Masechet Mo’ed Katan 20a-26b

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30 Mar 2007

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan.


Mo’ed Katan 20a-b

A group of Sages – Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Yitzhak Napaha – were sitting together and raised one of the most basic questions about the mourning period: how do we know that aveilut (=mourning) is seven days long?

The answer presented by our Gemara is based on a passage in Amos (8:10): “…and I will change your holidays into mourning.” This is understood to teach that just as biblical holidays are seven days long, similarly the mourning period is seven days long. In response to the query that one holiday – Shavuot – is only celebrated for a single day, the Gemara quotes Reish Lakish who teaches that there is also a one-day mourning period. When a person hears of his loss thirty days or more after the person died, it is called a shemu’ah rechokah (distant information) and he/she only “sits Shiva” for one day.

The Talmud Yerushalmi considers a wide variety of biblical passages that could be considered the source of the seven days of aveilut. Among them:

The Yerushalmi grapples with these sources and tests each in order to find the best one. The question that it asks on the source accepted by our Gemara (the comparison between holidays and mourning) is why we do not seek a parallel in Sukkot, which has an eighth day attached to it. The answer given is that the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, is a separate holiday, so Sukkot is really only seven days long.

Mo’ed Katan 21a-b

What if someone is “sitting Shiva” and hears that a friend or a relative has passed on? Can he go and join the funeral procession or visit the house of mourning?

According to the Gemara, during the first three days such an avel (mourner) cannot leave his home, but afterwards he can go to the house where others are “sitting Shiva“; there he should sit with the people in mourning rather than with the comforters. Rabbeinu Yehonatan and the Ran understand that this limits the mourner to attending the funeral (and home) of relatives, which explains why he joins those who are “sitting Shiva.” Most rishonim, however, do not distinguish between relatives and others.

Tosafot point out that this is the source for another tradition – that we allow mourners to come to the synagogue on Tisha B’Av.  Since on the Ninth of Av all Jews are in mourning, as they indicate publicly by their behavior on that day (sitting on the floor, removing their leather shoes, etc.), the avel can take his place among them on this day.

Another difference between the first three days of aveilut and the rest of the week is the exchange of greetings.  At the beginning of the mourning period, no greetings are permitted at all. In the latter part of the week, a mourner can respond to a greeting, but he cannot initiate one. Once the week is over, he can speak to people as usual.

The issue of greetings is taken very seriously by the Gemara. In Masechet Brachot the Gemara emphasizes the importance of returning greetings and tells stories about the greatest of Sages who made it their business to greet every person, no matter what their social standing or status. This sensitivity is what encourages the Sages to permit returning a greeting even at a time when greetings are, for the most part, forbidden. Even during the first three days of mourning, when the avel cannot respond to others, he should not simply ignore the greeting, but rather should explain that in his present situation as a mourner he cannot follow the normal behaviors of polite interaction.

Mo’ed Katan 22a-b

During the time of the Talmud, people would show signs of mourning over the passing of others aside from immediate relatives, like members of the leadership of the Jewish people – the Nasi, the Chacham and the Av Bet Din. When any of these leaders passed away, chalitzat katef was required.

Chalitzat katef is actually a symbolic tearing of the clothes, an indication that the person has removed his clothing due to aveilut (mourning). As is clear in the Gemara, the more severe the aveilut – and the greater the desire to show respect to the deceased – the more the garment is removed. For the Chacham it is removed from the right side (which was not all that unusual in normal activities and might not be recognized as an act of mourning); for the Av Bet Din, it is removed from the left, and for the Nasi it is removed from both shoulders.

The Chacham (when not used as an honorific title) has two meanings. In certain cases it refers to the community or synagogue Rabbi, but in our case it appears to refer to an individual with greater responsibility, someone involved in the central Rabbinic court system, which was the continuation of the Sanhedrin. The head of the court was the Nasi, who, at that time, was a descendant of Hillel the Elder and was viewed as the leader of the Jewish community in Israel. The Nesi’im, who also represented the community before the foreign rulers, saw themselves as the symbolic continuation of the Davidic monarchy, and the respect granted them stemmed not primarily from their Torah knowledge, but because they were the representatives of autonomous Jewish rule in Israel. The Av Bet Din was second to the Nasi as far as his standing in the community was concerned, and he served as the acting head of the central Jewish court system.

Mo’ed Katan 23a-b

Someone who is in mourning cannot get married during the first thirty days of his aveilut (mourning). If someone’s wife passes away, however, he must wait until the three holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot have passed before he can remarry. The baraita offers two exceptions to this rule:

To support the idea that exceptions to this rule exist, the Gemara tells of Yosef ha-Kohen whose wife passed away, leaving him to raise small children. Immediately following the burial – while still in the cemetery – he turned to his late wife’s sister and asked her to care for the orphans. Nevertheless, the Gemara records that he did not consummate the marriage until a significant period of time had passed.

