Some Perplexing Mourning-related Minhagim

Learning Mishna

Is there a connection between mourning and learning chapters of the Mishna? I’m not sure. But popular Jewish practice certainly assumes that there’s something going on. There’s no escaping advice to recite carefully chosen chapters during the course of shiva, and then to gather participants in an effort to complete larger segments before key subsequent milestones.

But why? Some will note that the words נשמה and משנה share the same letters. But then, so do השמן and מנשה (not to mention the verb “meshaneh” – to change). Others will quote “ספרים הקדושים” extolling the power such study has in positively improving one’s status in the next world. The only specific references I came across pointed to titles (אלף המגן ,יוסף אומץ ,תורה אור etc.) that could each refer to multiple lesser-known and relatively modern books. Gesher Hachaim mentions the custom but, uncharacteristically, quotes no sources.

How, exactly, are these chapters meant to be recited? There’s apparently a highly ritualized process involved: the name of the departed soul is to be verbally mentioned before study (but not necessary after). The chapters chosen for each day of the shiva should begin with the corresponding letter of the departed soul’s name. Entire chapters should, ideally, be recited – optimally during the break between mincha and ma’ariv.

Of course, since the mourner himself is not allowed to learn Torah during shiva, he’s required to ignore the study. So it can’t be about delivering value to the dead through the merit of his son’s actions. Perhaps, it could be argued, there’s value in performing mitzvos at the site where the departed died – or at least in the location where he last lived. But these days, it’s rare for a shiva to take place in such places. And, in any case, how on earth could we know such things (pun very much intended)?

So again: why do it?

Lighting Candles

Somewhere, there’s a small factory devoted to the exclusive production of candles for the shiva market that burn for seven full days. I’m glad that people are able to earn an honest living this way but, like the learning of mishna, I’m not sure what it’s all about.

Of course, as Gesher Hachaim (20:1) points out, it’s not difficult to understand how candles are a fitting metaphor for life and, indeed, for the close relationship all humans enjoy with God Himself. And there’s no lack of ancient and powerful sources formalizing that connection – “A man’s soul is a candle of God” (Mishlei 20:27). So adding a candle to a shiva house has the potential to add substance to the serious and introspective mood.

But why, ideally, must the candle burn specifically in the room where the death occurred? And why should we prefer a candle that burns olive oil? This suggests of magical thinking; where there’s an expectation that performing an approved ritual will somehow force God’s hand to deliver benefits we’d otherwise miss.

Is there any source for this in traditional Torah literature?

The Gesher Hachaim notes the custom and quotes unnamed “acharonim” associating it with a Gemara in Kesuvos 103a. I’ll assume he’s referring to Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz, who indeed writes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s deathbed request for a candle to be lit in his place might have inspired the modern shiva custom. Of course, as Rabbi Eybeschutz subtly acknowledges, in its simple reading, that request would have specifically applied only to the rabbi’s plans to return home each Friday evening after his death, and not to the week following that death.

Any ideas?

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