My wife's aunt just died. I have resolved to only attend funerals of my closest family members (father, mother, sister, brother, and those with whom I have had a very close relationship). Must I attend my "aunt-in-law's funeral?
First off, I offer my condolences to you, to your wife and to the family on the loss. Every loss effects members of the family differently, and surely you and your wife will experience this passing in divergent ways. The question of whether you have an obligation to attend the funeral hinges upon the reason and nature of your resolution to only attend the funerals of immediate family members. There is certainly value in attending if possible, both to promote peace at home if your wife would like for you to attend, as well as to show honor to the deceased through your attendance. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 116A) extols the value of maintaining peace in a marriage, going so far as to observe that in the Torah portion of Naso we are instructed to erase G-d’s name off of a piece of parchment in order to help reconcile a husband and wife. This is ordinarily a prohibited action, but is permitted specifically in order to bring spouses together. Attending for this reason would essentially have nothing to do with your wife’s aunt, and everything to do with respecting the wishes of your spouse. Additionally, the Talmud (Berachot 6B) speaks very highly of one who attends a funeral, placing great value on the mitzvah of being present as an act of respect towards the dead. This reason would be focused on your aunt-in-law, with greater value if you had a relationship with her but still worthwhile even if you did not. Yet if the reason for the commitment that you made is that you are a Kohen (a descendant of Aaron the High Priest and thus a member of the priestly family of Jews), then the Torah forbids you from entering a cemetery or a room in which a dead body rests, save for attending the funerals of parents, siblings, children, spouses and siblings under certain circumstances. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32A) explains that Divine prohibitions may not be violated, even to make family members happy (such as parents or in this case one’s spouse). Similarly, if your resolution was formulated in the manner of a legal personal-religious vow, then it would prohibit you from being able to attend. Such vows can be released and rescinded by a knowledgeable Beit Din (religious court usually consisting of three Rabbis sitting together), but you may not have time for that before the funeral. Of course, your resolution may have been made in thought as one of a strictly personal nature, with a hesitancy to be present at funerals unless they are of one to whom you were close. Such a resolution need not be considered binding, and then falls subject to balancing your interests with those of your wife and her family. I wish the entire family comfort in a difficult time.
First of all, I am sorry for your family’s loss. Your question is an interesting one. I don’t know your personal story as to why you chose to make this personal resolution about only attending certain funerals or what your wife’s relationship with her aunt was (or your in-laws relationship with the deceased) and so there are many family dynamic questions that will enter into your consideration, as this is not only about the deceased but about caring for and comforting mourners in your midst.
However, as a Jew there are ritual obligations that one has to honor the memory of their closes relatives, including parents, a spouse, a sibling, and children. Beyond those individuals, one is not ritually obligated per se to any other person. At the same time, as a member of the Jewish community, there is certainly an ethical obligation to support those in mourning. That is why many congregations ensure a daily minyan so that mourners can say kaddish, why Jewish communities provide meals and community support during shiva, and why many places even provide pallbearers for families that might not have enough able bodied people in their family.
Further, in the Talmud (Sotah 14a), there is a discussion about the statement in the book of Deuteronomy that says “You shall walk after the Lord your God (Deut 13:15). Rabbi Havam son of Rabbi Hanina said that the meaning is to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be God. As God clothes the naked, for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them, so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be God, visited the sick, for it is written: And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre, so do you also visit the sick.The Holy One, blessed be God, comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son, so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed be God, buried the dead, for it is written: And God buried him in the valley, so do you also bury the dead.
So, while I can’t say you “must” attend (there are always extenuating circumstances why one might not be able to attend a funeral), if you are able to, and it would bring comfort to your wife and her family, I would strongly encourage you to do so, because as a person, created in the image of God, the ability to bring comfort to those in mourning is of extremely high value.
First of all, I would like to offer my condolences to you, your wife and your extended family.
As far as I can tell, there is no Jewish requirement for you to attend your aunt-in-law’s funeral. However, according to Jewish tradition, attending a funeral falls under the category of actions that while not technically required, are nevertheless seen as “very good to do.” I think that your best decision will depend on several variables, such as the reason why you have made your resolution, what your wife’s wishes are in this and the dynamic of your relationship with her extended family.
As a general rule of thumb, the rabbis place a high value on attending funerals. Accompanying the dead for burial is one of the ten actions whose value transcend limit (from the prayer “Elu Devarim,” in the daily morning service based on Mishnah Peah 1:1 and Talmud Shabbat 127a). Also in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Akiva teaches: “Deal graciously with the departed that you may be dealt with graciously; mourn, inter and accompany him to the grave.” (Talmud Yershalmi, Ketubot 7:5). Acting in this way honors not only the departed, but also the mourners – regardless of our personal relationships with either.
That said, if you are Kohen (of priestly descent) then you are prohibited by Jewish law from being in the same room as a dead body or from entering a cemetery. However, in cases where the deceased is only one degree of separation from the Kohen (a spouse, parent, sibling or G-d forbid a child) then there are circumstances under which the Kohen could attend the funeral. If you are not a Kohen, the only other binding reason that would prevent you from attending a funeral would be if you took an oath or religious vow to that effect. Such vows cannot be violated, but a rabbinical court can annul a vow if it will provide relief to the family of the oath-taker.
These are the only halakhic reasons I am aware of that could be invoked to prevent one from attending a funeral. If you determined only to attend funerals of your closest family members for personal reasons then you need to balance your personal wishes with those of your wife and possibly also her family. If it is important to her that you attend, and you are not prohibited, then I would suggest you have an open conversation with her about both of your interests in this matter. If your needs seem evenly balanced, I would suggest you attend anyway for the purpose of “shalom bayit” (peace in the house). This is such an important principle that Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel II taught: “He who maintains peace at home helps to maintain it in Israel.” (Avot de R. Natan, ch. 28).
I wish you and your family well during this difficult time in your lives.
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