Giving Death Its Due

On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.

Hilkin writes:

“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”

Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick:

When his son Shim’on fell gravely ill, Akiva did not leave the study house [in which he was teaching] but sent messengers to his son’s side. The first returned and said, “His condition is critical.” Akiva told his students, “Ask [any questions you may have about the lesson]!” The second returned and said, “He’s worse.” Akiva told them to go on studying. The third returned and said, “He’s dying.” Akiva said, “Ask!” The fourth returned and said, “It’s over.” Akiva stood, removed his phylacteries, tore his clothes, and said, “My fellow Jews, hear me! Until now we were obliged to study Torah. For now on we are obliged to honour the dead.”

Halkin proceeds to expound upon this excellently, saying:

“The story is chilling, but it is not meant as an indictment of Akiva. Rather, it is told in his praise. Precisely because death is so frightful, one must not cede to it an inch more than necessary. Akiva, from the Mishnah’s perspective, was not being heartless. For all one knows, his heart was breaking. He was being self-disciplined, and discipline is never more of a virtue than when it is maintained in the face of death.”

Despite the wide range of human experience, when it comes to grief and mourning, it seems clear that there can be too much or too little of it. And so we need those “time-tested ways” in cultures and traditions and families in order to educate us in what it means to give death its due. Both life and death have their rights and, accordingly, both life and death have their rites.

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