Author Q&A-Rabbi David Brofsky

Rabbi Brofsky’s new book, Hilkhot Avelut, has just been released! Rabbi Brofsky is also the author of Hilkhot Moadim also published by Maggid Books.

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Koren Publishers: Tell us about your interest in halacha [Jewish Law].

Rabbi Brofsky: I spent my formative years learning and teaching gemara. I firmly believe in the primacy of Talmud study, and view the Torah Shebe’al Peh as the source for Jewish values and the Torah’s most profound, loftiest ideas. However, with time and experience, I began to appreciate the importance of the in-depth study of halakha.

First, halakha represents the meeting between these high values and day-to-day life. While analytical Talmud study may reveal the Torah’s revealed values and messages, the study of halakha is about the Jewish people, and how they fulfill the will of God.

Second, the study of halakha, and its application provides a unique opportunity to help others. Just as the doctor offers medical advice, the computer repairman restores lost files, and the clinical social worker or psychologist guides one through important decisions, the posek offers guidance for those in need. Halakhic guidance may relate to a missed prayer, an improperly fried onion, or marriage, divorce, and other life-cycle events. Rabbis and teachers not only inspire through their profound ideas, but they also spend their free moments answering a host of questions, sent to their emails and Whatsapps, about the most mundane, to the most critical ritual issues.

These two aspects of halakha, i.e., the study of the Jewish people’s interaction with Jewish law, and the opportunity to guide the observant Jew through his/her fulfillment of the mitzvot continue to both fascinate, and challenge me.

Koren Publishers: How is Hilkhot Aveilut different than other halakha books on the subject? Is there a particular approach that you have that is unique?

Rabbi Brofsky: When I began working on this project, I noticed that there are currently two types of (English) books of the laws of mourning. One is beautifully written, filled with fascinating insights, comforting thoughts, and practical guidance. However, it does not include halakhic sources and development, as well as a spectrum of standard practices. The other type of book, bursting with details and lengthy footnotes, is comprehensive and relates to every possible scenario, but may be difficult for the average reader to process and apply. Both types of book are well written and useful for different populations.

In this book, I strived to present the halakhic development of each topic, alongside its reasons and contribution to the mourning process. Furthermore, I attempt to show the spectrum of practices and their sources, and when necessary, direct, practical direction. I genuinely hope that this book will contribute to the scholarly literature of the laws of mourning, and more importantly, provide necessary halakhic guidance for those in mourning.

Koren Publishers: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Rabbi Brofsky: The most challenging part of writing this book, for me, was striking the proper balance between conceptual analysis and practical guidance. I felt responsible for offering a comprehensive overview of each topic while providing the mourner, who doesn’t have time to wade through lengthy source analysis, with answers to his/her immediate questions, and the tools to determine the proper practice throughout the month, or year of mourning. I added a “Practical Summary of the Laws of Avelut,” which briefly relates the practical halacha and normative practices without the halakhic discussions which appear throughout the rest of the book.

Koren Publishers: Are there misconceptions that people have about this subject?  If so, explain.

Rabbi Brofsky: Over the past few years, whenever I would mention that I am researching and writing on the laws of avelut, the usual response was: Avelut is all minhagim (customs). There is no doubt that custom has played a significant role in the development of mourning laws and rituals. One of the more interesting aspects hilkhot avelut is the interplay between law and custom, as well as between law and the human condition.

That said, the foundations of avelut are found in the legal sections of the Talmud and Shulchan Arukh, and the fundamental practices and ideas are rooted in halakha. This sefer focuses on the halakhic aspects of avelut, although when necessary, I relate to the many customs of avelut, including the recitation of Kaddish, and the traditions associated with the shiva house and the yahrzeit.

Koren Publishers: Who are some of your role models that you feel were influential in your work?

Rabbi Brofsky: As I mention in the introduction to the book, my primary teachers in my formative years were R. Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l and R. Michael Rosensweig. I am indebted to them for my foundation in text study and analysis, as well as for their contribution to my overall religious outlook.

There are a number of figures who made, and continue to make, significant contributions to modern halakha literature. I would first note R. Shalom Yosef Zevin (d. 1978), author of “Moadim Be’Halakha” and other interested works, who demonstrated how one could write on halakhic topics in a modern, engaging manner without sacrificing breadth and depth.

In recent years, R. Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halakha) and R. Yosef Zvi Rimon, each in their own, distinct way, have authored numerous, comprehensive sefarim on halakhic topics. While they differ in multiple ways, each has succeeded in making halakhic material interesting and accessible. While I began writing roughly around the same time that both R. Melamed and R. Rimon started to publish, I have no doubt that their books have influenced the content and style of my writing.

