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Joyous Occasions During Mourning

Joyous Occasions During Mourning

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The observance that most affects the daily life of the mourner during the 12-month period is the complete abstention from parties and festivities, both public and private. Participation in these gatherings is simply not consonant with the depression and contrition that the mourner experiences. It borders on the absurd for the mourner to dance gleefully while his parent lies dead in a fresh grave. Thus, the sages decreed that while complete physical withdrawal from normal activities of society lasts only one week, withdrawal from joyous, social occasions lasts 30 days in mourning for other relatives, and one year (12 Hebrew months) in mourning for one's parents. Joy, in terms of the mourning tradition, is associated largely with public, social events rather than with personal satisfactions.

The Definition of Joy

The difficult problem, however, is which social occasion is to be defined as joyous, and thus prohibited the mourner. There are, on one hand, social gatherings, such as friendly get-togethers, parties, community meetings, pleasure-trips and cruises, business gatherings, synagogue-sponsored events, and so on. On the other hand, there are religious celebrations, such as b'rit, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. Which are considered "joyous" in terms of the mourning tradition? What criteria are to be used in making the determination? Clearly, the law cannot determine "joy" arbitrarily, by the frequency of smiles or by some computerized meter of internal jollity.

The sages, through the centuries, have established general criteria of "joyous" occasions. The first consideration was whether the party was religious or social. On this point the great teachers were divided. The majority, and largely the prevailing attitude, was that only "true-joy" was prohibited. True-joy is that which goes to the roots of the person, his in-depth relationship to God and to his family. This is what the Talmud had in mind when it prohibited the mourner from entering a wedding hall to participate in the gala dinner. The occasion of celebrating the observance of a mitzvah, such as a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, struck true joy in the heart of the person, and this the mourner was not permitted to experience.

The establishment of this criterion is far from arbitrary. Rather it is a consequence of the Jewish spiritual world-concept. Man finds genuine happiness in the fulfillment of his obligations to God. His deep satisfactions come not from the distractions of the entertainment media and the superficial frivolities of the age, the games and contests of society at play. It is true that fellowship gatherings grant unmistakable and positive joy, and many are the encomia offered by the sages for the comradeship characteristic of friendly social occasions. Yet the delight that is derived is not nearly so profound as the true-joy of the religious occasion.

Thus, these scholars maintained that the primary prohibition was the simchah shel mitzvah, the religious celebration, and the archetype of this true-joy festivity was the wedding ceremony and feast. Only secondarily was the social occasion prohibited.

A minority view, held by some of the most esteemed thinkers in Jewish life, maintained that tradition primarily prohibited the simchat mera'im, the purely social joys, the gaieties of the hail-fellows, and the round of parties that often mark life. Any occasion celebrating the observance of a commandment surely could not be prohibited to the mourner wishing to observe the commandment! Can these joys mar the spirit of the bereaved? Can they bring shame to the deceased? Can it be said that participation in religious family festivities distracts one's mind from the dead?

Committed Jews, eager to keep the law, anxious to do full honor to parents, and relatively unconcerned with the number of affairs they attend during the year, keep both views, and sedulously avoid both the religious and the social festivities, as a general rule. Exceptions to this custom were enumerated in the tradition. These will be discussed below.

Other obvious criteria of what constitutes joy were established. Music, especially dance music, and especially that which is enjoyed in the company of others, is a clear mark of gaiety. Another criteria is the festive dining with a celebrant. A sumptuous celebration dinner surely is a joyous occasion. There are moments, at a wedding reception or on a pleasure cruise, for example, when simply being present in a hall for dancing and dining, without participating in either, is not permitted the mourner. It is a spirit of public light-heartedness that is to be avoided. It should be noted that the joy that is prohibited the mourner is commensurate with the degree and period of mourning, and also with the relation to the deceased. Thus:

  1. During shiva the mourner must refrain from doing those things which even possibly evoke joy, such as the recitation of certain joyous verses from the prayerbook, or excessive playing with the children, or even indulging heatedly in discussions with the visitors to the house of mourning. These latter were considered s'chok, pleasantries, unbecoming the bereaved and prohibited during all of the stages of mourning. Ecclesiastes says, "There is a time for wailing (bechi), and a time for laughter (s'chok)." As mourning is surely the time for wailing, excessive laughter is not permitted.

  2. Before sheloshim, which ends the mourning observance for those bereaved of relatives other than parents, joyous religious and social occasions under normal circumstances are prohibited. After sheloshim, all festivities are permitted these bereaved.

