Monday, 17 November 2014

Sephardic Custom and Law When a Close Relative Passes Away

This blog post is in memory of Isaac Bensussen, Alfred Cordova and Roza Basseri who all passed away in the last few days. I am writing this blog because when people receive sad news of the death of their loved ones, they are not always able to take in all the customs and laws of mourning. Laws, which were designed to provide comfort at the most difficult time that a person can go through. May they be studied only in the theoretical sense and may God bring Mashiach speedily in our days.

From the moment a close relative passes away until the person is buried, the loved ones (father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, son or daughter) fall into the category of aninut. This period of deep sorrowfulness is a time when the family members spend their time making the arrangements for the funeral. As such Jewish law not only exempts but forbids a person from making berachot (blessings) and doing tefillah (prayer). As such, if a person died on a Monday and was not buried till Wednesday, the close relatives would be exempt from all the tefillot until after the funeral. 

The exception to this law is during Shabbat (and festivals). If a person passes away during Shabbat, or there was not time to arrange the funeral before Shabbat the close family members are obligated in Shabbat tefillah and should attend synagogue services. The reason is that on Shabbat a person cannot make funeral arrangements. Once Shabbat is over the regular laws of aninut apply. 

There are a number of prohibitions on the onen. They may not eat meat or drink wine, shower or shave. One is also forbidden to have a haircut, have marital relations, work or even study Torah. However, they may wear leather shoes and sit on regular chairs. 

Immediately following the burial the immediate mourners recite kaddish. Children are obligated to say kaddish for their parents for 11 months stopping on the 11 month meldatho. They then stop for a month and then say kaddish on the 12 month meldatho and continue for a month.  

For all other relatives kaddish is recited for 30 days. However, many in our community have the custom to say kaddish for the year for all close relatives.

Following the burial, the close relatives become avelim - mourners. Our custom is to recite the beracha Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet - Blessed is The True Judge and the avel - mourner tears his/her clothes. This is called Keriah. Although there are different customs I shall write how it is codified in Jewish Law. For parents we tear on the left side, opposite the heart. For other relatives we tear on the right side. The outer garment should be torn and not the inner garment. For parents some have the custom to tear all the clothes including the undershirts. It is permitted for the mourner to change clothes to something that he/she is comfortable to tear. Care must be taken to preserve a woman's modesty when the tearing is done.

Following the keriah, the mourners are provided with their first meal - The Seudat Havra'ah. Jewish Law states that this meal cannot be made by the family and is traditionally made by friends. In our community, the brotherhood and synagogues provide the first meal. This meal consists of round foods such as hard boiled eggs, bread rolls and olives. Lentils are eaten in other communities. Some have the custom to drink wine at this meal. The idea of the round foods represents the circle of life events and our hope that the mourners will have happier life cycle events such as births and marriages. Following this meal and during all meals during the first week of mourning there is a special Birkat Hamazon - which contains passages of consolation, the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of Temple in Jerusalem.

The week of shiva or siete has the following laws and customs. Ideally services take place in either the house of the deceased or the house of the mourners. Some prefer to have all the services at the synagogue, while others prefer a combination. With the exception of the mourners going to synagogue the mourners should remain at home. The idea is that friends and family come to give comfort to the mourners. The community comes to the family at their most difficult time, rather than the usual practice of the individual coming to the community. It is our way to pay our respects to the one who has passed and to the mourners. 

The most common practices are that the mourner sits on a low seat and does not wear leather shoes. For those sitting shiva who are advanced in years or ill or pregnant do not have to sit on a low chair. Strictly speaking a mourner should not sleep on a bed but many rely on the leniency that we are all like ill people and sleep on a bed. A mourner is also forbidden to shave/have a haircut, have marital relations or wash/bathe. We do not greet mourners, nor do we start conversation with them until they initiate conversation. Mourners are forbidden to learn Torah as Torah gladdens the heart. During shiva a mourner is also forbidden to work. 

During the Shabbat of the week of mourning the mourners come to the synagogue. It is our custom that the mourner sits facing the congregation and friends come and sit with the mourner. I do not know the source for this custom, indeed on Shabbat we are not supposed to do any outward signs of mourning, but many have told me how they find this custom one of the most comforting of all of our mourning practices. At this Shabbat service a friend of the family or a relative of the mourners who is not himself a mourner is called to the Torah and the whole congregation rises for the memorial prayer.

On the last day of the siete, the mourning ends after morning prayers. Following the conclusion of the first week of mourning the mourners are permitted to shower/bathe, wear leather shoes, greet people in the normal way and learn Torah. The male mourners are still forbidden to shave or have a hair cut until the month of mourning is over. In a pressing need such as for work the mourner may shave but only if he feels his job is in danger. Female mourners may have a haircut but cannot wear makeup until the end of the 30 day period. 

Meldathos - Following the end of the 7 day period and the end of the sheloshim - the first 30 days the family and friends read mishnayot and give words of Torah in memory of their dearly departed loved ones. Our custom is to have meldathos on the 7th, 9th and 11th month as well as on the 12th month - the anyo. All of these meldathos are commemorated from the day of burial. All future meldathos are commemorated on the day the person passed away.

