Today’s daf (Moed Katan 21b) informs us that a mourner is forbidden בשאילת שלום (which is generally translated as meaning ‘to greet others’ although, as I will explain below, it means so much more than this), while we are also taught that we do not greet mourners in the usual fashion.
As I explained in my commentary to Ta’anit 14b, “true שאילת שלום involves greeting and blessing someone, often while invoking the name of God, which is then coupled with a sincere enquiry about the well-being of that person.” On this basis I suggested why we do not greet mourners in the usual fashion because a mourner generally does not feel blessed and that by asking a mourner ‘how are you’ as they are wrestling with their deep feelings of pain and loss “add pressure to someone already undergoing significant challenges to coherently explain how they are truly doing. And given the fact that people suffering trauma often struggle to find such words, and those asking them often don’t have sufficient time to wait for the individual to fully formulate a coherent answer, we refrain from doing so.”
However, what I didn’t explain there, and what is particularly relevant to our daf, is why is a mourner forbidden בשאילת שלום and why we do not encourage a mourner to greet and bless others or ask them how they are doing?
A simple answer is that true שאילת שלום demands a smile and the spiritual energy to bless another – both of which are almost impossible to expect from someone who is reeling from the shock of the death of their loved one. But a further answer is that שאילת שלום requires that we put aside our own feelings to listen to the feelings of others; that we give them the gift not only of our ears and our time, but also the gift of our heart, and someone with a broken heart is unable to do this.
The flip-side of this is that those who are not mourners should be שואל בשלום. Yet the reality, which I also previously spoke about, is the fact that it is exceedingly rare for many of us to make the time and effort to sincerely enquire about the well-being of another. Instead, we ask ‘how are you’ – with the hope that the answer they provide be little more than ‘OK,’ or ‘fine’, and that their response not last more than a few seconds. As I mentioned in a recent talk, my dear friend Lenny Borger z’l was one of those special people who didn’t just ask ‘how are you?’, but who actually made time in his day, and space in his heart, to truly listen. And by doing so, he showed that he truly cared.
As someone who has been carrying a range of worries, especially relating to my wife’s health, during recent months, I can say that there are many people who think that they have asked you how you are doing but who didn’t. There are those who do, but aren’t really keen to hear a meaningful answer. And then there are those who – like Lenny did even when he was unwell – make time in their day, and space in their heart, to truly listen.
Ultimately, if שאילת שלום – in the fullest sense of the word – is unachievable for a mourner, then it is something that most of us who are fortunately not grieving a close relative should aspire to fulfil. And if we do, I believe that it will be a valuable contribution to bringing שלום not only in the hearts of those who need to know that others care, but also a deeper form of שלום between people as well.