It is a concept which I began exploring many years ago, and one that is explicitly discussed by a range of classic commentaries basing themselves on a range of biblical verses. Yet notwithstanding this, it is a concept which I believe is insufficiently clear in the minds of even the most observant of Jews. A concept which is most explicit in the Gemara’s discussion of the laws of mourning such as those found in today’s daf (Moed Katan 20a), but also found and applied in countless other places in the Tanach, Midrash, Gemara and Halacha.
Expressed in its simplest form: While time may be a healer for the soul, different time-periods achieve different levels of healing – and this is because the soul shifts its memory of particular people ideas and events over particular periods of time. And to begin explaining this concept, I’d like to make direct reference to the laws of mourning, and specifically, the 5 different periods of time referenced in the Jewish laws of mourning:
1. The Day of Death: In terms of mourning, the ‘sharpest’ day of mourning, so sharp that the mourner is not even required to perform formal mourning rituals because they are still reeling from the shock of the death of their loved one, is the day when a close relative has died and is yet to be buried.
2. The First Three Days: Throughout Tanach we find three days as being a period of time for which a person can maintain an intense memory or emotion. As such, after the death of a loved one, the intensity of mourning is greatest in the first three days during which time a mourner is often unable to control their emotions.
3. The First Seven Days: As we know, there is a concept of ‘shiva’ (literally meaning ‘7’ and referring to the first 7 days after the death of a loved one where mourners observe a range of rituals and are actively comforted by others), and it is during this week-long process when the mourner shifts from uncontrollable weeping in response to the death of their loved one, to talking about them and reflecting on their life and legacy. The memory and feeling of loss of a loved one is undoubtedly felt throughout this week, but the soul begins to shift in terms of its feelings of pain and loss during this period.
4. The First Thirty Days: In the laws of mourning, the ‘shloshim’ (literally meaning ‘30’ and referring to the first 30 days after the death of a loved one) is when the mourner still feels the need to publicly display the fact that they are mourning a loved one – and this is because they are still unable to detach themselves from the heavy weight of their loss. Still, during this period the soul shifts from being immersed in mourning to living with mourning.
5. The First Twelve Months: As previously mentioned, while time may be a healer for the soul, different time-periods achieve different levels of healing. Overall, we presume that someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one is able to restore an admittedly different yet still upbeat spring in their step that they may have had prior to the loss of a loved one after 12 months have passed since their death. By this point the mourner, at least in most cases, has found a way to live with their loss without needing to constantly display their loss to others.
Having explained all this, I would like to refer to just a handful of examples where we find a sensitivity shown to the spiritual memory of the soul. For example, the Jewish people were told to intensely prepare themselves for three days before Matan Torah. Another example is that Avraham was able to maintain his intense focus on the Akeda during this three-day journey. We are told that three days should not pass without a community reading from the Torah. Similarly, Havdalah can be recited up to three days from Shabbat. And Megillat Esther cannot be read more than three days before or after the formal day of Purim. All these, and so many more examples, highlight how three days is a period of time for which a person can maintain an intense memory or emotion.
Similarly, when it comes to shloshim, there are a range of brachot that are recited if we haven’t had a particular experience over the previous thirty-day period. And if we haven’t seen a close friend or family member for 30 days or more, we recite Shehecheyanu.
And similarly, when it comes to twelve-months, we say ‘MeChayei HaMetim’ when seeing a close friend or family member whom we haven’t seen during that period of time, while there are spiritual memories – such as Parshat Zachor – which need to be recited once a year, leading to an interesting halachic question whether they need some form of spiritual memory ‘boost’ in a leap-year which lasts thirteen months.
Having explained all this, we can now appreciate some of the debates found in our daf (Moed Katan 20a-b) such as how many days of shiva must be observed before a festival cancels the shiva, how many days of shiva should be observed if one hears about the death of a relative 30 days after the fact, and whether ‘keria’ (the tearing of clothes) should be performed even after a period of 7 days following the death of a parent.
Ultimately, though mourning is a matter of the heart and soul, and though different people respond differently to the loss of a loved one, it is clear that there are a range of Jewish teachings about the spiritual memory of the soul which determine the formal periods of mourning and which are also evident in numerous other areas of Jewish practice.