THE EXEMPTION OF AN "ONEN" FROM K'RIAT SH'MA
Rabbi Yitzchok Etshalom
Kriat Shema 4:3-6
3. If someone experienced the death of someone for whom is is
obligated to mourn, he is exempt from K'riat Sh'ma until he
buries him, since his mind is not clear enough to read. If he was
guarding the body, even if it wasn't one of his relatives, he is
exempt from K'riat Sh'ma. If there were two people guarding the
body, the one watches while the other one moves to another place
and reads and then returns to watch, while the first one moves
away and reads. Similarly, someone who is digging a grave is
exempt from K'riat Sh'ma.
4. We do not take a body out for burial around the time for
K'riat Sh'ma unless [the deceased] was a great person. If,
however, they did take him out and the time for the reading
arrived while carrying the corpse: As long as they are needed for
the bier, such as they are carrying it, or are standing in stead
of those who are carrying it or in their stead, whether they were
in front of the bier or following it, they are exempt. All others
who are accompanying the body - who are not needed for the bier -
are obligated [to read].
5. If they were involved in eulogizing the deceased and the time
for K'riat Sh'ma arrived; if the body was in front of them, they
walk away one at a time and read - and then return to the eulogy.
If the body was not in front of them, everyone sits there and
reads K'riat Sh'ma and the mourner sits silently, since he is not
obligated to read until he buries his dead.
6. Once they buried the body and the mourners returned to receive
consolation, as the people walk behind them from the graveside to
the place where the mourners stand in order to make a line to
receive consolation; if the people can begin and complete even
one verse before they get to the consolation-line, they should
begin and, if not, they should not begin. Rather, they should
console the mourners and, after they move away, they should begin
reading. Regarding those who are standing in the line: Those who
are on the inside - who see the faces of the mourners - are
exempt from K'riat Sh'ma and those on the outside - since they
cannot see the mourners - are obligated to read K'riat Sh'ma in
their place. [RABD: This only refers to those for whom it is
necessary to see the mourner, who are called "those inside", i.e.
those who are close to him.]
THE PRIMARY SOURCE - MISHNAH BERAKHOT 3:1
The Mishnah in Berakhot (3:1) rules that: Someone who has his
dead body in front of him (i.e. someone he is required to bury
and he hasn't done so yet), is exempt from K'riat Sh'ma, from
Tefillin, from Tefillah and from all Mitzvot in the Torah.
The reason for this exemption/restriction is not given in the
Mishnah; we will try to clarify the logic behind it.
Before doing so, I would like to outline the various places in
the Torah where mourners are legally restricted from
participating in certain worship-acts.
There are three places where the Torah relates to someone in the
circumstance of Aninut (to be explained below) and places certain
restrictions on him. One of these sources explicitly mentions
the word *Oni*, another refers to the state of mourning and the
consequent [implied] restrictions and the third alludes to it.
SOURCE #1: DEVARIM 26:14 - *LO AKHALTI V'ONI MIMENU*
There is a seven-year cycle of agricultural taxes in Eretz
Yisra'el. When the Jewish farmer reaps his bounty and threshes
it in the granary, he separates between 1/60 to 1/40 (depending
on his generosity), which he declares to be "Terumah" and goes to
whichever Kohein he wishes. He then separates 1/10 of the
remaining produce, declaring it to be "Ma'aser", and gives it to
whichever Levi he chooses. (The Levi then takes 1/10 of his
Ma'aser, separates it and designates it as "Terumat Ma'aser" and
gives that to the Kohen.) These two "taxes" apply during all six
working years of the seven-year cycle (remember, the seventh year
is Shemittah - the Sabbatical - and produce becomes public
The farmer then separates another 1/10 (of the remaining produce)
and declares it to be "Ma'aser Sheini" (lit. "second tithe"),
which is taken to Yerushalayim to be enjoyed there. In lieu of
taking it to Yerushalayim, it may be redeemed on coins, which are
then taken to Yerushalayim to purchase food and drink and to
celebrate there. Ma'aser Sheini operates during the 1st, 2nd,
4th and 5th years of the cycle. During the 3rd and 6th years,
this second tithe is designates "Ma'ser 'Ani" and goes to the
As we are commanded in Devarim [Deuteronomy] 26:12, on Erev
Pesach of the 3rd and 6th years, all tithes which are due or
overdue are given to the proper recipients, and the
farmer/landowner makes the following declaration:
"I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have
given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and
the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you
commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of
your commandments: *Lo akhalti v'oni mimenu* (I have not eaten of
it while in mourning); I have not removed any of it while I was
unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have
obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me. Look down
from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people
Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our
ancestors Ña land flowing with milk and honey." (Devarim
As we see, part of his declaration involves averring that he has
not eaten Ma'aser while in the state of *Oni* - which most
commentators interpret to mean mourning (however, see Rashbam's
commentary for a significantly different interpretation).
