Rabbi Loewenstern with his family. (Photo: Courtesy)

Aveilut of the Heart:
The Relationship Between the Internal and External Actions of Mourning

RABBI ELISHA LOEWENSTERN הי”ד 

On Rosh Chodesh Tevet, 13 December, 38-year-old Rabbi Elisha Loewenstern of the Armored Corps was killed fighting in southern Gaza. Originally from Beit Shemesh, he was one of 8 graduates of Yeshivat Hesder Yerucham to have been killed fighting in this war. A prolific talmid chacham, Rabbi Loewenstern had written numerous Torah articles, one of which is a long analysis of the halachot of aveilut and their meaning. Rabbi Tzvi Gleiberman, a member of Mizrachi’s Musmachim program, summarizes Rav Elisha’s article here.

Rabbi Loewenstern learning while resting after being in his tank for days. (Photo: Courtesy)

The Shulchan Aruch cites various practical halachic practices that must be followed while in mourning, such as not putting on tefillin on the first day of mourning, washing, ironing clothing or getting a haircut. All of these are external practices, which begs the question: does halacha also require one to experience internal grief or do the halachot of mourning only apply to external practices? If the halacha only applies to external practices, what value does mourning have without the inner experience it is meant to reflect?

Let’s examine two different approaches to this question: that of Rav Shlomo Fischer, the Beit Yishai, and that of Rav Soloveitchik. Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes that mourning is not only about outward actions, but also includes an inner experience of sorrow and grief for the deceased. This view suggests that the various mourning practices prescribed in halacha are expressions of this internal grief. By contrast, the Beit Yishai contends that the primary obligation of mourning is one’s external behavior, without necessarily emphasizing the internal emotional experience of grief. These external practices are a form of paying respect to the dead.

Other sources dealing with the laws of mourning can shed light on this fundamental debate:

Many of the laws of mourning are derived from Yechezkel’s prophecy: “Say to the house of Israel… your sons and daughters whom you have left over will fall by the sword… you shall neither lament nor weep” (Yechezkel 24:21,23). Rashi explains: “You shall not observe mourning because you have no consolers, for no one among you is not a mourner, and there is no mourning except where there are consolers.” The Beit Yishai explains that this implies that mourning is an external act performed in order to honor the dead and it is therefore meaningless when there are no comforters, as there are no people to honor the deceased person by their presence. 

However, Rav Soloveitchik could respond by citing the second half of Rashi’s commentary: “Another explanation: For you will be afraid to weep before the Chaldeans in whose midst you are.” According to the interpretation of the Radak, the prophet is saying that the Jewish people will be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the destruction that they will not have the strength to mourn. According to this approach, there is no proof from this prophecy that mourning is primarily internal, for this specific instance was purely situational. 

The Gemara says that “when a person dies without family to mourn them, ten people sit on their behalf,” to which Rambam comments that “when a person dies who has no mourners to comfort them, ten people come and sit in his place for the seven days of mourning and the rest of the people gather around them.” The people that are sitting are fulfilling the external aspects of mourning, but nowhere does it say that the people sitting are expected to show grief. This implies that mourning is a practical, external matter.

When discussing the concept of osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, that one who is involved in a mitzvah is exempt from performing another mitzvah, the Gemara states that this rule only applies if one is actively engaged with the mitzvah and is busy with it. When it comes to the mitzvah of mourning, the halacha obligates mourners to be immersed in the practicalities of mourning, making them exempt from other mitzvot. This implies that the mitzvah of mourning is external and practical.

On the other hand, Rabbi Gershon ben Yitzchak, the Girshuni, argues that the primary aspect of the mitzvah of mourning is the emotional experience of grief. This is supported by a Gemara in Moed Katan that implies mourning does not occur during the chagim, as it contradicts the obligation to experience joy during chagim. But why should there be a contradiction between mourning and the joyous observance of the chag? According to the Girshuni, if joyous observance involves physical actions like eating meat and drinking wine, and a mourner is also permitted to eat meat and drink wine, there should be no contradiction between mourning and joy. Why, then, is the mourning of shiva incompatible with a chag?

The Girshuni postulates that both mourning and joyous observance of a chag are independent mitzvot. Mourning involves internal emotions, while joyous observance includes external actions. The Ramban, however, suggests that the reason for the apparent contradiction between mourning and joy of a chag is due to the public nature of chagim. He explains that the mourning of shloshim (the period after shiva) is private and doesn’t conflict with the chag because the inner emotional aspect of mourning ceases before the chag starts. Thus, the practical aspects of mourning that occur during the chag don’t contradict the observance of the chag. However, the Beit Yishai reconciles the contradiction differently, suggesting that the joy of a chag is primarily a practical commandment fulfilled by korbanot. Hence, when mourning interferes with these external expressions, it creates a contradiction.

The Beit Yosef and the Hagahot Maimoniot emphasize different aspects of mourning. According to the Beit Yosef, mourning involves both emotional and practical elements. Mourning is a way to honor the deceased, requiring active expression of grief, yet there is a limited obligation for mourning even when there are no close relatives to witness it. On the other hand, the Hagahot Maimoniot emphasizes the internal and emotional aspect of mourning, suggesting that it doesn’t necessarily require outward, practical manifestations. He argues that the Torah acknowledges an emotional state of mourning even without explicit outward actions. Whereas the Beit Yosef focuses on the honor and expression of grief for the deceased, the Hagahot Maimoniot stresses the mourner’s internal emotional state, presenting a nuanced view of mourning that involves emotional suffering but not necessarily overt actions. 

In summary, the great poskim emphasized different aspects of mourning. Some consider the external and practical aspect to be primary, while others consider the internal experience of grief to be primary. We pray that Am Yisrael should only know joy, and no longer need to mourn in any way.

 

“He only died once. But he lived every day.”

Words of Inspiration from Hadas Loewenstern

Rabbi Elisha and Hadas Loewenstern. (Photo: Courtesy)

Elisha was the love of my life. We spent thirteen beautiful years together, we have 6 children together. My oldest is 12-and-a-half, he will have his bar mitzvah a week before Rosh Hashanah, and my youngest is a 10-month-old baby girl, and we were so happy together.

My husband was a big talmid chacham. He translated the Gemara Steinsaltz into English, and he used to tutor secular bar mitzvah boys here in Israel for their bar mitzvahs. He did not waste time at all. He would do sit-ups with an app, that after 50 sit-ups gave a minute break. He would learn Mishnayot for a minute, and then do his next set!

When the war started he went to fight, and he told me that he felt privileged to defend Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. This is not about Hadas or Elisha Loewenstern. This is about the Jewish nation and this about our enemies trying to kill us throughout history. My husband was the first tank to go into the south part of the Gaza Strip. When some soldiers were injured, Elisha went to help them and that is when he was shot.

Talking about his death is secondary in my eyes, because he only died once, but he lived everyday. He died. Hashem decided that my husband would die, that is Hashem’s decision, I can’t change it. But, I am alive, and my six kids are alive, and we plan on living such a wonderful life. We will live here in Eretz Yisrael and we will study Torah and will keep mitzvot, and we will be a happy Jewish family. And this is the true victory in my eyes.

There may be a time difference between Israel and the Diaspora, but, in our hearts there are no time differences. We love you so much, we feel you, we feel you in your davening for us. And b’ezrat Hashem we will all be together when Mashiach comes – all be here together, here in Yerushalayim, and I will give all of you a huge hug. The hugest hug ever.

 

 

 

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