  3. For those who mourn parents, the sheloshim period requires a more intense restraint from joy than the remaining months of the year. For example, the bereaved are permitted to attend a Bar Mitzvah party (all may obviously attend the synagogue service) during sheloshim (after shiva) together so long as they avoid listening to the instrumental music and participating in the dinner together with the celebrants. After sheloshim, and for the balance of the year, however, they may participate fully in the dinner if the Bar Mitzvah lad speaks on some Torah subject, making the celebration a truly religious function.

Following are some of the details of the law that derive from these concepts. In difficult situations one should discuss the particulars with the rabbi so that he may decide any question of law. Below are guidelines that mark the rule, and its exceptions, in the prohibition of attending joyous occasions during mourning.

Social and Business Gatherings

  1. Community business meetings, such as synagogue or fraternal organization membership meetings, are permitted the mourner after shiva.

  2. Social dinners, even though no music is played, and even though they are held for charitable causes, are not to be attended by mourners for parents for 12 months, and other mourners for 30 days.

  3. Pleasure cruises and group tours are somewhat similar to social dinners in the eyes of the law, even though the meals are eaten privately. These are considered truly to be "joy rides," and should be discouraged during the 30 days at least.

  4. Large house parties also are to be discouraged the mourner for parents for 12 months, and other mourners for 30 days, even though no full meal is served. There is no stricture against get-togethers, inviting a few friends or relatives at a time. The important consideration to be remembered is that these events must not develop into social "occasions." Fellowship is fine, but festivities are not appropriate.

  5. Business parties, where gaiety and shoulder-rubbing is the method, and business achievements the goal, should also be avoided during the full mourning period. If absence at such events might cause financial loss, a rabbi should be consulted. Business conventions are, similarly, to be avoided in normal situations. However, if attendance is mandatory, or economically beneficial, the mourner may attend but should not be present during music and dancing periods. He should take his meals privately, or with several friends, unless the purpose of the meal is purely business, in which case he is permitted to dine with the convention, after the sheloshim period.

  6. Professional musicians who derive all, or part of, their livelihood from playing at joyous occasions, may do so after Shiva, as they are not playing for joy. If they are financially able, they should avoid playing during the sheloshim.

  7. Attendance at operas and concerts, theaters and movies is to be discouraged. Listening to radio and television, depends on the above-mentioned criteria of joy. Generally, sports events and broadcasts over radio and TV of news and sports are permitted.

Religious Celebrations

Brit

The mourner who has just become a father may attend the b'rit of his son even the very first day after interment. He may dress in Sabbath clothes. He may help prepare and eat the festive meal, even (perhaps preferably) in his own home. If it is not in his own home, he may travel to the location of the b'rit. However, immediately after the b'rit, he should return to continue the shiva at the house of mourning.

The mohel, if there is no other competent one available, may perform the b'rit, even during his shiva. He should not participate in the festive meal during sheloshim if he is mourning a parent, but may do so (after shiva) if he is mourning other relatives.

The sandek (who is a mourner) may attend the b'rit, but should not participate in the festive meal during shiva, as previously noted for the mohel. He may wear shoes and dress for the occasion. However, it is not considered entirely proper to invite a mourner to be the sandek in the first place.

Pidyon Ha'ben

The laws of pidyon ha'ben are similar to those of b'rit. The Kohen, in this instance, is permitted those matters which the mohel may do in performing the b'rit.

Bar Mitzvah

A parent in mourning may prepare the Bar Mitzvah party even during sheloshim, so long as it is after shiva. He should not, however, eat the meal with the guests. He may eat in another room, and socialize with the guests during the meal proper, without music.

Such a parent may also dress for the occasion. The Bar Mitzvah lad himself, if he is in mourning for one of his parents, may dress in his full Sabbath best. The religious ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is not cancelled even if the boy is in mourning. All mourners, whether or not they are related to the Bar Mitzvah, may attend the celebration during sheloshim, but should avoid eating at the dinner or listening to music. After sheloshim, the mourner for parents may attend and participate in the meal if the celebrant speaks on matters of Torah, thus indicating that it is a simchah shel mitzvah, a religious occasion.

The Ceremony at the Wedding

  1. If the ceremony takes place in a catering hall or similar place where music is played, the general rule is that mourners for parents should not attend for 12 months and for other relatives 30 days.

  2. In the catering hall proper, if the orchestra is not present, mourners for parents may attend after sheloshim.

  3. If the wedding takes place in a synagogue, where customarily there is only vocal but no instrumental music, the mourner for parents may attend after Shiva. After the sheloshim, in such case, the mourner for parents may even participate in the recital of the blessings at the ceremony and dress up for the occasion. If there is instrumental music he may not attend at all until the end of the year.

