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(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine. Original photo: Library of Congress)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Over the last two weeks, Daf Yomi readers have been exploring the third and final chapter of Tractate Moed Katan, in which the rabbis lay out the rules governing Jewish mourning practices. This represents a major change of subject for a tractate that begins by addressing the comparatively minor question of what activities are prohibited on the intermediate days of a festival; and it’s interesting to observe how the Talmud makes this kind of transition.

The section on mourning starts out, improbably enough, with a discussion of hair-cutting. Ordinarily, cutting your hair is forbidden on the middle days of a festival, but in Moed Katan 13a, the rabbis offer a catalog of exceptions. The common element is that if for some reason you were unable to cut your hair before the festival began, you are allowed to do so in the middle of it. The reason a person is unable to cut his hair could be practical—because he was in prison, or on a long journey—or it could be legal. Nazirites, men who have taken a temporary vow of holiness, are forbidden to cut their hair (or drink wine); so too are people under official ostracism by the community, and lepers.

In the ensuing discussion in the Gemara, the rabbis bring up the case of a baby who is born during a festival. Is it permitted to cut his or her hair, if for some reason it’s necessary for the baby’s comfort? The answer is yes, because, in a surprising but apt analogy, a baby who has just come out of the womb is likened to a newly released prisoner: As Shmuel says, “there is no greater prison than this,” being in utero. In general, Rav Pinchas explains, the rules about hair-cutting during a festival parallel those that apply to a mourner: “All of those about whom the sages said: It is permitted to shave on the festival, it is also permitted to shave during the days of his mourning.” Since a minor isn’t subject to the laws of mourning, there are no restrictions as to when he can have a haircut.

In this way, the laws of festivals lead to the laws of mourning, and over the following pages the Talmud lists a long series of Jewish mourning rituals. A mourner is obligated to cover his head and face, but he cannot wear tefillin, greet people, wash his clothes, bathe, work, or even study Torah. A mourner should turn his bed upside down before sleeping on it, because as Bar Kappara explains, when a person dies God says, “I have placed the likeness of my image within humans, and owing to their sins I have overturned it.” Later in Tractate Moed Katan, the rabbis discuss how long a mourner is obligated to mourn, and what to do if a Shabbat or festival falls in the middle of the mourning period. The initial and most severe mourning period lasts seven days, the rabbis explain, by analogy with a verse from the Book of Amos, where the prophet says, “And I will turn your festivals into mourning.” “Just as a festival lasts for seven days, so too mourning lasts for seven days,” the Talmud explains. As often happens, this seems more like an ex post facto explanation than a historical one. The rabbis like to find a scriptural basis for any Jewish custom, no matter how implausible, as if to sustain the fiction that everything in Judaism comes straight from the Bible.

Like trauma itself, the sign of mourning should always leave a scar.

Toward the end of Chapter 3, the rabbis also provide detailed guidance about when and how a mourner is required to tear his garment. In Moed Katan 26a, we learn that a Jew should make a rent in his clothes upon the death of his father, his mother, or “his teacher who taught him Torah”: The relationship of teacher and student is as sacred as that of parent and child. Further, you should tear your clothes when you hear bad news, or if someone curses God’s name—and here the Talmud uses a typical euphemism, substituting the word “blessed” for “cursed,” so as to avoid having to mention such a terrible blasphemy. (Similarly, whenever the Talmud refers to the Jewish people committing a collective sin, the text instead reads “the enemies of the Jewish people,” as if to deny that the Jews themselves could ever be so guilty.)

Further, you should tear your clothes upon seeing the destroyed cities of Judea, which were laid waste by the Romans, or the ruins of the Temple. Today, of course, the Temple is still in ruins; but I wonder if you are still supposed to rend your clothes on seeing Jerusalem, as the Talmud prescribes, now that Jerusalem is not a desolation but a thriving Jewish capital. Once these tears are made, the rabbis explain, they should never be completely fixed: “One may tack them together with loose stitches, and hem them, and gather them, and fix them with imprecise ladder-like stitches. But one may not mend them with precise stitches.” Like trauma itself, the sign of mourning should always leave a scar.

On Moed Katan 26b, the discussion takes what feels like a characteristically Talmudic turn. Say a man is told that his father has died, and he tears his garment; and then, before the mourning period is over, he learns that his son has also died. Can he extend the initial tear, or does the new loss require a new tear? And what if “his father died, his brother died, and his sister died” all at once: Is one tear sufficient for all of them? These are the kinds of very concrete and practical questions the rabbis love to ask, even though they might seem trivial in this context. Surely a man who has just lost his whole family would be too grief-stricken to care about the details of tearing. But the Talmud’s ruling principle is that there is always a correct course of action in any situation life might present; and there might even be a kind of consolation in this strictness, since it depends on the idea that God is watching over every one of our actions.

In this case, the rabbis rule that a mourner can extend his tear for a second loss, but he must remember which part of the tear was made for his father and which for his son. The part of the tear made for the son can eventually be mended, but the part made for the father cannot. This seems to suggest that the loss of a father is a greater grief than the loss of a child, which is surely not the case; we expect to outlive our parents, while we pray not to outlive our children. But perhaps the tearing is not meant to proportional to the emotion we feel, but rather, to the respect we owe.

That would explain why, as we read on Moed Katan 25a, “when a Torah scholar dies, everyone is his relative”: that is, every Jew is obligated to rend his garment. This is true even if the deceased was not a great sage but simply “an upright person.” Indeed, this obligation is so urgent that, the rabbis go on to say, neglecting it can have fatal consequences. “For what reason do a person’s sons and daughters die young?” they ask, and find the answer: “because he did not cry and mourn over an upright person who died.” This seems like an extraordinarily harsh punishment, and also an unfair one: Should a child be punished because its father failed to mourn properly?

But then, at many points in the Talmud we read about a father being chastised by the loss of his children, or a husband by the loss of his wife. A family, in the Talmudic view, was not a collection of individuals but a man’s possession, which could be taken from him if he sinned. In this way, the rabbis tried to find some modicum of logic, of cause and effect, to loss. If you are punished, it must be because you deserved it. Likewise, in Moed Katan 18b we read that a person is never accused of a crime unless he is at least somewhat guilty: “A man is suspected of having done something wrong only if he has indeed done so. And if he did not do it wholly, he did it partly. And if he did not do it even partly, he thought in his heart to do it. And if he did not think to himself to do it, he saw others doing it and was happy.” To the rabbis, anything seemed preferable to acknowledging that life, with all its grief and suffering, might simply be random.

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