For a more detailed account of our mourning practices please read "A Time To Weep - A Guide to Bereavment Based on the Customs of the Seattle Sephardic Community" For any personal questions please feel free to contact me. May all our mourning practices, customs and laws grant comfort to those in mourning. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Can we still learn from Disgraced Rabbis?

I received many comments about my last email on Halloween celebrations. Some said I shouldn't have said it was forbidden just not recommended. But the vast majority of comments were focused on the fact that I quoted Rabbi Broyde as my source. To paraphrase the comments they went something like this. "How can a Rabbi who has been disgraced still be used for halachic rulings? It would be better to quote other Rabbis or at the very least to give a disclaimer of his past deeds."

I decided after talking and emailing with those who made comments that I should write a blog on the permissibility or validity of quoting disgraced Rabbis in halakhic rulings. And even if it is technically ok, is it appropriate to do so? Furthermore, should we continue to learn from their many articles and books?

Before jumping into this question I want to add a further layer to this discussion. To what extent does one's actions at the end of a person's life change forever their legacy. Using an example from the last couple of weeks. Noach is described at first as a righteous man, perfect in his generation, who walked with God. He and his family were saved from the flood and from his family mankind would start all over again. This we all know well. 

However, at the end of the Torah portion, there is a less known section when Noach post flood, plants a vineyard, makes wine and gets drunk. In many ways this could be explained as Noach being depressed and melancholy after the flood for having not saved the world. He then curses one of his children and one of his grandchildren and blesses the rest. This is the last we hear of Noach. Despite living at the same time as Avraham. (Noach was still alive when Avraham was 58). The Torah does not recount a discussion between Avraham and Noach. Could it be that post flood, Noach was no longer the great man?  Or could it be that Avraham would not wish to seek out the man chosen to save the world? Could it be that Noach was now notorious?!

I want to start by discussing two famous personalities of the Talmud Rabbi Meir and his teacher Elisha Ben Avuya/Acher. The following is based on a piece of aggadah from Masekhet Hagiga. Acher was a great Torah scholar, who along with three other great Rabbis entered Paradise. 

"Four men entered the pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Akiva. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace."

This piece of Aggadah which is not to be understood literally, teaches us a couple of important things. First, there are many things beyond human understanding, even great Rabbis cannot understand all of God's ways. Second, Acher found what he saw/what he understood to be very troubling. As a result of this Acher decided to depart from a Torah observant lifestyle. However, his great disciple, Rabbi Meir continued to learn with Acher long after he turned away from God.

The Talmud asks "But how did R. Meir learn Torah at the mouth of Acher? ... R. Dimi said: In the West, they say: R. Meir ate the date and threw the kernel away. Rava expounded: What is the meaning of the verse: I went down to the garden of nuts, to look at the green plants of the valley? Why are the scholars likened to the nut? To tell you that just as in the case of the nut, though it be spoiled with mud and filth, yet its contents are not sullied, so in the case of a scholar, although he may have sinned, yet his Torah remains unsullied."

Although a regular person would struggle to learn from a person like Acher and realise what is Torah and what is not, Rabbi Meir was able to discern the good from the bad. From Rabbi Meir we could possibly conclude the following, I can still learn the writings of these disgraced Rabbis because I can figure out what is clear, unsullied Torah thought from the shortcomings of these Rabbis.  Indeed, Elisha Ben Avuya makes it into Pirkei Avot - a book of our ethical teachings. Without any disclaimers of his appropriateness to learn from. (See Chapter 4 Mishna 20)

Another thing to think about is, in what way did the Rabbi become disgraced? Was it stealing from the discretionary fund or creating online pseudonyms? Is it plagiarizing other Rabbinic works or is it taking advantage of vulnerable members of one's congregation? Are there many incidents or is it just a couple? 

We have seen a few incidents in recent years of highly regarded modern Orthodox rabbis being discredited. The question that is relevant is whether the problem that the particular Rabbi had casts a shadow on his writings. Does one's past deeds invalidate his past rulings?

If we were to say yes, wouldn't that bring into question all the conversions that these Rabbis were involved in?! The very fact that Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz made a public ruling that all previous conversions that were conducted while Rabbi Freundel was the head of the Beit Din in Washington DC are still valid and do not require a second conversion shows that Rabbi Schwartz believes that one's halachic mind is separate from one's misdeeds. I.e. that despite Rabbi Freundel's deplorable behavior over a number of years, while he was acting as a dayan for conversion that was done properly. 

Finally, to the question of should one study from and promote teachings from disgraced Rabbis, I can well understand the position that their positions can be relied upon but that we should not go out of way to bring them as the only sources on a particular topic. With regard to me bringing Rabbi Broyde's ruling on Halloween, at that moment of writing my email I was only aware of his ruling. Had I been aware of other prominent positions I would have brought them instead. 

I know I haven't delved into this completely, but I welcome your comments and positions at the bottom of this piece to develop some of these ideas. I also saw an excellent source sheet by Rabbi Josh Yuter on this topic which can be read here.