  4. If the mourner (even for parents) makes the tenth for the minyan, and there are no other available men to constitute a quorum, he may attend the wedding and eat the meal even during the sheloshim.

  5. If the absence of the mourner will cause a delay in the wedding date, and there is a possibility that the delay might cause one of the couple to withdraw from the marriage, the mourner may attend at any time and under any conditions.

  6. If the rabbi is a mourner, he may perform a wedding after shiva, but should avoid listening to the music.

  7. When mourners do attend at such times that are not normally permissible, they must perform some useful function:

    a. Relatives who attend after shiva (during sheloshim), must serve as ushers or helpers at the ceremony, even if they are not mourning parents. These mourners, of course, may attend after sheloshim without this requirement.

    b. Close friends of the celebrant who are in mourning should not attend the wedding ceremony during sheloshim. However, if they feel that their absence will cause the bride or groom remorse or pain, they may attend as assistants before the ceremony. After sheloshim, if they are mourning parents, these friends may attend the affair if they asist before the ceremony.

The Dinner

Dining at a festive meal with friends and relatives falls directly within the category of simchah, joy, and should be avoided by the mourner until after 12 months when mourning for parents, and 30 days when mourning for other relatives. In pressing circumstances, mourners should proceed as follows:

  1. Father and mother, brother and sister, and children of the bride or groom, may attend the ceremony and eat at the dinner during sheloshim even if they are in mourning for parents. They should, however, be of some help in the preparation or service at the meal, or in the serving of drinks, and so on.

  2. Other relatives of the couple may join the wedding reception after sheloshim, if they mourn parents, (other mourners after shiva) but should help in serving.

Celebration of the Talmud

At the conclusion of a tractate of the Talmud a celebration (siyyum masechet) is usually held (such as that attended by first born who, otherwise, would be required to fast before Passover). Such celebrations may be attended by mourners, and they may participate in the meal that follows the talmudic discourse. The festive meal at Hanukkah and at a housewarming are in the same category providing that they partake of the character of religious celebration through a Torah discussion or with religious songs and praise of God.

Festivities on the Sabbath

The Sabbath is a day when public mourning is avoided (even though personal mourning prohibitions remain in force). May one attend a public, joyous occasion on the Sabbath?

The general rule is that the Sabbath only adds to the simchah that is coincident with it, and hence should make it doubly prohibitive. At the same time, however, if the community would ordinarily expect the mourner to attend, his absence would appear to be public mourning which is not permitted on the Sabbath. The following procedures, therefore, should be followed:

Post-wedding festivities (sheva berachot) held every evening for seven days after the wedding, should not be attended even on the Sabbath until after sheloshim for mourners for parents, and after Shiva for other mourners. The same is true for b'rit, shalom zachar (celebrated on the first Friday night following the birth of a son), and for a mother returning to the synagogue for the first time after childbirth, if a party is customarily made in her honor.

However, the above is intended for friends and distant relatives of the celebrant. Close relatives of the immediate family and prominent individuals, ordinarily expected to attend, may attend these celebrations and join in the meal. Their absence clearly would be an indication of mourning in public, which is prohibited on the Sabbath.

The Mourner and Marriage

The quintessence of all joyous occasions, in the Jewish view of life, is the wedding. When the sages wished to convey the idea that happiness may be found everywhere, they said "all the world is a wedding." To the relatives, friends and well-wishers, joy at the wedding is defined in material terms, such as dining and dancing. Thus, the mourner may attend the ceremony if there is no music and if he does not participate in the banquet. But to the couple being married, the food and music are ancillary, merely incidental accompaniment to the significant moment under the canopy. For them the definition of joy is the spiritual personal bond that unites them. Were the wedding shorn of the material goodies, the smiles and the tinsel, and only the couple, the two witnesses, the minyan and the rabbi were present, the wedding ceremony would still be the memorable peak of joy. The thrilling sounds of mazel tov, the beauty of flowers and music would be gone, but the essence would remain for a lifetime.

Thus, for the mourner himself, marriage should be prohibited. But this is not a light matter. One may refrain from celebrations and music for a year, but marriage is of the fabric of life itself, and life inevitably must go on. And so all mourners, for parents or other relatives, while being prohibited from marrying during shiva, were permitted to marry after sheloshim. (The laws of marriage during sheloshim will be considered later.) The wedding can be held in the presence of the full complement of friends and material abundance and beauty and music and gaiety. It is, after all, the festival of festivals and, therefore, shaving, haircutting, washing and dressing in the finest apparel are permitted.

