Monday, August 06, 2007

Insulting Mourners

Someone I know was recently sitting shivah and an assistant to a prominent Chassidic rebbe came in and asked all of the women to leave the room. Then the rabbi entered and paid a shivah call. Some people have the custom of men and women sitting in the same room during shivah -- after all, men are obligated to comfort women as well (P'nei Barukh 11:11), others have the custom of men and women being in separate rooms. And this goes beyond the house of mourning to practices of separate and mixed seating in various venues, with multiple views on the subject (see my article on mechitzah in BDD 17 for a long list of relevant sources). If I understand correctly, this rabbi was implying that he wished for the mourners to follow his custom while he visited. This not only insulted the people sitting shivah and others who were visiting at the time, but quite possibly violated a biblical or rabbinic prohibition.

The topic of lo sisgodedu and ein meshanim mi-minhag ha-makom is very complicated and there is a large literature on the subject (cf. Meshiv Davar 1:17 and Seridei Esh 2:11 [new edition] for just two of many responsa on the subject). The simplest position, without getting into details, is that this visiting rabbi is obligated to follow his strict practices. However, he may not go to a place with a different custom and be obvious in following his own practice (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 568:4). The application of this rule differs in the modern day, where many different sub-communities live together. Even in ancient times, Tosafos (Pesachim 14a sv. sh'tei) write that Jerusalem had the stricter custom to accomodate all of the people from different places who visited. (The Devar Shmuel, ad loc., is unsure whether this applies today in Jerusalem because there are no pilgrimages to the Temple. However, it seems to me that this is the source for kashrus supervision agencies being particularly strict and accomodating many stringencies for various communities. Cf. Magen Avraham 568:12; Minchas Elazar 4:11.) Certainly today, too, we need to be able to live together in one large community despite the varying customs of our sub-communities.

However, I am not aware of anyone who rules that one may come into someone else's house and insist that the residents observe the guest's stringency. To my limited understanding, this seems to still be prohibited as deviating from the local custom. Certainly, one may not feed someone food that he may not eat or force him to violate his custom. But a wise man will plan ahead. In this case, why didn't he just call?

If the request were asked of me, I would have asked whether the rabbi came to be menachem avel or mevazeh avel (comfort the mourner or insult the mourner).

As someone later pointed out, the Torah giants of the past -- including the Satmar Rav -- never cleared a room of women so they could comfort mourners. But, as the Gemara says (Sotah 49b), in the footstep of the messiah chutzpah is in abundance.

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