[The association of the word *Oni* (beginning with an Alef, not
an 'Ayin) with mourning comes from Rachel's name for Binyamin -
*Ben Oni* (Beresheet [Genesis] 35:18) - "the son of my
sadness/mourning (she died while giving birth to him)].
In other words, if he partook of Ma'ser Sheini (which is the only
one of these "gifts" which he himself still owns and likely eats)
while in a state of Aninut - some form of mourning - he cannot
make this declaration. (Sifri ad loc., Mishnah Ma'aser Sheini
5:12, MT Ma'ser Sheini 11:15). Furthermore, our Rabbis infer
from this that an *Onen* is not allowed to partake of Ma'aser
Sheini (Mishnah Bikkurim 2:2) - according to Rambam, he is
punished as one who violates any Torah law if he does so (MT
Ma'aser Sheini 3:5 - see also his discussion in Sefer haMitzvot
at the end of Shoresh #8; see also Ramban's comments there.)
We still don't know who is included in this category of *Onen* -
nor for how long this status obtains.
SOURCE #2: DEVARIM 26:11 - *V'SAMACHTA V'KHOL HATOV*
Immediately before the Parashah of *Vidui Ma'srot* (Devarim
26:1-11), the Torah commands us to bring our first fruit -
*Bikkurim* - to "the place where God chooses to cause His Name to
dwell." We bring this fruit and recite a thanksgiving-declaration
to God, after which we are commanded:
*V'samachta v'khol hatov* (then you shall celebrate with all the
bounty) that the LORD your God has given to you and to your
house; you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside
among you (v. 11).
The Rabbis understand from the command to celebrate (*lismo'ach*)
that an *Onen* (who is a Kohen - who are the only ones allowed to
eat Bikkurim) is not allowed to partake of Bikkurim. (Mishnah
Here we see that a Mitzvah which the Torah defines as being
performed as celebration cannot include an Onen - he is
effectively "out of the parashah" of celebration.
SOURCE #3 - VAYYIKRA 10 - "VATIK'RENA OTI KA'ELEH"
The beautiful dedication of the Mishkan [Tabernacle] on the first
day of Nissan, which was a festivity "like the creation of the
world" (see Beresheet Rabbah 3:9), was marred by the death of two
of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu. The Rabbis disagreed as to
the nature of their sin (see the commentaries at Vayyikra
[Leviticus] 10:1-2 and the Sifra ad loc). Pursuant to their
deaths, Mosheh warned Aharon and his two remaining sons to
partake of the offerings - that they should allow the rest of the
people to mourn in their place and not to disrupt the dedication
ceremony. When Moshe found that they had not eaten the
expiation-offering (*Hatat*), he became angry (Vayyikra 10:16);
whereupon Aharon answered him: "See, this day they brought their
expiation-offering and their burnt offering before YHVH, and such
things have befallen me! Had I eaten expiation-offering today,
would YHVH have approved?" Moshe approved of Aharon's words.
The upshot of this is that an Onen is not allowed to eat sancta;
we also see that an Onen is defined as a close relative of
someone who died, even if he isn't personally involved in the
burial (Aharon was the father of Nadav and Avihu and his cousins
were taking care of the burial) - and that the status of Onen
exists on the day of death (look at Aharon's words carefully) -
From these three sources, we have the following picture of
(1) It applies to all close relatives of the deceased; (the seven
relatives for whom we mourn - spouse, parents, siblings,
(2) It lasts for the day of the death (regardless of the status
of the corpse - interred or not yet buried);
(3) It prohibits the eating of Ma'aser Sheini (we don't know
(4) It stands in perfect contradiction to "Simchah" and,
therefore, disallows eating Bikkurim and
(5) (again, for unknown reasons) it prohibits eating of sancta.
The notion of Aninut - or the status of being an Onen - was
expanded in two ways and modified in one by the Rabbis.
Expansion #1 - it applies beyond the first day - until the burial
is finished. (Regarding a relative who is out of town and
someone else is taking care of the burial, see Tosafot Berakhot
17b-18a s.v. v'eino in the name of Rabbenu Tam. Many of the
Rishonim ad loc. comment on Rabbenu Tam's ruling.)
Expansion #2 - it applies to all Mitzvot (clarification - it
doesn't apply to Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh, nor does it apply to many
Mitzvot 'Aseh. However, all "ritual" Mitzvot, such as prayer,
Tefillin, Shofar, Lulav etc. are included.)
