Yesterday I finished the “shloshim” for my father, Elliott Arian. Just like the word “shiva” means seven, the word “shloshim” means thirty and like shiva, it is counted from the day of the funeral. For thirty days after the death of a first degree relative (parent, child, sibling, or spouse) one continues to say the Mourner’s Kaddish daily. One is also supposed to refrain from dining out, going to musical or theatrical performances or sports events, and so on -- at least for me, not a difficult restriction to follow in our current pandemic reality. One is also supposed to refrain from shaving or getting a haircut, and as I neared the end of the shloshim this particular restriction felt onerous. I started becoming somewhat self-conscious about how shaggy my beard appeared and yesterday morning I was very happy to have my beard trimmed, although I won’t be able to get a haircut until later in the week.
For all relatives but a parent, the end of shloshim marks the end of formal mourning. It does not, of course, mean the end of grieving and in our contemporary society where people feel freer than in previous generations to adapt our rituals to meet their own emotional needs, some choose to continue saying Kaddish beyond the shloshim.
For a parent, formal mourning continues for 11 months. I am often asked why the period of mourning is longer for a parent than for other relatives. It has nothing to do with the intensity of grief; the loss of a spouse and all the more so a child can be far more painful than the loss of a parent. The reason is that the Torah commands us to honor our parents and part of the fulfillment of that commandment is to continue to say Kaddish and avoid public entertainments for 11 months. Why 11 months and not a year? The Talmud says that the maximum period of punishment for a wicked person in the afterlife (Gehinnom or “hell”) is a year and since we don’t want to imply that we think our parent was wicked, we observe mourning for less than a year.
There are certain workarounds for the prohibition on attending entertainment and celebration, particularly if it is work-related. I attended our lovely Chanukah celebration this past Sunday since I consider it a part of my job as your rabbi. A sportswriter could still attend sporting events, a professional musician could continue to play music, and so on.
In my previous congregation in Norwich, CT., I dealt with the question of eating in restaurants during the 11 month period of mourning for a parent. A congregant died of breast cancer in her 60s and her daughter, who was then in her late twenties, was a magazine editor in Manhattan. Like many single New Yorkers of her age, she lived in a tiny apartment with an even tinier kitchen. She told me that she wanted to observe the traditional rituals as much as she reasonably could but that she literally never ate a meal that she prepared in her apartment and wondered how she would survive for a year without eating out. We discussed this together and she decided that she could differentiate between eating out as a means of sustenance vs. eating out as a means of celebration. She would not meet her friends or coworkers for dinner and drinks but would continue to grab a sandwich from the local deli for lunch, coffee and a bagel from a food cart for breakfast, and so on. Keleigh and I will not go to a restaurant during the next ten months (but frankly under current circumstances we haven’t been doing so anyway) but we will get takeout food and eat it at home.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian