CCAR RESPONSA

Informing a Daughter of her Mother's Death

5753.1

She'elah

An elderly woman, who has been under the care of her granddaughters, has died. There has been terrible conflict and estrangement between her daughter and her four granddaughters, and the granddaughters do not plan on informing their mother (the daughter of the deceased) of the death until after the funeral has taken place.

What is the obligation of the officiating rabbi in this situation? Should the daughter of the deceased be informed of the death even if her presence at the funeral will probably cause a great deal of pain and discomfort among the rest of the mourners? (Rabbi Mark Glickman, Dayton, OH)

Teshuvah

Jewish tradition considers as a mourner a person who has lost any one of seven close relatives: a spouse, a mother, a father, a son, a daughter, a brother or a sister.1 This definition of a mourner is based on the interpretation of Leviticus 21:1-3:

". . .(a priest) shall not defile himself for the dead among his people; except for his nearest relatives: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother; his sister. . . ."

While the Leviticus passage does not explicitly include a priest's wife among the list of "his nearest relatives" (hakarov eilav), nevertheless, Rashi maintains that the Torah implicitly instructs that a Kohen should also defile himself in order to mourn for his wife.2 In its various guides and publications, Reform Judaism too has maintained this understanding of who is considered a primary mourner, an aveil.3

In reference to our case, in which the granddaughters wish to exclude their mother, it is uncontested that she, as a daughter, is a primary mourner in the legal sense. Her children may feel closer to the deceased than she does, but that does not affect her status: she has obligations as a primary mourner which her children do not have, and she must therefore be informed of her mother's death so that she can fulfill them.

Is there any reason why Reform Judaism should disagree? The CCAR's Gates of Mitzvah plainly states: "It is a mitzvah to notify all members of the family at the time of death. This applies also to cases where certain members of the family are estranged and the period of family mourning might promote reconciliation."4 Furthermore, "the mitzvah of burying the dead is the responsibility of the person's children or spouse."5

Are there special considerations which would justify the children's desire to keep her from fulfilling her mitzvah? Without going into the personal details of this family's dysfunctional history, we take note of the fact that the mother and her daughters do not get along. At a previous funeral, their tempers got the best of them, and hurtful words were spoken. According to the children, it was the mother's behavior which caused the problems. Nevertheless, the mother has rights which are not abrogated by a previous contretemps. The Reform position is clear: It is a mitzvah to notify every mourner that death has occurred, and in fact, this occasion becomes frequently an opportunity for healing family wounds.

It is our judgment that the rabbi should insist that the mother be immediately it told of the death of her mother. If the granddaughters refuse to inform her, the rabbi must assume this responsibility. What we know of the past history of the family relationship does not alter this conclusion.

One member of the Responsa Committee points out that some rabbis may be under a contractual obligation to conduct a funeral upon the request of a congregant regardless of how unseemly the arrangements are. Some such contracts read: "Upon request, and consistent with established Reform Jewish practice, the Rabbi shall officiate at all funerals of members and of their families." The majority of the Responsa Committee feels that "established Reform practice" would not tolerate the exclusion of a primary mourner or the public humiliation of a mother by her children.

Notes

  1. Sh. A. Y. D. 374:4.
  2. Rashi to Leviticus 21:2, basing himself on the Sifra's interpretation, holding that the word lesha'ero refers to the Kohen's wife. Note also the baraita in BT Moed Katan 20b, which implies that the inclusion of the wife comes from the Torah (Maimonides disagrees in this respect, Yad, Hilkhot Aveil, 2:1).
  3. Cf. Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practice, Vol. I (Cincinnati,1944) p. 157; David Polish and Frederic A. Doppelt, A Guide for Reform Jews (New York, 1957), p. 85; the CCAR's Ma'gelei Tsedek- Rabbi's Manual, p. 259; and the CCAR's Gates of Mitzvah, p. 51.
  4. Gates of Mitzvah, p. 53.
  5. Ibid. p. 55.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.