Modification: Even though Torah law defines an Onen as anyone who
has suffered a loss - for the entire day of death, regardless of
the status of interment, the Rabbis define Aninut as stopping
whent he burial is complete. Therefore, a person could be an
Onen from the Torah - while no longer being an Onen from the
Rabbinic perspective - if the burial was held on the same day as
REASONS FOR THE EXEMPTION
There are, initially, two basic approaches to take in analyzing
Aninut d'Rabanan (from the Rabbis). Either it is an independent
piece of legislation, with a bit of overlapping with the Torah's
definition and a "borrowed" term; or else it is built upon the
Torah's law of Aninut and grows from there.
The Bavli (at the beginning of the third chapter of Berakhot)
does not provide an explicit reason for the exemption of Onen;
however, several Rishonim (e.g. R'ah, Ritba) suggest that the
reason is that the Onen is engaged in the Mitzvah of burial and
such engagement exempts him from (many) other Mitzvot. This is an
example of the rule *Ha'Osek b'Mitzvah Patur min haMitzvah* - see
our discussion at K'riat Sh'ma 2:05.
If this is the case, then Aninut d'Rabanan is only tangentially
related to that of the Torah - it does not directly relate to -
or reflect - the emotional state of the Onen, rather his
The Yerushalmi (beginning of the third chapter of Berakhot)
provides an interesting prooftext for the exemption of an Onen
from (at least some of) the Mitzvot:
R. Bun says: The verse (Devarim 16:3) states: "In order that you
may remember the day of your leaving Egypt, all the days of your
life" - [meaning] days in which you are engaged with life, not
days in which you are engaged with the dead. We learned: If he
wanted to be stringent [and fulfill these Mitzvot], we pay him no
heed; why is this - because of *k'vod hamet* (honor for the
deceased) or because he has no one else to carry his load (the
body)? What is the difference between these two [reasons]? If he
had someone to carry his load; if you say it is because of *k'vod
hamet*, it is [still] prohibited; if you say it is because he has
no one to carry his load, in this case he has someone to carry
his load [and it should be permitted].
Two observations from this passage:
(1) The Yerushalmi operates in two stages - exemption and
[possibly] prohibition. First, we learn from the verse that the
Onen is exempt from [certain] Mitzvot, then we learn that he is
not allowed to perform them.
(2) The Yerushalmi does not raise the issue of *Ha'Osek
b'Mitzvah...* - so what is behind this inference from the verse,
and the follow up with honor/burden?
A third question:
(3) If the prohibition is on account of *k'vod hametz*, wouldn't
that reasonably apply only in the presence of the body? Why would
it extend to the behavior of the Onen while away from the body?
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
I would like to propose an explanation for this passage in the
Yerushalmi, which reorients our understanding of Aninut d'Rabanan
and its relationship to Aninut of the Torah.
As I mentioned earlier, we might see Aninut d'Rabanan as an
outgrowth and expansion upon the Torah's model. In order to
understand this, let's look at the three examples given in the
Torah (Ma'aser Sheini, Bikkurim, Kodashim [sancta]).
In the cases of Bikkurim and Ma'aser Sheini, there is a level of
celebration (see Mishnah Ma'aser Sheini 5:12 - *Samachti
v'Simachti Bo* - I celebrated and elated others with it [Ma'aser
Sheini].) Although there are times when we are asked to put
aside our own emotional extremes in order to enter the emotional
setting of a particular Mitzvah (especially holidays), there are
limits to this demand. The Torah recognizes that, at least on
the day of death itself, a person cannot divorce himself from the
feelings of dread, desparation, blackness etc. which overcome us
when we encounter the death of a close relative.
It is not only out of the bounds of Torah to require us to "steel
ourselves" against these feelings and to participate in such
worship which requires whole-hearted devotion - the Torah doesn't
even allow it. This may be because people are generally "fooling
themselves" if they think they can do this, but there may be a
deeper and stronger reason: What does it say about the place
someone had in your life if you are able to throw yourself
full-force into a different emotion experience the same day that
they died? This is surely a disgrace of the dead and a degrading
of their life and the importance of who they were to this
particular Onen. Therefore, the Torah forbids such behavior.
"Today, you are not to put your heart and sould into celebrating
in Yerushalayim - today belongs to your brother, your mother
This reasoning applies with ever more vigor to Kodashim.
Participation in any level of Avodah in the Mishkan/Mikdash
demands total concentration and a level of Simchah. The Onen is
excluded, by definition, from this type of worship.
The verse "...all the days of your life" redefines Avodat Hashem
- Worship of God (which exists even outside of the boundaries of
the Mishkan). In order for us to be included in Avodat Hashem
(of which celebrating Pesach - the focus of that verse - is a
central component), we need to be "engaged with the living" -
involvement with death moves us away from Avodat Hashem (which,
prototypically, includes Tefillin, K'riat Sh'ma and Tefillah, the
three specific Mitzvot mentioned in our Mishnah. See Torah
Temimah at Devarim 16:3). This verse, however, only speaks to
those who are "engaged"; i.e. mentally involved with (and unable
to be distracted from) with death. What of someone who is able
to detach and fulfill these Mitzvot?
Therefore, the Yerushalmi continues: on account of *k'vod hamet*
(either direct kavod or else the need for someone to carry the
bier, which is another form of the same) he has no right to
detach emotionally and read. What is the meaning of this *k'vod
I would like to suggest that the kavod is specifically dependent
on our inability to detach from the emotions of the moment. So
long as this relative is lying "in front of us" (i.e. waiting for
us to perform the last kindness for him/her), it is a degradation
of their memory and their honor to even be able to concentrate on
something else - something as life-affirming as Avodat Hashem.
Thus, unlike the Bavli (at least according to some Rishonim; see,
however, Rabbenu Yonah and Rashba at the beginning of Berakhot,
Chapter 3), the Yerushalmi sees Aninut d'Rabanan as an expansion
upon the Torah's version - it moves from those parts of Avodat
Hashem which require a celebratory or totally focussed frame of
mind to those "everyday" expressions of Avodah - and it moves
from the shock of the day of death to the responsibility to see
our loved one to their final resting place.
now, to the questions:
Q1: Why is burial more of a distraction than other things?
A: See the shiur.
Q2: Tangentially, why are marriage (Halakhot 1&2) and burial
(Halakhot 3-6) the two areas of discussion for the exemption of
K'riat Sh'ma due to distraction?
A: They may be presented here (and in the Mishnah) either as two
extremes (see MT Evel 1:1 for another example of this pairing)
which define joy and sadness which are so overwhelming that they
may make proper focus impossible. Alternatively, they may "fly
in the face of" common convention that would hold that a person
should be extra "religious" at times like these and that these
are propitious times for reflection and study. Halakhah is much
more grounded in the realities of human psychology to allow for
Q3: Why does the other guard have to move away from the body in
order to read?
A: There is a general principle of *Lo'eg laRash Heref Osehu* -
(Mishlei [Proverbs] 17:5) - meaning "Those who mock the poor
insult their Maker" - and there is no one so poor as the dead.
Since the dead person cannot fulfill Mitzvot, it is a sort of
mockery to study Torah or to recite K'riat Sh'ma in its vicinity
- (see Berakhot 18b and Sotah 43b)
Q4: How do we define an *adam gadol* (great person)?
A: From the sugya in Ketubot (17a-b), it seems that someone who
is both a scholar and a teacher may be considered an *Adam Gadol*
for this purpose. However, Arukh haShulkhan (Yoreh De'ah 358:3)
explains that the reason the Shulhan Arukh left out this rule -
the exception for the Adam Gadol - is because we do not "hold
ourselves to be important" in that way, and it doesn't apply
Q5: Why can't those who are carrying the body read K'riat Sh'ma
while they are carrying it?
A: Either because of the principle of *Lo'eg laRash* (see above,
Q3) or because they have to focus properly on both of these
things - escorting the body AND the Sh'ma - since that is
impossible, they should not try to read.
Q6: Again, why do they have to walk away in order to read?
A: See Q3, above.
Q7: Why doesn't the mourner read - since everything is
[presumably] prepared for burial, what is the distraction which
prevents him from reading?
A: See the shiur.
Q8: Why do the consolers have to wait until the mourner moves
away in order to read K'riat Sh'ma?
A: Possibly because as long as the mourners are in front of them,
they are engaged in the Mitzvah of Nihum Avelim (comforting the
bereaved) and, based on the rule *ha'Osek b'Mitzvah Patur min
haMitzvah* (see the shiur), they are exempt from K'riat Sh'ma
until such time as they are no longer involved in the Mitzvah -
i.e. when the mourners move away.
Q9: If the people on the outside of the line cannot see the
mourner, why are they there?
A: Likely to see "what's going on" - see Berakhot 19b and Rashi
ibid s.v. mehamat atzman.
Q10: Is RABD in disagreement with Rambam or merely clarifying
A: It seems that RABD disagrees with Rambam - see Kessef Mishneh.
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