April 21, 2024
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April 21, 2024
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A Breakthrough Work on Hilkhot Aveilut

Reviewing: “Hilkhot Aveilut: Understanding the Laws of Mourning,” by Rabbi David Brofsky. Maggid Books. The Toby Press. 2019. English. Hardcover. 296 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592644612.

For decades, Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s work “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” has been a fixture in shiva houses in Modern Orthodox homes. The laws of aveilut are set forth, and wise pastoral guidance is provided by Rabbi Lamm informed by his decades of service in the American rabbinate.

However, the Modern Orthodox community has, thank God, become far more knowledgeable and learned in the past decades. Thus, a more updated book on mourning that reflects this blessed progress is much in demand and need. The fine sefarim on hilchot aveilut that have emerged in the charedi communities are helpful resources but do not completely hit the mark for our community.

Rabbi David Brofsky, along with Maggid Books, has come and filled this need with his new work on hilchot aveilut. In this excellent sefer, not only are the halachot presented, but also much of the logic and hashkafa (worldview) of hilchot aveilut are succinctly presented as well. One superb feature is the author first presenting a basic summary of the halachot and only afterward presenting a more extensive elaboration and explanation of the halachot.

Much of the wise practical counsel from Rabbi Lamm is cited in this book as well as some of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s great insights into the experience of aveilut and its halachot. One example of Rabbi Lamm’s insight is regarding the restrictions Halacha imposes on a mourner regarding social gatherings: “Fellowship is fine, but festivities are not appropriate.”

Rav Soloveitchik devoted considerable attention to aveilut, and some of his choicest and most poignant insights are incorporated into Rav Brofsky’s work. Here is one special example: In explaining the need for the 12-month mourning period for a parent, he stated:

“It is precisely the fact that the parent, a generation older, normally passes away before the child that creates an additional need for mourning. Over the years, the relationship of dependency that the child has to the parent reduces and, if the parent lives a long life, may even reverse itself. The sense of loss is diminished by the infirmity of the parent. In order to force the child to reflect back on his total relationship with his parent, including his early years, and acknowledge the enormity of the debt owed to both father and mother, halakha requires this extended period of mourning.”

I was particularly pleased that Rav Brosky devotes an entire chapter to a concept of a “beit aveil,” developed at great length by the Rav. He felt that not only do we practice laws of aveilut, but that Halacha mandates the entire house be given a character of mourning. Thus, the Rav uniquely, but persuasively, rules that not only is the mourner forbidden to engage in Torah learning but that Torah learning is forbidden in the mourner’s house even among those who are not mourners.

The Rav’s great idea that the primary observance of aveilut occurs in the heart is also featured prominently in this work. Rabbeinu Bachya already taught that certain mitzvot are chovat ha’eivarim, obligations of the limbs, such as eating matzah and sitting in a sukkah. Other mitzvot such as belief, love and respect of Hashem are chovot halevavot, obligations of the heart.

Rav Soloveitchik added that there is a third category. Some mitzvot, he explained, are performed with the limbs (ma’aseh hamitzva) but their fulfillment or kiyum is baleiv, in the heart. Tefillah and kriat Shema are primary examples of this most crucial category. We pray with our lips but the true fulfillment is the “service of the heart” and “accepting the yoke of heaven.” The Rav further adds that the same applies in regard to aveilut. While the Halacha mandates many activities to be performed by the aveil, the primary expression of the aveilut lies in the heart.

The North American Modern Orthodox Jewish community may be defined in part as the talmidim/followers of Rav Soloveitchik. As such this is reason alone to embrace this new work from Maggid Books. One caveat, however: The Rav is cited as unreservedly permitting women to recite Kaddish from the women’s section of the synagogue. By contrast, when I spoke to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveithcik about this sensitive matter in 1985, he offered a more nuanced approach. At first he responded that it depends on the custom of the community. When I asked about a community that does not have a set custom, he replied that “it would not be the worst thing in the world” for a woman to recite Kaddish in such a circumstance.

Another major plus for Rav Brofsy’s work are its frequent detailed explanations for many complex issues. For example, the question as to the commencement of aveilut when the mourner lives a great distance from the country in which the burial will occur is presented clearly and with considerable depth. The great debate between the Netziv and his son-in-law Rav Raphael Shapiro is presented in a manner that clarifies why there is often ongoing debate about this matter until this day.

Great issues regarding aveilut, such as whether it is of rabbinic or Torah origin, are also clearly presented with details that allow readers of all levels of scholarship to appreciate. There is a good sense of history and its ramifications on a variety of issues. One example is the change in observance (in most communities) from one person reciting Kaddish to all the mourners reciting the Kaddish in unison.

Highly sensitive issues such as mourning in case of suicide, a convert reciting Kaddish for his biological parents and an adopted child mourning for his or her adopted parents are dealt with sympathy and care. An exceptionally special part of the book is the foreword contributed by Rabbi Marc Smilowitz. Rabbi Smilowitz shares the emotional upheaval he experienced upon hearing of the sudden death of his father, Herbert Smilowitz, and how the halacha helped him cope and regain his bearings. This beautiful brief essay describes the “Two Faces of Halacha,” the rigorous master on one hand and nurturing teacher on the other hand.

I was pleasantly surprised to find some Sephardic practices to be presented correctly even regard some nuanced issues. For example, Rav Brofsky notes the Sephardic ruling permitting women to cut their hair immediately after shiva ends. He even correctly notes that many (but not all) Sephardic communities have Birkat Kohanim performed in a beit aveil in accordance with Rav Ovadia Yosef’s ruling. In addition, many of Rav Ovadia’s rulings that are not specific to the Sephardic community are cited as authoritative, as is quite common in the Modern Orthodox community. Nonetheless, the book most definitely has an Ashkenazic orientation and thus it is useful, but not authoritative, for members of the Eidot HaMizrach.

I find the rulings in the book to be reasonable—not overly strict or lenient. Of course, one should consult his or her own rav for specific guidance about issues raised. Specifically the most sensitive topic of hilchot aveilut is an area that many experienced community rabbis issue rulings that are tailored (with the aid and support of leading poskim) to the specific needs of their specific communities. One veteran rabbi told me that his chevra kadisha will distribute the Rabbi Brofsky book but will post on the synagogue website the rabbi’s rulings in which he differs from that set forth in the book.

A few isolated matters of criticism regarding an otherwise excellent work: Some of the footnotes need to be improved. For example, a citation is not offered for Rav Yechiel Yaakov’s Weinberg’s lenient ruling regarding autopsy (it appears in the 12th volume of Techumin). A few outlier positions from rabbis who are not widely accepted as halachic authorities are, in my opinion, inappropriately presented. Finally, I was disappointed that Rabbi Brofsky legitimates the possibility that Ashkenazic communities change the time-honored practice for those who do not recite Yizkor to leave the synagogue at that point.

Other than these few points of criticism, I find Rabbi Brofsky’s “Hilkhot Aveilut” to be a work whose time has come. It most definitely fills a pressing need in our communities. I recommend that congregations in our community distribute this most worthy and helpful sefer to its congregants in time of need. May Hashem spare us from needing to consult this work regarding actual practice. However, in time of need it is the right book to have.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


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