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Self-Mutilation Prohibited

The tools necessary to cope with bereavement are inherent in Devarim 14:1. This pasuk tells us: “You are children to Hashem, do not cut yourself, pull out your hair, or otherwise mutilate yourself when grieving.” In other words, the Torah prohibits excessive mourning.

 Banim Atem LaHashem Elokeichem

It is instructive that the phrase “You are children to Hashem” prefaces this prohibition. The Torah does not introduce any other mitzvah in this manner. So, why specifically does Hashem introduce the ban on excessive mourning with this phrase? The mefarshim present four explanations for the introduction, each representing an effective tool to help us grieve appropriately:

Explanation One — Rashi:

Rashi explains that since we are Hashem’s children, we may not harm ourselves. It would bring Hashem great pain if we mutilated ourselves. At a time of loss, we draw our strength from being Hashem’s children.

Explanation Two — Ramban:

Ramban explains we are Hashem’s children blessed with eternal neshamot. The beloved deceased individual is not gone — he is in shamayim — and we will see him again. Since the neshamot of the deceased lives on, we maintain a connection with them. Therefore, there is no need to mourn in excess.

Explanation Three — Seforno:

Seforno explains that since we are Hashem’s children, we should upgrade our connection to Hashem at a time of loss. We should fill the void of the dead person’s loss with Hashem. We have not been left alone, since Hashem is still there. A Jew is never by himself.

Explanation Four — Ibn Ezra:

Ibn Ezra explains that Hashem loves us more than a father loves a son! Even though we do not comprehend all Hashem does — especially in a situation of grief — the best strategy is to feel like a child to a parent. Hashem acts for good. For example, a parent brings a child to the doctor, and the doctor gives him a shot, which hurts. The child does not blame the father for taking him to the doctor, even though he does not know why he was brought there. Instead, he trusts that his father acted for his benefit. So too, with Hashem, we do not understand why He took that person’s neshama, but we should trust that it is for the best.

 Conclusion

The Torah respects the need to mourn. However, it demands the grief remain within reason. The Torah restrains the mourning to a framework of shiva, sheloshim and (for a parent) 12 months to facilitate healthy expression of grief. However, the mourning periods eventually come to a close. Despite the loss, we must all come to terms with the loss and continue with our lives. The meanings inherent in “Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem” ease the pain and help us, eventually, conclude mourning.

I first presented this idea at the shiva home for Ovadia Mussafi, zt”l, after his sudden and tragic death in March 2010. Many found the mefarshim’s masterful revealing of the many facets of “Banim atem laHashem Elokeichem” very comforting at that very distressing time. Armed with these powerful lessons, the family and the congregation successfully recovered from this devastating loss.

May our delving into this important topic elevate the neshama of our beloved Ovadia, whom we all sorely miss.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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