Tosafot suggest three possible explanations in an attempt to explain this unique law:

Interestingly, Rabbeinu Yehonatan and other rishonim rule that this restriction on marriage for a significant period of time applies only to men; when a woman’s husband passes away, she is permitted to get married immediately. Among the reasons offered for this is that ordinarily – certainly in traditional societies – it is the man who approaches the woman to begin the relationship. Therefore, if a widow is approached by someone who is interested in marrying her, it is important that she not be put into a situation in which she will be forced to postpone that option for a significant amount of time.

Mo’ed Katan 24a-b

The traditions associated with the burial and mourning of a baby who died less than 30 days after birth differ from normal customs. Specifically, the Gemara teaches that such a child is carried to the cemetery in a woman’s arms, rather than in a coffin, and the statements of consolation are not uttered, neither in the cemetery nor in the home.

These differences stem from the possibility that a child who perishes after less than one month is considered a stillborn. Although it is clear from here that there are no public eulogies on such a child, the Gemara is not clear about the possibility of mourning within the family circle. Here we find one of the differences between the Diaspora and Israel; the accepted practice in Israel is to mourn for a baby who dies, even if it was just one day old, while in the Diaspora, no mourning takes place.

The normal rules of mourning apply to a deceased child who is more than one month old, and he is carried out and buried in a dluskima – a sarcophagus.  During the Talmudic period, burial coffins were made of stone. These boxes came in different sizes, based on the size of the deceased. Obviously, children were buried in boxes that were relatively small and could be carried on one’s shoulder, while adults were buried in boxes that had to be carried by two people.

Public eulogies are done only over a child who is a little older.  Rabbi Meir quotes Rabbi Yishma’el as suggesting age three for poor people and age five for rich people; Rabbi Yehudah quotes him as ruling age five for the poor and age six for the rich. Several explanations are given for the distinction made between rich and poor. Rashi suggests that poor people have no pleasure in life aside from their children, so their mourning over a lost child is greater; alternatively, they rely on their children for sustenance and support more than rich people do. According to the Ran there is a unique closeness that develops between parent and child when the parent saves his last crumbs to feed his child. Another approach is that we are concerned for the feelings of the poor person who will suspect that it is because of his low status in society that his child did not receive a proper eulogy.

Mo’ed Katan 25a-b

The most basic statement of mourning that is required by Jewish law is keriyah – tearing one’s clothing as a sign of loss. The Mishnah (24b) teaches that keriyah is only done by immediate family members, but the Gemara on our daf extends the requirement to other people, as well. Upon hearing that a great Sage has passed on, for example, everyone is supposed to tear their clothes. Another case is when a person is in the presence of someone who dies. A baraita quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar who teaches that someone who is standing next to a person at the moment that he dies is obligated to perform keriyah, since it is like being in the presence of a burning sefer Torah.

The comparison between a dying person and a burning sefer Torah is explained by the rishonim in a variety of ways:

Two explanations are offered by the Ramban. In one he says that we tear our clothes over a sefer Torah as well as over someone who fulfills the commandments found in the Torah; in the other he compares the soul to the letters and words written in the Torah scroll. Just as the burning sefer Torah loses its writing, the dying man loses his soul. In a similar vein, there are those who explain that the keriyah that we perform is on the loss of holiness that occurs when the soul exits the body.

Mo’ed Katan 26a-b

Our Gemara brings a passage in II Shmuel (1:11-12) that describes King David‘s reaction to the news that King Saul and his son Yehonatan had been killed and that the army of the Jewish people had been defeated. From the fact that David and his men tore their clothes, mourned and fasted, the Sages deduce that one is obligated in keriyah (tearing one’s clothes) over the Nasi (King Saul), the Av Bet Din (Yehonatan), and news of tragedy (the Jewish people who lost the war).

The Gemara questions whether one is truly obligated to tear keriyah over tragic news, citing Shmu’el‘s lack of reaction to the news that the Persian king, Shevor Malka (Shapur I) had killed 12,000 Jews in Kayseri (in what is now modern-day Turkey). The Gemara explains that keriyah is not an obligatory response to every case of tragedy – only to situations similar to that of King Saul, when the tragedy represented the defeat of the Jewish people.

Yet the Gemara relates that King Shevor Malka had stated to Shmuel that he had never killed a single Jew! The explanation presented by the Gemara is that those Jews were killed when the revolution in which they participated was put down by Shevor Malka’s troops; they were not killed as Jews.

King Shevor Malka, the Persian king who ruled from 241-272, was actually the founder of the great Sasanian Empire that fought against the Romans. Eventually he succeeded in extending his rule as far west as Syria and Anatolia. It appears that the Kayseri mentioned in the Gemara was an important city in Anatolia, and the revolt against the king, in which the local Jews participated, threatened his rule. He therefore put down the rebellion with an iron fist and killed many of the revolutionaries – including thousands of Jews. Generally speaking, however, Shevor Malka was known as a king who was a friend of the Jews under his rule, and he had a close relationship with the Amora Shmuel.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.