ט׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ד (September 4, 2014)

Moed Katan 24a-b: Mourning a Baby

The traditions associated with the burial and mourning of a baby who died less than 30 days after birth differ from normal customs. Specifically, the Gemara teaches that such a child is carried to the cemetery in a woman’s arms, rather than in a coffin, and the statements of consolation are not uttered, neither in the cemetery nor in the home.

These differences stem from the possibility that a child who perishes after less than one month is considered a stillborn. Although it is clear from here that there are no public eulogies on such a child, the Gemara is not clear about the possibility of mourning within the family circle. Here we find one of the differences between the Diaspora and Israel; the accepted practice in Israel is to mourn for a baby who dies, even if it was just one day old, while in the Diaspora, no mourning takes place.

The normal rules of mourning apply to a deceased child who is more than one month old, and he is carried out and buried in a deluskema – a sarcophagus. During the Talmudic period, burial coffins were made of stone. These boxes came in different sizes, based on the size of the deceased. Obviously, children were buried in boxes that were relatively small and could be carried on one’s shoulder, while adults were buried in boxes that had to be carried by two people.

Public eulogies are done only over a child who is a little older. Rabbi Meir quotes Rabbi Yishmael as suggesting age three for poor people and age five for rich people; Rabbi Yehuda quotes him as ruling age five for the poor and age six for the rich. Several explanations are given for the distinction made between rich and poor. Rashi suggests that poor people have no pleasure in life aside from their children, so their mourning over a lost child is greater; alternatively, they rely on their children for sustenance and support more than rich people do. According to the Ran there is a unique closeness that develops between parent and child when the parent saves his last crumbs to feed his child. Another approach is that we are concerned for the feelings of the poor person who will suspect that it is because of his low status in society that his child did not receive a proper eulogy.