Why do we cover the mirrors in a house of mourning?

March 8, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

MIRRORS IN A HOUSE OF MOURNING

Q. Why are mirrors covered in a house of mourning?

A. Not only Jews but some other groups have this custom.

The usual Jewish explanation is that mirrors represent human vanity, an inappropriate concern at a time when one’s heart is broken and the world has gone dark. To look, even inadvertently, into a mirror at a moment of such sadness might reflect on the genuineness of the grief.

It may also be, on the other hand, that a mourner who looks into a mirror might feel worse than before when they see how unkempt they are.

In addition, some say that since services are held in the house of mourning, mirrors might distract the worshippers.

PEARLS IN SHULE

Q. My mother left me her pearls. Can I wear them to shule?

A. I almost decided not to answer your question. What I know about jewellery is negligible.

I admit that there are sayings in rabbinic writings about beauty aids. But I am not certain I know whether to advise you to wear the pearls to shule or leave them at home or in the safe.

What may be worrying you is the halachic issue of whether wearing jewellery on Shabbat transgresses the rule against carrying in places where there is no “eruv”, but to address this issue would be to read your mind.

I would also be reading your mind if I said you were concerned for others who may feel jealous because you have pearls and they don’t.

However, having started to write on the subject I can’t now merely abdicate for want of more information about your thinking. What I will do is to take a Midrashic approach and understand the idea of pearls homiletically.

On the verse, “They (the commandments) shall be liv’yat chen, a chaplet of grace to your head” (Prov. 1:9), the Midrash says that the mitzvot are like a string of pearls that endow a person with grace and lovingkindness.

In that sense you should be blessed with many pearls, both inherited from your mother and earned by your own efforts, which will go with you and beautify your own life and the world around you.

CELIBACY

Q. What does Judaism say about celibacy?

A. Judaism finds it hard to understand why anyone would consciously choose never to get married.

Marriage is seen as the basic human community, established by God at the time of the creation. Its purpose is twofold – deep companionship (“It is not good for man to be alone”) and procreation (“Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth”).

The person who deliberately renounced marriage lacked joy, blessing, happiness (and, said one of the sages, also peace: Y’vamot 62b). The celibate also deprived society: for who knows what blessing one’s child might bring to the world, even that of being the Messiah?

Yes, the Essenes frowned on marriage, but this may have been due to outside influences, and in any case Essenism is not normative Judaism.

Only one of the Talmudic rabbis chose not to marry – Ben Azzai, who when criticised said, “What shall I do, since my soul embraces the Torah? Let others perpetuate the world” (Y’vamot 63b).

However, some say that he had in fact been married but separated from his wife so as to study Torah (Sotah 4b); others say he had been engaged to Rabbi Akiva’s daughter but they never married (K’tubot 63a, Tosafot).

Other sages stayed away from home for long periods in order to study, and the marital problems they caused were acknowledged.

Some authorities such as Maimonides had a rather negative view of sex and among the Chassidim, Nachman of Breslov asserted that he was able to achieve indifference to sexuality.

But the basic teaching of Judaism is that marriage is a mitzvah and while some Jews, including rabbis, happen not to marry, ideological celibacy has no place in Jewish teaching.

When celibacy for the Christian clergy was reasserted in the middle ages Jewish writers produced polemics against it; the 13th century Sefer Nitzachon Yashan indeed remarks that clerical celibacy does not work and priests “wallow in licentiousness in secret” (David Berger, “The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages”, 1979).

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