| Halachah |

A Time for Sadness

Halachah guides you through the darkest of moments


Prepared for print by Faigy Peritzman

What is an onen? As an onen, what is permitted or forbidden for me to do? May one say Tehillim while being an onen?

An onen is one whose close relative (parent, sibling, or spouse) has passed away but has not yet been buried. During that time, the onen is exempt from all of the “positive” mitzvos, such as davening, reciting brachos, and learning Torah, but he is allowed to recite Tehilim if he does so in honor of the deceased. An onen may not eat meat or poultry, nor may he drink wine or grape juice. The halachos of aninus don’t apply on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

When returning from a funeral or a cemetery, when and how should one wash his hands?
After leaving a funeral or a cemetery and before entering one’s home or another person’s home, one should wash his hands three times from a vessel, alternating between the right and left hands. There are different customs, some based on Kabbalistic sources, concerning the method of washing: The water should drain into the ground and not collect in a puddle; after washing, any water that remains in the vessel is poured out; the vessel is turned upside down and placed on the ground, not handed to the next person. Some let their hands air dry and do not use a towel; some wash their face as well.

What is a seudas havrah?

This refers to the first meal a mourner eats immediately after the burial. The halachah is that a mourner may not eat his own food for this first meal, but instead it’s served to him by others (neighbors, friends, relatives, or self-supporting married children). It’s customary (but not required) to first serve the mourner some bread along with a hard-boiled egg (or lentils), and then any other foods may be served as well, including poultry or meat and some wine along with the food. Some maintain that it is even a mitzvah to serve wine during this meal.

What are the halachos of showering during shivah? Do these change for Shabbos?

A full body shower, with cold, lukewarm, or hot water, is forbidden during shivah, including showering for Shabbos. If, however, the shower isn’t for pleasure or refreshing, but in order to clean yourself of actual dirt, remove a bad odor, or clean up from heavy sweating, it’s permitted to take a quick, cold or lukewarm shower for that purpose. If in order to remove the dirt or smell, soap or shampoo is necessary, it’s permitted as well. It’s also permitted to take a hot shower or a bath for medical reasons, such as before or after giving birth.

I’m the type of person who is never seen in public without makeup. May I therefore wear fresh makeup during shivah?
Wearing any type of beauty makeup, either powder or liquid, during shivah or the entire shloshim is generally forbidden. Using special soaps, creams, or oils that are meant to smooth the skin is forbidden during shivah, but permitted during shloshim. There are, however, some notable exceptions to both of these prohibitions: 1) A married woman (whose husband is in town) is permitted to wear makeup during shloshim but not during shivah. 2) An unmarried woman who is interested in marriage, including widows, divorcées, or singles in shidduchim, may wear any type of makeup, even during shivah. 3) Girls under the age of 12 aren’t included in this prohibition at all. 4) Creams, oils, and soaps necessary for medical or hygiene purposes (including deodorant) are permitted at all times.

I go to shul every Shabbos. Does the halachah that a mourner must change his regular seat in shul apply to me as a woman?

If you have a seat in shul where you sit every Shabbos, then you should change your seat to another one for the year of aveilus. Preferably the new seat should be at least seven feet away from your old one (to the side or to the back). At the end of the year you can elect to remain in the new seat, as you’re not obligated to return to your old seat. 

I know the halachah is not to cut hair after the death of a parent until someone comments on the length of one’s hair. How does this work for a woman whose hair is always covered?

A married woman whose hair is always covered may take a haircut once her hair is long enough that it becomes difficult to cover properly. If that isn’t an issue for her, she may take a haircut after waiting double her usual time, e.g., if she normally takes a haircut once a month, she may now cut it after two months, and so on.

Is the date of a yahrtzeit based on burial or death?

The yahrtzeit is always commemorated on the day of the death. The only possible exception to that rule is the very first yahrtzeit, and only in a situation when the burial took place two or more days after the death. In that case, some poskim maintain that the yahrtzeit is commemorated on the day of the burial. There are conflicting opinions and more details, so a rav needs to be consulted.

Should a woman fast on a parent’s yahrtzeit?

It’s a mitzvah for children, both sons and daughters, to fast on the yahrtzeit of a parent, as it is considered uplifting and beneficial for both the parent and the child. Nowadays, though, due to the physical weakness of many people, this custom is no longer as common as it was in past generations. Certainly, pregnant or nursing women, or a mother who is busy taking care of her children shouldn’t fast. Instead, she should redeem the fast by donating a significant (depending on what she can afford) amount to a tzedakah that will disburse the money to poor people. Another option for those who find it difficult to fast a full day is to make (or attend) a siyum, and then partake of the seudas mitzvah to break the fast.

What is the obligation of a yartzheit candle? Is it only for parents? Siblings? Or may I light for anyone close to me? Should I light at the grave as well?
It’s a widespread and accepted custom to light a yahrtzeit candle on the yahrtzeit of a parent (or a spouse, unless the surviving spouse is remarried). The custom is to light the candle right before sunset of the yahrtzeit, and not to blow it out even if it remains lit more than 24 hours. The candle may be lit either at the child’s home or in his shul. Under extenuating circumstances, when a candle is unavailable, one should light a battery-powered electric light instead.

I have a close friend’s wedding coming up, but it will be the night of my father’s yahrtzeit. May I attend?

The custom follows the opinion of the poskim who maintain that one doesn’t partake of a wedding or a sheva brachos meal on the night or day of a parent’s yahrtzeit. It’s permitted to attend the simchah without partaking in the actual meal. It’s permitted to attend other types of meals, such as a bris, pidyon haben, or a siyum.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 873)

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