Koren Publishers: In the introduction, you write a clear, sensitive introduction to the world of mourning. Yet, many would say that the halakhot are so detailed and often times, difficult. How do you see halakha’s role in the mourning process? How do you see the human element expressed in the halakhic aspects of mourning?

Rabbi Brofsky: The interplay between the “law” and the psychology of the mourner is one of the most interesting aspects of avelut. R. Smilowitz relates to this aspect in his introduction, as does R. Mordechai Willig in his attached approbation. The laws of mourning reflect the mourner’s ‘condition’ and guide him/her through the mourning process. The different halakhic stages of mourning correspond to the various stages grieving and healing.

Of course, there are cases where the halakha does not appear to match the mourner’s experience. For example, if a burial occurs shortly before a Festival, the shiva is canceled. This is due to larger, broader halakhic and spiritual values. However, overall, I believe that the laws of mourning reflect, and enable a healthy and proper period of mourning.

It is worth noting the difference between the Jewish model of mourning, which begins with aninut, burial and then shiva, shloshim and yud bet chodesh, to the non-Jewish model of a ‘wake’, which is followed by burial and then an almost immediate return to day-to-day life. The Halakha’s model of mourning appears to enable a healthier period of mourning and recovery.

Koren Publishers: You discuss some topics that have become more common in contemporary society (an adopted child mourning for his/her parent, etc). What are some examples and how would you explain how the halakhic principles can be applied in those situations?

Rabbi Brofsky: Many areas of halakha interface with modern technological, ethics, or other contemporary phenomena. In this book, I grapple with some current issues and sensitivities, including adoption abusive parents and spouses, etc., although I chose to omit certain issues, including end-of-life decisions, organ donations, questions regarding the definition of maternity and paternity in cases of IVF, surrogacy, etc.

For example, I found that while in a strictly legal sense avelult is only incumbent upon “halakhic” relatives, a spouse and one’s biological parents, siblings and children, there is sufficient basis in the poskim to practice a “voluntary avelut” and to apply almost the entire corpus of hilkhot avelut to adopted children. There is also a strong basis to exempt certain people from the laws of mourning, including those who were physically or sexually abused by their parents, or spouse.

Another interesting example is that at times, we delay informing a person of the loss of a relative. For example, we may choose not to tell a chatan or kalla that a relative has passed away until after the wedding, or we may decide not to reveal to an older adult that a close relative died, lest it lead to a deterioration of their physical and mental health.

In addition, modern methods of travel have impacted mourning practices (aninut, the beginning of shiva, etc.). It is common for people to travel great distances to attend funerals, as it is common to bury the deceased in a different city, or country. Modern methods of communication have also impacted the laws of avelut. For example, is one who delivers a eulogy through Skype, while in a different country, still considered to be an onen?

The laws of mourning have always taken into account the complexity of the human condition and allowed for flexibility regarding when voluntary mourning may be appropriate, or when avelut may be unnecessary and even traumatic.

Koren Publishers: Inquiring minds want to know: is it true that a Jew with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Where does that concept come from?

Rabbi Brofsky: There is a popular misconception that Jews with tattoos cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

It is biblically prohibited to receive a permanent tattoo (Vayikra 19:28). Due to this prohibition, tattoos have always been “taboo” in Jewish communities, which has led many baalei teshuva, who received tattoos in their youth, to seek ways to remove them. Some Holocaust survivors even sought to remove their concentration-camp tattoos, leading R. Ephraim Oshry, a halakhic authority who survived the Holocaust, to advise a survivor to wear her tattoo as “a badge of honor.” In recent years, there has been much discussion regarding semi-permanent medical tattoos.

In the sefer, I discuss the mitzvah of burial, which is actually derived from the obligation to bury the ultimate sinner, i.e., one executed by beit din. There were, however, situations in which burial was denied to Jews, or when Jews who committed certain sins were buried separately from others, due to their sinful behavior, such as those who chose to be cremated.

It appears that some mistakenly assume Jews who received tattoos cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. This is not true. Chevra kadishas perform “taharot” and burials for all Jews, including those who sinned in all sorts of ways, including those have tattoos.

Koren Publishers: What do your plans for future projects include?

Rabbi Brofsky: Alongside teaching, I continue to write on halakhic topics for Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM) and other journals. I enjoy the process, as well as the creativity it entails. However, I receive the most satisfaction from the knowledge that my writings are used in Torah study, by teachers preparing for shiurim and students of all types looking to research halakhic topics, as well as by those looking for halakhic guidance.

Over the upcoming years, I hope to write, more comprehensively, on life-cycle topics, such as marriage, brit mila, and conversion. Furthermore, I would very much like to produce an accessible yet scholarly and comprehensive overview of the laws of kashrut.

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