and traditions of Israel out of social necessity, or as a result of ignorance of the details of the law, are not considered in the category of arrogant sinners. These people must receive the full measure of dignity afforded all Jewish dead. They must be mourned in the manner prescribed for all other deceased.

Cremated Dead

Those who choose not to be buried in the ancient Jewish manner have shown a final defiance of the tradition of the faithful, and are not to be mourned. Their ashen remains are not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. See chapter on cremation above.

Executed Criminals

Those who are executed by the government for reasons that, under Jewish law, would have brought upon them a sentence of capital punishment (such as murderers), are not to be mourned. If the crime would not have warranted capital punishment under Jewish law, the criminal must be mourned and full burial rights are accorded him. This is an unusual problem, and the details of each individual case would require rabbinic interpretation.


One who was an obviously intentional suicide is not eulogized or mourned, but certain laws are observed. There are, however, numerous qualifications as to who is legally termed an intentional suicide.

Offspring of Intermarriage

The child of a Jewish mother is considered to be Jewish even if the father was a gentile. Hence, such a person is to be mourned as any full Jew and he, in turn, is obligated to mourn other relatives. Understandably, he is required to mourn his gentile father only if the father converted before conception of the child.

If the mother is not Jewish, then:

1. If the child was formally converted, he is mourned as a Jew.

2. If the gentile mother converted before the birth of the child, even though after conception, the child is considered Jewish. He is mourned, and is obligated to mourn, under the same laws as other Jews.

Children Born Out of Wedlock

If the mother is Jewish, the child is considered Jewish in regard to all laws of mourning, as stated above.

Instructions Not to Be Mourned

In the case of an explicit request by the deceased not to be mourned by the observance of Shiva, it is questionable whether the will of the deceased should be observed. Much depends on the reason for the request. If the purpose was to alleviate the burdens of the survivors, to enable them to go to work, or to spare the family the trouble of observance, then we may dismiss the request and insist upon honoring the deceased. If, however, the motivation for the will was the intentional violation of the tradition, we must judge whether or not it was issued out of ignorance of Jewish values and their true significance. It would appear that if the reason for the will were based on ignorance, we should certainly observe the laws of mourning. If it was a wilfull denial of Jewish values, however, Jewish tradition would dictate following his will, and not honoring him by the observance of shiva.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Anonymous toronto December 11, 2014

suicide Suicide is not a crime even if it was willful. Desperation can drive people to suicide. There are teachings in religions about suicide. We do not abandon those who commit suicide they are still family. Stigma is no reason to say they are not family . Reply

Menachem Posner Skokie October 31, 2014

Regarding Sam's Comment It is important to note that there are nuances that come into play when determining whom to mourn that are not mentioned in this article. So in the tragic event that you are facing such an issue, please discuss the matter with an experienced rabbi before making a decision. Reply

Sam Leon October 27, 2014

So we're not to mourn suicides, or apostates? That seems a bit backward. After all, despite whatever the deceased may have done to anger G-d, they're still His children. Reply

Margot Webb Valencia July 28, 2013

mourning The many laws regarding mourning a person whose life has ceased, are mind boggling. I cannot imagine a G-d occupying himself with some of the problems which are not of a loving nature/
I am certain G-d made no distinction between a person or a child under thirty days. That would be cruel beyond words. Reply

Anonymous thousand oaks April 29, 2012

Adopted Relatives All of this wisdom is tragically undermined by such a shallow approach to adoption. The approach to mourning in the case of adoption is devoid of wisdom and knowledge of human nature. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC July 27, 2011

What is said regarding suicide does indeed not apply in the case of a Jew who committed took his or her life under mental duress. We can't play G-d. Only the true Judge knows the anguish and obstacles of a particular soul and its state of mind. And in actual practice, we look for any possibility that the suicide was not committed in a cold, rational frame of mind. We also question whether the person may have repented between his act of suicide and actual death.

Questions relating to this matter need the attention of a Rabbi. Reply

D Usenberg laguna niguel, california July 24, 2011

suicide yarzeit My friend was mentally ill and committed suicide one year ago. Kaddish was not said at her funeral because it was a suicide. She was buried on the Sabbath so she would not be judged. In the case of Mental Illness would it be procedure to have the unveiling ceremony? In the case of severe Mental Illness does Judaism forgive the
act of suicide? Reply

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