The mourning laws relating to marriage affirmed the need for life to go on and to be lived to its fullest, but they also considered that, nonetheless, a close relative has just been taken from life. The glorious union of marriage and the bitter severance of death are two contrasting threads, and the tradition understood the needs of both.

Following are the laws that flow from this understanding of human need at the rare moment of the coincidence of such paroxysms in life.

  1. When Marriages May Take Place:

    a. Mourners should not be married during sheloshim, and certainly not during shiva, even without pomp and music and sumptuous reception. Engagements may not be contracted or announced during this period.

    b. After the sheloshim, the wedding may proceed with all the adornments, the music and the food, and the bride and groom, and their parents may dress for the occasion, without showing any evident signs of mourning.

    c. During sheloshim (after shiva) there are exceptional circumstances when marriages may be contracted:

    -If the groom is the mourner:

    If he is childless, and preparations had been made, such as: the date set, the arrangements contracted for, and the food bought, so that postponing the wedding would incur a severe financial loss, or cause a large group of people to be absent.

    If the date had not been set, but for some cogent reason, such as military draft, it must be held during sheloshim, the couple may marry, but not live as man and wife until after sheloshim.

    -If the bride is the mourner:

    The marriage may take place during sheloshim only if she had already been engaged, the preparations made and the groom is childless.

  2. When Remarriages May Take Place:

    a. If the wife died:

    The husband must wait for the passing of the three major festivals (Passover, Succot and Shavuot) before he remarries. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not count as festivals for this purpose. Shemini Atzeret may be counted as a festival in certain cases involving the family's urgent personal circumstances. The ostensible reason for this delay is the hope that the duration of three separate holidays and the cycle of seasons would temper his despair, and he would not enter a second marriage with the first love still fresh in mind. This time-span may be as long as a year if death occurred soon after Succot, or only a few months if death occurred immediately prior to Passover.

    There are notable exceptions to this general rule:

    -If the husband did not sire children, marriage may be held after shiva and they may live as husband and wife.

    -If he has small children who need to be cared for, marriage may be held after shiva, but marital relations must be postponed until after sheloshim.

    -If he cannot bear to live alone, for whatever reason (this is not an infrequent occurrence), he may be married, but may have no marital relations until after sheloshim.

    b. If the husband died:

    The wife may remarry after three months, a considerably shorter time than the three-festival duration for a man. Evidently, the wife was considered better able to control her emotions, having to be more concerned with the rearing of her children than with her own feelings. The reason for the three-month delay is that it must be evident that she is not bearing a child from a deceased mate. Under exceptional circumstances to be judged by competent rabbinic authority, if it is known medically that she could not possibly be pregnant, and if her fiancé is childless, she may be granted permission to remarry after shiva. Also, if she finds unusual hardship in supporting her orphaned children, and it can be determined absolutely that she is not pregnant, she may be granted permission to remarry immediately after Shiva.

  3. Becoming a Mourner after the Ceremony

    a. If one of the seven close relatives of the bride or groom died after the ceremony, but before the marriage was consummated, the couple must live apart until after shiva.

    b. If the relative died after the consummation of the marriage, the mourning is postponed until after the full week of wedding celebration. During this time, the mourner may care for personal hygiene and grooming, and may experience all the joys of living. When the week is over, however, the garment of the mourner is rent and shiva begins in full, as noted above.

The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm. To purchase the book click here.
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Discussion (7)
April 22, 2014
60th birthday
Can friends get together for dinner in honor of a 60th birthday..no dancing...no music, no greeting cards
janet
March 4, 2014
Re: Purim
A mourner in the 12 months after the passing of a parent, may surely partake in a Purim feast taking place at home. If the feast is taking place outside the mourner's home, the mourner should attend if (he/she attends every year, and) his/her absence will be noticeable.
Anonymous
Brooklyn
March 3, 2014
How does the above relate to the Purim feat? Is a mourner in the twelve months of mourning permitted to make a Purim feast with friends but without music?
Leah G
New York
January 27, 2014
What about birthdays of one who passed and birthday of his/her spouse and children?
Are these tobe celebrated, or otherwise acknowledged?
Val
NJ
July 8, 2013
Re
That is correct. One does not send greeting cards during this time. Of course, one can let them know they were thinking of them in other ways.
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
July 4, 2013
Sending birthday cards, wedding cards, birth of a new baby cards etc
I heard that one should not send cards during the year of mourning. Please let me know whether this is correct as I am concerned about this particular restriction and want to do the right thing.
Elaine Finesilver
Wembley
January 12, 2008
explanations
Thank you so very much. This was very helpful to me
Aliza Avital

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