Parshas Chaye Sarah.
The laws of mourning.
1. The laws of mourning are generally divided into two groups: the laws applicable before the burial and those applicable after the burial. A person who lost a close relative (father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, son or daughter) has to rip his clothes. He does not pray or say any blessings and in general does not divert his mind until he buries his relative. He is also forbidden to eat meat and drink wine or grape juice. One should try to arrange the burial as soon as possible, before the sundown of the day of death. If this is impossible, at least the body should be buried before dawn, and if even that time passed – at least before 24 hours after death pass. If Shabbos arrived and the body is still not buried, the relatives can eat meat, drink wine, pronounce all the blessings and do all the mitzvos.
2. It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead. One should describe the good qualities the departed had but one should not greatly exaggerate them – this not only does not help the soul of the deceased but actually hurts it.
3. During the first meal after the burial, the mourners should not eat their own food – they are being fed by neighbors.
4. After the burial, the seven day period of “Avelus” – mourning starts, when the relatives don’t go outside the house. They are forbidden to work, take even cold shower, shave or cut hair, cut nails, launder clothes or wear fresh or ironed clothing or leather shoes or to have intimate relations with a spouse. A mourning woman does not put on makeup. The mourners sit on the floor or on very low stools (lower than 12 inches). The mourners talk little, they are also forbidden to learn Torah. They are permitted to study sad topics, the same ones that we learn during the Ninth of Av (see Parshas Devarim), they should also learn the laws applicable to them. All these laws apply until the morning of the seventh day. On the first day, the mourners don’t put on Tefilin.
5. If for some reason the laws of mourning were not observed, or the relatives found out about the death later, they should consult a Rabbi.
6. It is a big mitzvah to visit the mourners, this way we show kindness to both the living and the dead. The visitors should learn a little bit of Torah “Leiluy Nishmas” – for the elevation of the soul of the dead. For this reason, the house of mourning usually has brochures with Mishna and commentaries, so that the visitors can learn. We don’t greet “Shalom” to the mourners for parents for 12 months, and to all other mourners for 30 days.
7. It is customary to gather a minyon – 10 men to pray in the house of mourners. If it is impossible, the mourner should ask a Rabbi when he is allowed to go to the synagogue. In the synagogue the mourner does not sit in his usual place for 30 days, and if he is mourning for parents – for 12 months.
8. Most of the laws of mourning do not apply to Shabbos. The mourners put on clean clothes and leather shoes. They are permitted to go to the synagogue. However, the intimate relations between spouses are still forbidden. They are also not allowed to wash and learn Torah.
9. In the morning of the seventh day after the burial the saddest period of Aveylus is over and the period of thirty days when the laws are more lenient starts. During these days the mourners do not get haircuts or cut nails. However, they can rip off the nails with teeth or fingers. Ashkenazi Jews have a custom not to wear fresh or ironed clothes. It is forbidden to go to any festive occasions even if they have to do with a mitzvah, like a wedding meal or Seudas Bris Milah. If the mourner needs to go to a certain festivity he should consult a Rabbi. Ashkenazi Jews also don’t take hot showers for all thirty days. If this is too difficult, one should consult a Rabbi.
10. If one lost a parent, the prohibition of attending festivities applies to a period of twelve months. Cutting hair is forbidden until the mourner’s friends are ashamed of him saying: “Go away, you look terrible”.
11. In many cases the mourning periods of seven and thirty days are interrupted in the middle. This happens when one of the holidays falls on the mourning period. For example, if the relative was buried the day before Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur cancels the period of seven days and the next holiday – Sukkos cancels the period of thirty. In each concrete case one should consult a Rabbi.
12. It is a great mitzvah for the children to say Kadish to elevate the soul of the deceased. In this prayer we praise the Creator and show our hope that His glory will be soon revealed. In many communities the custom is only to say Kadish for 11 months. Others have a custom to interrupt for only a week and then continue saying Kadish until the end of twelve months. If one did not have sons, somebody else is usually hired to say the Kadish for his soul.
13. Every year on the day of death, the sons say Kadish for the soul of their parent. They also learn Torah for the elevation of his soul and some make a special meal, while others have a custom to fast.