A Mourner’s Obligation to Ignore His or Her Hair

I am not giving my customary shiur at the RJC this coming Shabbat. As I have noted on other occasions, one current in Jewish writing suggests that a thought that has not yet been hashed out orally is not worth disseminating—the prime example is Maharsha’s refusal to comment on those sections of the Talmud where he was absent from his yeshiva.  Nonetheless, I have decided to share ideas this week and next in the hopes that by writing it out I will improve my own understanding, and that your questions and responses will enlighten me as well.

In this coming week’s parsha (this past week for those fortunate enough to be in Israel), Aharon haKohen and his sons are restricted in their reactions to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  Moshe Rabbenu tells them not to let their hair grow wild, nor to rend their garments, nor to leave the opening of Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. In the weeks leading up to Shavuot, I thought to take up the topic of hair in halachah, deliberately not addressing the best-known example, women’s covering their hair. Perhaps by investigating other contexts of hair a little more fully, we can understand the significance of the commandments surrounding hair (a first step is to try to think of the contexts in which hair comes up, and then see how your list stacks up with mine).

For this week, I thought I’d take up the case of mourning, which is not even necessarily a Torah commandment.

Mourning—A Biblical Obligation?

As Rashi records, Hazal seem to have inferred from Moshe’s words that these practices are obligatory on other mourners, under pain of death. In Moed Katan 24a, we read, “R. Tachlifa b. Abdimi said in the name of Shmuel, a mourner who did not let his hair grow wild nor rend his garments is liable for the death penalty.”  He gets it from the fact that Moshe Rabbenu told Aharon and his sons not to do these things, and then said, “and you will not die,” implying that others who fail to act that way would die.

Rambam seems to read this similarly, since he codifies this prohibition for a mourner, citing this verse as the source.  He notes that while the verse refers only to the hair on their heads, the prohibition includes all hair on the body as well (meaning: shaving or otherwise grooming oneself).

One problem that Ramban notes is that we halachically assume the warning about death had to do with the punishment a priest would incur if he did let his hair grow wild or rend his clothing (when serving in the Temple), whereas Rashi and Rambam’s reading would imply that they were being told they did not have to perform these practices.  In addition, we generally assume that mourning is a Rabbinically instituted practice (and many more of those practices are actually matters of custom, arising long after the Talmud, such as the recitation of kaddish).  The most stringent opinion that Ramban acknowledges is that of the Geonim, who held that the first day of mourning was an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

Rambam (Hilchot Evel 1;1), however, rules that the first day of mourning is a Torah obligation, derived from another conversation surrounding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.  In Vayikra 10; 16-20, Moshe Rabbenu discovers that the se’ir hatat, the sin-offering goat, had been burnt rather than eaten, and questions Aharon about it. Aharon responds that it did not seem appropriate to eat it on a day when such events—the deaths of his sons—had occurred.  Moshe agreed with him, which Rambam took as ratifying a one-day obligation of mourning, when the person who passed away is buried on the same day as his or her passing.  Rambam adds that the seven day practice is an halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

In Rambam’s version, I note, the hair-related aspect of mourning has to do with not cutting it on that one day, when the Torah seems to refer to it as an act of letting the hair grow wild. Indeed, Moed Katan 19a speaks of a 30 day prohibition for a mourner, since a Nazir is obligated to grow his or her hair for at least 30 days to qualify as a pera, a wild growing of hair.  That part of it, Rambam would seem to concede, was Rabbinic.

What Was God Requiring of Aharon and his Two Remaining Sons?

Ramban instead declares the whole discussion an asmachta, a case of the Rabbis’ speaking as if they were deriving a law from the Torah, but only to better ground a law that is actually Rabbinic. Asmachta is a very complicated topic, especially since it is not always clear when a Talmudic derivation is an asmachta and when not. This is a matter that Ramban disagreed about with Rambam in the latter’s Sefer haMitsvot as well, since Rambam seems to require some Talmudic evidence that a derivation is Rabbinic; otherwise, he assumes that it is de-oraita, such as here.

The technicalities have their own charm, and have sparked many discussions, but I want here to focus on our particular practice and the ramifications of seeing it as commanded by the Torah or by the Rabbis. In Rashi and Rambam’s reading, God was prohibiting Aharon and his sons from engaging in the ordinary mourning practices, such as letting their hair grow wild.  For Rambam, who understood the Torah to set up an obligation that applied for only one day, that obligation has to be less about letting one’s hair grow wild (no hair gets wild in one day) than a prohibition about what the mourner could do to his or her hair on that day. 

Ritva, as it happens, notices a general problem in using this verse as the source for a mourner’s obligation; Nadav and Avihu  died on the 8th of Nisan, meaning that Pesach was a week away, and a holiday stops a mourner’s obligation to grow his hair, which means that even a regular mourner who started that day wouldn’t get around to growing his hair for the minimum thirty days.  In fact, though, Ritva thinks the whole obligation is Rabbinic, as had Ramban.

The Derivation of an Halachah Impacts Its Character

That means that the debate about the source also creates a difference of opinion as to the nature of the practice. For Rambam and those who agree that there is a Torah obligation, the Torah prohibited a day of self-grooming, which the Rabbis then extended to a full month, based on a similar phrasing to nazir. But the two can’t really be seen as similar, because the focus of the nazir’s obligation is wildness, whereas the focus of the mourner’s is refraining from self-grooming.  The most we can say is that the two are examples of hair being a mode of how we present ourselves to the public.

For Ramban and those who agree with him, the Rabbis decided to adopt the nazir’s obligation to grow one’s hair wild for the mourner as well.  They may or may not be for the same reason, but both are obligated to ignore their hair for long enough that it be appreciable. 

It is only in that latter context, it seems to me, that the discussions we find about combing or shampooing hair during mourning get off the ground.  Hagahot Maimoniyot, commenting on Rambam, mentions those who ruled that a mourner should neither comb nor scrub his hair (women are given a dispensation, so as not to look conspicuously disheveled), just as a nazir would have to.  Hagahot Maimoniyot seems to reject that view, precisely because the derivation from nazir isn’t meant to be so complete.

What exactly they did or did not borrow, and what it was calculated to mean, depends on a fuller understanding of the rules of nazir, which I hope to get to in a couple of weeks’ time. For now, we have our opening introduction, showing us that there is both a meaning to removing one’s hair and to letting it grow, and that each of those actions or inactions have halachic significance in different contexts.

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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