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Torah Sparks

August 23, 2003 - 5763

Annual Cycle: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 (Hertz, p. 799; Etz Hayim, p. 1061)
Triennial Cycle 2: Deuteronomy 12:29-14:29 (Hertz, p. 804; Etz Hayim, p. 1068)
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5 (Hertz, p. 818; Etz Hayim, p. 1085)

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Discussion Theme: Putting Mourning Into Perspective

You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people. (Deut. 14:1-2)


  1. Because you are children of the Eternal, it is becoming for you to be comely and not be cut about and bald due to the tearing out of hair. (Rashi on Deut. 14:1)
  2. Once you realize that you are children of the Eternal and that God loves you more than a father loves his child, you should not cut yourselves in bereavement for anything that God does, because whatever God has done is for your good although you may not understand it, just as little children do not understand their father, yet rely on him. "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God" and you are not like all the other nations; therefore, you shall not do as they do. (Ibn Ezra on Deut. 14:1)
  3. If your parent were to die, you should not gash yourselves or pull out your hair to inflict great pain upon yourself because you are not orphans despite the tragedy, for you have a great living eternal parents, namely the Holy Blessed One. The idolater, however, when his parent dies has no remaining parent that can help him in his hour of need for the father that remains for him is constructed out of wood and the mother that remains for him is made of stone - thus idolaters weep, gash themselves, and tear out their hair. (Chizkuni on Deut. 14:1)
  4. In Leviticus we already have remarked how the prohibition of incisions on one's body and making baldness on one's head as a sign of grief over death ensured the keeping of one's self-estimation, the consciousness of one's own worth arising from being directly belonging to God, even in comparison and in connection with our dearest and most honored personalities. No personality may chain us so closely to it, allow us to be so absorbed into it, that when it departs from us we may throw our own personality after it, as having no longer any value, as would be what the permanent sign of cut or baldness on our body is meant to express. Now in the previous chapter the danger was described which even our highest relationship to God could be exposed to by unrestricted devotion to persons who infuse us with love and respect. A danger which would arise all the more easily in the isolation in which the people were now about to enter, small settlements and circles far away from the center, and people of imposing spirituality or in prominent positions would have much stronger influence. So that the Torah repeats with increased significance the prohibition against incisions and tearing out one's hair which wishes to keep up our own self-valuation even against our nearest and dearest, and brings the great idea home to all classes throughout the people that you are children of God, in the very first instance your nearest relation is your Father in heaven and you are His children. The tie that attaches you to your God is closer to, and comes before all other ties. (Samson Raphael Hirsch on Deut. 14:1)
  5. In my opinion the purport of the expression "for you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God" is to state an assurance of the eternal existence of the souls before the Holy Blessed One. The verse declares: Since you are a holy people and the treasure of God, neither does God respect any person but He devises means that he that is banished be not an outcast from Him" (II Samuel 14:14) - therefore it is improper for you to make incisions in your flesh and tear your hair for the dead even if "he perishes in youth" (Job 36:14). Scripture, however, did not prohibit weeping for the dead since it is natural to cry when parting from beloved ones, and when they go on a journey even in life. From this verse, there is support for our Rabbis in prohibiting excessive mourning for the dead. (Nachmanides on Deut. 14:1)
  6. Gashing the flesh until the blood runs and removing hair are known as mourning rites the world over. Some scholars think that they were believed to have an effect on the ghost of the dead person, either as offerings of blood and hair to strengthen the ghost in the nether world or to assuage the ghost's jealousy of the living by showing it how grief-stricken they are. These rites could also be acts of self-punishment expressing feelings of guilt, which are often experienced by survivors after a death." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary, on Deut. 14:1)
  7. One should not perform extreme rites of mourning when bereaved because, as God's children, one is never totally orphaned. (Abravanel on Deut. 14:1)

Sparks for Reflection/Discussion

The core of this Torah portion is a set of laws whose intent is to create a spiritual distance between the Israelites and their pagan neighbors. The Israelites are not only forbidden to engage in idolatry but also to incorporate elements of pagan worship into Israelite practice. The pagan sites of worship are to be destroyed, and all of Israelite worship of the One singular God is to be centralized in one singular location. Another way in which the Israelites distinguish themselves from their idolatrous neighbors is through the laws of mourning. Specifically, we are forbidden to disfigure ourselves when mourning. The question is why not? What is the connection between God as parent/Israelites as children and the prohibition against gashing oneself? What values are expressed in this ancient law that guide mourning practices today?

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