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Between Death and Interment

The Laws of the Onen

Each immediate relative of the deceased is considered an onen from the moment he has learned of the death until the end of the interment, regardless of how much time has elapsed in between.

The onen is a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief. He is disoriented, his attitudes are disarranged, his emotions out of gear. The shock of death paralyzes his consciousness and blocks out all regular patterns of orderly thinking. “The deceased lies before him,” as the sages said and, psychologically, he is reliving the moment of death every instant during this period.

In this state of mind, unfortunately, the mourner must make detailed and final arrangements with the funeral director, burial society, cemetery and rabbi. He must also notify friends and family. Yet, inwardly, his primary concern is with his own loss, the great gap created in his personal life and in the life of his family. Often, at this time, he is burdened with guilt for the moments of unhappiness he may have caused the deceased. The suddenness of his grief, the dismay at the news of death, leave him in a state of disbelief. It is simply inconceivable, impossible, that one who was just alive is now dead, cut off and gone.

Practically, then, the onen must make immediate and significant decisions based on the reality of death. Psychologically, however, he has not yet assimilated it or accepted it. These two elements, plus the need to act with respect and reverence in the presence of the deceased, are the fundamental principles of the laws governing the onen.

Who Is an Onen?

An onen is one who has lost a close relative for whom he is required to mourn. Those who are obligated to mourn, and to be mourned for, are:

1. Father
2. Mother
3. Brother (married or unmarried;; on the father’s or mother’s side.) 4. Sister (married or unmarried;; on the father’s or mother’s side). 5. Son.
6. Daughter

7. Spouse

Minor children. A boy under the age of thirteen, and a girl under the age of twelve–are not properly considered onenim (pl.), and they are not bound by the laws of mourning that take place after interment. They are required only to rend their clothes, as will be discussed later.

Suicides. In the case of true suicides, as determined by Jewish law, the laws of onen or mourning do not apply. The obligation for arrangements and care of the deceased, according to Jewish law, falls technically upon the whole community, and not solely upon the relatives. The relatives, thus, have neither the obligation to participate in the arrangements nor to pay special courtesies to the suicide. A suicide–for reasons other than insanity–is considered to have destroyed the image of God and to have deprived his family of his presence. By treating the suicide in this manner Judaism plainly expresses its abhorrence of such actions, and this has served as a deterrent. (However, the costs of suicide burial, in our day, are borne by the family.) The subject of suicides is treated in greater detail in a separate chapter below.

A relative is an onen only if:
1. He busies himself with some aspect of the funeral arrangements.

2. Even if he does not so concern himself, that he be in a position to do so should it become necessary. He is not considered an onen if there is absolutely no possibility of his participation in the arrangements.

Thus, he is not an onen if:

1. The deceased is not in the possession of his relatives, as when the government has not released the body to the family, or if he was drowned, or if he is missing in combat and cannot be found, although there may be certain knowledge of his death.

2. He could not physically be present at the funeral preparations because he is under military obligation, or is confined in a hospital or prison, or is overseas, or is in a city too distant from the funeral. If, however, there is the possibility that he might have arrived in time for the funeral service, he is considered an onen, providing no other immediate relatives were present during arrangements.

The onen is required to abide by the following rules:

  1. He may not eat in the presence of the body.

  2. He may not eat meat or drink wine or liquor any place.

  3. He may eat no festive meal or attend a party.

  4. He must deny himself the luxuries of self-adornment, of bathing for pleasure, shaving, taking a haircut, and indulging in conjugal relations.

  5. He may not conduct normal business during this time.

  6. He may not study Torah, as this is considered a source of enjoyment.

  7. All observances practiced by the mourner during shiva devolve also upon the onen, except that he

is permitted to wear shoes and to leave the house in order to expedite the burial arrangements.

  1. Because of the need to make and conclude the funeral arrangements, the onen is released from the obligations of prayer, and many other specific positive observances, such as reciting the motzi over bread or the grace after meals. He, therefore, cannot be included in a minyan. While he is exempt from performing the positive commandments, he remains part of society and must obey all the negative commands. Thus, for example, while he need not recite a blessing over the washing of hands before breaking bread, he must take care to wash and cleanse himself properly. One is a positive commandment, the other a negative rule of religiously sanctioned hygiene. The onen should not perform commandments from which he is exempted. This would indicate a lack of concern for the deceased, and the Rabbis insisted that there is no virtue in this action.

  2. On the Sabbath most laws that apply to the onen are cancelled. He is permitted meat and wine and is obligated to perform all the mandatory Sabbath observances. However, he must not participate in matters of private enjoyment, such as conjugal relations and the delight that is reaped from the study of the Torah. The onen should attend religious services. Preferably he should not serve as reader or cantor. He should not recite the Kaddish if other mourners are present, unless he has Yahrzeit or is in the midst of the year of mourning for one of his parents.

  3. If the burial must take place on the second day of the holiday (even though, as mentioned above, burials should be strongly discouraged at this time) aninut (the state of being an onen) goes into effect immediately, even though it be a holiday. In such a case, the onen does not recite the Kaddish, or eat meat or wine.

  4. On Succot the onen is not obligated to sit in the succah. If he desires to do so, he should not recite the blessing for that mitzvah. On the first night of Succot, however, seeing that burial cannot take place on the first day, he should recite the Kiddush and perform other observances connected with the holiday.

  5. On the first night of Passover, the onen should observe all the mitzvot of the Seder night. On Sefirah days, between Passover and Shavuot, the onen should refrain from reciting the counting of the days with the blessing, until immediately after burial. After the funeral, he may count the days and recite the blessing.

  6. On Purim, the onen must listen to the reading of the Megillah, and is permitted to eat meat and wine in fulfillment of the religiously prescribed festive meal of the day.

  7. On Hanukkah, the onen should have the candles lit for him, but the blessings recited by someone else. If no one else is present, he should kindle the candles himself without reciting the blessings.

  8. Tefillin: The laying of the tefillin may not be performed on the day of death and on the day of burial. This is not because of the general exemption from positive obligations during the time of aninut, but rather because tefillin is considered an object of beautification and ornamentation, and this is inconsistent with the inner bitterness experienced by the mourner so soon after the loss of his loved one.

The following are some clarifications and ramifications of this law of tefillin:

1. Even if burial occurs on the day following death, or two days thereafter, tefillin are not donned during this entire period. One resumes the practice on the day after burial. Thus, also, if for some reason burial took place at night, the entire following day is considered unsuitable for wearing the tefillin.

2. If three or four days elapse between death and burial, then

a. If the mourner is personally involved in making arrangements for the funeral or interment, he does not don tefillin on any of these days, including the full day of burial.

b. If the mourner is not involved in these matters, he then follows the laws of aninut: he does don tefillin on the day of death, but resumes wearing them immediately thereafter. On the day of interment he is prohibited from doing so before the time of burial, but upon returning from the funeral should promptly don them.

3. If he received news of the death after interment already took place, but this was within thirty days of the time of burial, he may not wear the tefillin on the day the news arrived. If the news came at night, he refrains from wearing tefillin on the following day.

4. If the interment occurred during a holiday, or during the intermediary days (chol ha’moed) of Succot or Passover (when the mourning period begins later), there is no prohibition against the wearing of the tefillin (for those who normally put on tefillin during chol ha’moed).

5. Likewise, a groom who has suffered the death of a relative during the week immediately following the wedding, and whose mourning period begins later, should wear the tefillin during this week.