Mourning for a Parent | Parshas Re'eh
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
The Torah forbids various forms of mourning the death of loved ones that were prevalent among the non-Jewish nations. One of the reasons that these were forbidden is that they were too excessive, in that they ascribed a sense of permanency to the death of a person, when in truth, we know that the person’s soul continues to exist and lives in the Next World. Chazal also criticize excessive mourning even when forbidden acts of mourning such as cutting one’s skin, are not performed. The Gemara[ tells us of a woman who had seven sons and one her sons passed away. She was extremely distraught and mourned for a long time. Rav Huna warned her that she should not mourn so much, but the woman continued, and soon after, her remaining sons also died as a punishment for her excessive mourning.
The Gemara continues to give outlines of the length of the mourning process and how, in stages, the intensity of the mourning is reduced. The mourning period varies as to the relationship between the niftar and their relative: A person mourns for twelve months for a parent, but only one month for a child, wife or sibling. On one occasion, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was sitting shiva for his wife, and he was visited by Rav Yitzchak Hutner and Rav Pinchas Teitz. The question arose as to why is the mourning period for the more natural and frequent loss of a parent longer than that for the unnatural and seemingly more traumatic loss of a child? Each Gadol offered a different, fascinating perspective on this question.
Rav Hutner suggested that with the death of a parent, a person becomes more removed from his connection to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which requires additional mourning. This would not apply to a child or any other close relative. This reminds us of the fact that our parents are not merely physical ancestors, rather they are spiritual ancestors who are our most direct connection back to the ultimate spiritual moment of Mattan Torah.
Rav Teitz pointed out that all other relatives are ‘replaceable’, meaning that a person can, in theory, remarry, have additional children, or gain new siblings through his parents having children. The only relative for whom there can be no substitute is a parent, and this unique status merits additional mourning.
Rav Soloveitchik himself suggested that the answer is alluded to in the question. The basis of the question is that mourning for a parent is more natural than mourning for a child, therefore one may have thought that the mourning process should be longer for a child. Rav Soloveitchik explains that because of the very fact that the death of other relatives is less natural, the Sages were concerned that a person may overdo his bereavement if he was allowed to absorb himself in his grief for a long time, therefore they limited the mourning period to thirty days. This concern is not applicable to the natural death of a parent.
Rav Yosef Sorotskin suggests yet another answer: that a person needs the advice of his parents for his entire life. When a parent dies, a child must focus on remembering and internalizing their values and priorities, which will guide him for the rest of his life. He does so by mourning the loss and focusing on the memories for an entire year, for this period contains all of the festivals and different periods in life through which a person passes. This does not apply to any other relatives.
Finally, Rav Binyamin Rubin offers an answer based on the Gemara that tells us that the Mitzva of Kibbud Av V’Eim applies both during one’s parents’ lives and even after they have passed away to the Next World. Accordingly, the extended mourning period and following the laws pertaining to it, is a way of honoring the parent for a longer time, something which again does not apply to other relatives for whom the same laws of honoring do not apply.
While all of these answers focus on different aspects of mourning for one’s parents, they generally share the common denominator that there is something extra special in the relationship between a person and his parents. The lengthy mourning process enables a person to continue honoring the memory of his parent, appreciating the irreplaceable loss, learning from their example, and to recognize their line in the chain of connection back to Mattan Torah.
-Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen