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Emor: Mourning Laws – Torah vs. Paganism

May 4, 2023

The opening verses of this week’s parashah deal with some of the laws of the purity of the kohanim, the temple priests from the family of Aaron. Specifically, the text outlines restrictions on mourning practices. Among these restrictions, we read:

“They shall not make baldness on their heads and the corners of their beards they shall not shave, and they shall not make gashes in their flesh.” (Leviticus 21:5)

(Although the text relates these prohibitions only to the priestly family, the rabbinic tradition extended these rules to the entire community of Israel (see Babylonian Talmud Makot 20a).)

To sum up, in this verse the Torah prohibits three mourning practices.

  1. No ripping out of hair to “make baldness on their heads”
  2. No shaving the corners of their beards
  3. No gashes in the flesh

To appreciate the meaning behind these prohibitions, we must first understand the intent of the practices that are being forbidden. To the modern reader, the gashing of flesh and tearing out of hair appear to be expressions of grief. We imagine a mourner who is pained at the loss of a loved one. Overcome by grief, the mourner lashes out at himself by tearing the hair out of his head and gashing his flesh. 

Although incorrect, this understanding of these practices, that they were spontaneous displays of uncontrollable grief, still only works for the first and third prohibitions. But what about shaving? Why would a grief-stricken mourner shave his beard?

Sir James Frazer, best known for his classic work on ancient pagan beliefs and practices, The Golden Bough, discusses ancient pagan mourning practices in another work, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament (Macmillan 1923). Frazer devotes twenty pages of this book to the ritual cutting of the hair and gashing the flesh by mourners. He details the customs of literally dozens of pagan tribes from all parts of the world who engaged in similar practices. The customs of these many varied tribes were more alike than different. They were alike in a number of prominent ways.

First, the gashing of the skin – the most common mourning ritual among ancient religions – was not a spontaneous act by delirious grief-stricken mourners. In fact, it was quite intentional, ordered, and followed set ritual procedures and norms. Second, the cutting of hair was not, by and large, the tearing of hair from the head as a spontaneous act of grief. Rather, this shaving of hair from the head – “making baldness” – was done with scissors or a blade. Like the gashing of the skin, this hair cutting was ritualized and ordered. Third, by and large, the shaving of the beard was done in order to collect the shaven hair for ritual use at the funeral.

Frazer shows quite conclusively that the cut and shaved hair along with the blood from the skin-gashes were intended as offerings to the deceased. Often the hair would actually be thrown into the grave with the body. Expression of grief was decidedly not the purpose of these rituals. Rather, they were meant as ways of appeasing and, in some cases, worshiping the dead.

Frazer concludes the chapter – “Cuttings for the Dead” pp. 377-397 – with this explanation:

“The widespread practices of cutting the bodies and shearing the hair of the living after a death were originally designed to gratify or benefit in some way the spirit of the departed; and accordingly, wherever such customs have prevailed, they may be taken as evidence that the people who observed them believed in the survival of the human soul after death and desired to maintain friendly relations with it. In other words, the observance of these usages implies a propitiation or worship of the dead.” (Folklore in the Old Testament; Chap. IV, pp. 397)

We see from the above that the central meaning of this prohibition is not so much to forbid harming our bodies in the course of grieving, although this too is certainly prohibited. The primary focus of these laws is to combat the prevalent pagan ideals of reverence for and worship of the dead.

It is interesting to note that one of the most key Jewish observances in the early stages of mourning is a prohibition on shaving and cutting one’s hair. This is the exact opposite of the pagan custom.

In both last week’s column as well as this one, I have highlighted the way that many of the Torah’s commandments were intended to counteract the pagan impulse to glorify death. As I quoted from Frazer’s The Golden Bough last week, “fear of death and of the dead is on the whole, probably the most powerful force in the making of primitive religion.”

In light of this, it is important to note that the Temple priests, the kohanim, those who were at the center of the life of worship of God, were commanded to avoid contact with the dead. As we read in the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, a few verses before the one we are studying.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die.” – Leviticus 21:1

Contact with a dead human body conveys a severe level of ritual impurity. There is nothing objectively wrong with becoming ritually impure. Those who do the sacred work of proper care for and burial of the deceased become impure in this way even though they are performing a sacred duty. Impurity is not about sin. It is about being exposed to that which darkens our spiritual lives. 

In pagan worship, death was front and center. Human sacrifice and worship of dead ancestors was widespread across the ancient religions of the globe. It could be argued that the priests and spiritual leaders of these pagan religions were more involved with death than almost anyone else in society. In contrast, the Torah demands that those whose role it is to lead us in worship of God must be as far as possible from death. They must not have death and mortality on the mind. The reason is simple. Faith in the God of Israel is a focus on life, both in this world and in the next. 

Reverence for death and the dead is a primary component of Pagan belief systems. The Torah opposes this. The Torah’s way is the way of life.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast

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