By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Rabbi Chiya’s father had a son, Aivu, from a previous marriage of his. Rabbi Chiya’s mother had a daughter, Ima, from a previous marriage of hers. Aivu and Ima, who were unrelated (stepbrother and stepsister), married and had a child and named him Rav. In other words, Rav was the son of Rabbi Chiya’s half-brother and half-sister. (If this sounds complicated, wait until we reach Maseches Yevamos!)
The following incident (told here as explained by Rashi) is mentioned in the Gemara (Mo’ed Kattan 20a): Rav traveled from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael. Upon his arrival, Rabbi Chiya, his uncle, met him and asked him, “Is father alive?”—meaning, “Is your father (my brother, Aivu) alive?”
Rav replied, “Is mother alive?”—meaning, “Is my mother alive? Why do you ask about my father (your brother) and not my mother (your sister, Ima)?”
Whereupon, Rabbi Chiya asked him “Is [your] mother alive?”
Rav answered, “Is [my] father alive?”—meaning, “I didn’t yet respond to your question about my father, and you’re asking about my mother?”
From Rav’s evasiveness, Rabbi Chiya understood that his brother and sister had died. He called to his attendant and instructed him, “Take off my shoes and carry my clothing to the bathhouse.”
The Gemara comments that we can learn three halachos from the story. First, a mourner is not allowed to wear [leather] shoes. Second, when someone hears that a close relative died some distant time in the past [more than 30 days], he only has to mourn for one day, rather than the full seven-day (shivah) mourning period. (Rabbi Chiya knew that his relatives had passed away more than 30 days earlier, because the trip from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael took at least 23 days back then. Presumably an additional 7 days was spent by Rav sitting shivah before he traveled. Matzeivas Moshe)
The third halachah is that “miktzas ha’yom k’kulo”—part of the day is like a whole day. Even that one day of mourning has to be observed only for a short time. This was evident by the fact that Rabbi Chiya observed mourning by having his shoes removed, yet he planned to go to the bathhouse that same day (and it is forbidden for someone who is observing the aveilus of shivah to bathe).
The Shulchan Aruch rules that this is the accepted halachah: “If a person heard [about the passing of a close relative] 30 days after the occurrence, he only has to observe a short period of mourning” (420:1). The Shulchan Aruch then goes on to explain that the aforementioned halachos are only in regard to the shivah period; the other halachos are different.
The Mordechai (Mo’ed Kattan 932) points out that there is another set of three halachos that can be derived from this incident. First, there is no obligation to inform someone of the news that his relative has died. It seems that Rav would not have told Rabbi Chiya that his brother and sister in Babylonia had passed away if he had not specifically been asked. Second, when in fact someone does have to relate bad news, he should not clearly verbalize it, but should relate it in a roundabout way. Rav did not directly answer Rabbi Chiya’s question, but the answer did get across. Third, when specifically asked about the well-being of a relative, one is not allowed to lie. Rav did not lie to Rabbi Chiya about his relatives.
These observations of the Mordechai are also accepted as halachah. The Shulchan Aruch writes, “If an individual’s close relative passed away but he is unaware [of this], there is no obligation to tell him—even regarding his father and mother. And regarding someone who needlessly informs him, it is written, ‘One who spreads gossip is a fool’ (Mishlei). As long as the individual is unaware, one may invite him to an engagement meal, a wedding, or any other joyous occasion. However, if the individual specifically inquires about his relative, you shouldn’t lie and say he is alive” (402:12). (One is permitted to lie to a sick relative, though, as the bad news might cause a deterioration in his condition. Nishmas Avraham, Y.D. 337)
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch changes the language of this law; instead of writing “there is no obligation,” he writes “one should not.” I asked a rav about this discrepancy, and he explained that the Shulchan Aruch also felt that one should not needlessly spread bad news, as it is considered foolish to do so. However, it would not be correct to use the word “forbidden” to describe the rule. The Kitzur intends the same meaning: one should not needlessly spread bad news, but it is not actually forbidden to do so.
Regarding the second point of the Mordechai, i.e., of being somewhat vague when relating bad news, the Taz (402:8), commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, writes that it is proper to do so.
The Rema differs on one point, and says that the custom is to inform sons about the passing of their father so that they can say Kaddish. The Baruch Taam was quoted as saying that the custom only applies to one son, but there is no need to inform all of them. The Nishmas Yisrael takes this one step further and says that even if someone left instructions that his relatives be informed of his death, there is no need to do so.
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Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, zt’l, who was the rosh yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, had learned in the Slabodka yeshiva as a teenager. He had undertaken to complete Shas for the second time during a winter z’man. It was then that the news reached the Alter of Slabodka that Rav Yaakov Yitzchak’s father had passed away. The Alter was afraid that the news of his father’s passing might seriously hamper Yaakov Yitzchak’s learning and he would not be able to complete his goal of finishing Shas again. The Alter viewed the achievement of that goal as crucial to the young student’s development. Therefore, the Alter temporarily hid the bad news from him. Someone asked the Alter, what about the merit of a son reciting Kaddish? The Alter answered that the z’chus of completing Shas and growing in Torah is seven times greater than all the Kaddishes he would miss. (The Mashgiach, p. 268)
The Alter’s decision formed the basis for the following story. Rav Meir Chodosh, zt’l, was the mashgiach and menahel ruchani of Yeshivas Chevron in Yerushalayim during World War II. The mood in Eretz Yisrael was somber and tense. Italian planes were dropping bombs on Tel Aviv, and there were blackout restrictions in force at night. The economic situation had deteriorated due to the German U‑boats patrolling the seas, preventing international commerce. Moreover, people were worried about the fate of their relatives still in Europe. It was against this backdrop that R’ Yechezkel Sarna, zt’l, found out via telegram that Rav Meir Chodosh’s father had died more than seven days previously.
R’ Sarna knew that Rav Meir Chodosh was vitally needed to provide ruach to the yeshiva during those troubled times. If he were to mourn for seven days, there would be a precipitous decline in the level of Torah achievement in the yeshiva. So the news was withheld from him until 30 days had elapsed after his father’s death. When informed of the news, he mourned for over an hour, and the entire yeshiva comforted him during that time. Since 30 days had passed, shivah was not observed. (The Mashgiach, pp. 264–267)
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The Otzros Torah (Vol. II, p. 1013) wonders why people nowadays are not careful about heeding the words of Shlomo haMelech to refrain from needlessly spreading bad news. The truth is that our speech is so sorely lacking, as Chazal say that all of us stumble in some way regarding the prohibitions of lashon ha’ra. So refraining from spreading bad news would seem trivial. However, sometimes looking at things from a different angle can help us in other ways, as well. Perhaps focusing on this point can help us be more aware of the words that we say.
Hashem should provide us with plenty of good news with which to fill our conversations.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.