How do you greet a mourner?…ask the rabbi

August 24, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Greeting a mourner, so many blessings, for richer or for poorer…three issues Rabbi Raymond Apple deals with this week.

GREETING A MOURNER

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. I read that one should not greet a mourner with a “Shalom”. How about the English custom of shaking hands with mourners and wishing them long life?

A. “I wish you long life” is a typical Anglo-Jewish idiom. Others include “I wish you well over the fast” and “I wish you much joy”. In the case of “well over the fast” there are problems; to imply, “I hope Yom Kippur is easy for you physically”, stresses the wrong idea, since the physical deprivations of the day are meant to arouse us to spiritual and ethical awareness.

In relation to “I wish you long life”, Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank ruled that this does not contravene the prohibition of greeting mourners with “Shalom” (Har Zvi, Orach Chayyim 290).

Usually “Shalom” implies that life is normal and that people are glad to see each other, which is inappropriate in a house of mourning. God says to Ezekiel, “Sigh in silence” (Ezek. 24:17). Any form of lighthearted greeting is also to be avoided when visitors see each other in the house of mourning. A shivah visit is not a social call. But “I wish you long life” is a prayer, and prayers are certainly appropriate in a house of mourning.

SO MANY BLESSINGS

Q. Why do we have to say so many blessings every day?

A. Every time we say a b’rachah we are showing our gratitude. We are saying “thank you” for our history and destiny, for our values and visions, for our talents and energies, for love, inspiration, and life itself.

Let’s take three examples:
1. Hamotzi – the blessing for bread – acknowledges that the Creator has granted us a world that has the capacity of feeding all His creatures.

2. Asher Yatzar – the blessing said after using the toilet – recognises that our bodies enable us to move and live.

3. Hadlakat Nerot – the blessing for Shabbat and festival lights – shows our appreciation of physical, intellectual and emotional light.

The wonder is not why there are so many blessings, but why we don’t say them with enough feeling and joy. The idea of constantly thanking the Creator is enshrined in a famous rabbinic statement, “A person is duty-bound to say a hundred blessings every day” (Men. 43b). The poet George Herbert wrote: “Thou that has given so much to me, give one thing more – a grateful heart.”

Yet another rabbinic saying tells us, “A person is duty-bound to say a blessing upon evil just as on good” (Ber. 9:5). One way of looking at this rule is that something which appears evil can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Another possibility is that if God thinks we can handle evil He knows what He is doing and we must acknowledge His wisdom.

FOR RICHER OR POORER – A THOUGHT FOR THE MONTH OF ELLUL

The month of Tishri when we observe the High Holydays is awesome and demanding, but the previous month, Ellul, is even harder. In Tishri we face the Almighty Judge but in Ellul we get ready for the court appearance, and that is when we should really shake with dread.

Of course many people use the days and weeks before facing the music – of any kind – looking for alibis and excuses that might mitigate the sentence. “I wasn’t there, Your Honour, when the crime was committed”… “Everybody knows I am incapable of committing a crime”… “I have a psychological condition and cannot be held fully responsible for my actions”…

We all become paragons of virtue at times like these – anything to avoid being given a heavy sentence.

A modern syndrome? Far from it. The Talmud (Yoma 35b) records what people in those days might say when asked why they did not study Torah and keep away from sin. “I was too poor,” one might claim. Another: “I was too rich”. A third: “I was busy with my health and looks”.

The first one was told, “Were you poorer than Hillel? He had hardly any assets yet nothing would ever get in the way of his learning Torah”. The second one was told, “Were you richer than Elazar ben Harsom? He had a huge business yet nothing impeded his Torah study”. The third one was told, “Were you better looking than Joseph in the Bible? Yet he would not succumb to the temptation to sin!”

We can look for excuses but what is best in the end is to confess, “Aval anachnu chatanu” – “We admit our failings; we have indeed sinned”. That’s what should occupy our minds in Ellul, the month of real trepidation.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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