The Forgotten Mourners

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Aaron Ross


My wife recently suffered the loss of both of her parents in an all-too-quick eighteen-month span. Mom’s passing was what we euphemistically call “expected,” coming at the end of a prolonged illness where she outlasted the predictions of her doctors while falling short of our expectations of a miracle. Dad, who spent his last year and a half of solitude largely on a daily carousel of phone calls to his children and confidants, simply did not pick up the phone one day, thus making the sudden and (hopefully) painless exit that he had always wanted and that left our family suddenly bereft of a patriarch and historian.       

For my wife and her siblings, the ensuing months followed the playbook laid out centuries ago: shivah, sheloshim, yud-bet hodesh. While Covid-19 brought some necessary alterations to the ancient rituals, the presence of a structure to the mourning, the sense that the living could honor the deceased, provided a therapeutic outlet underlying a transitional period for the family.

But what, if I may be so selfish to ask, of me and my fellow siblings-in-law? During the shivah, our primary roles were to serve as bellhops and kitchen managers, zoom coordinators and babysitters. In the ensuing months, we have been notable in our solitary presence at bar mitzvahs and weddings, perhaps subjected to a life of “second-hand aveilut,” with less music in the air and fewer options for an evening out. With my wife saying kaddish, I have often ensured that a man says kaddish along with her – a task that again leaves me in the position of a mere functionary.

This reality raised several questions in my mind: did I not suffer a loss as well? Was my over two decades of a close relationship with my wife’s parents, my children’s grandparents, simply a transactional event, the tragic conclusion of which is expected to have no impact on me emotionally? While there are mourning rituals, such as delivering a eulogy and making a siyum, that I was able to engage in, hilkhot aveilut provide, in the words of Rabbi Marc Smilowitz, both an “anchored permanence of law” as well as a “springboard of thought,”[1] a rigid set of performative acts undergirded by a sensitivity to the pain and sense of loss of the avel. Is it possible that Halakhah offers no path for consolation for in-law children? If it does, what is that path? Further, how can this inform our understanding of Judaism’s view on this relationship of choice?

One final note before proceeding: these questions apply at least as much to others who experience loss yet are not obligated to mourn, or whose mourning status is less than clear – including grandchildren, stepchildren, and adopted children. While my halakhic analysis stems from my own experiences and thus focuses on the in-law relationship specifically, both the questions raised, and hopefully the conclusion that I offer, apply to the broader range of “forgotten mourners.”

The relationship between parents-in-law and children-in-law has, at best, a spotty reputation. From Ernie K-Doe’s 1962 hit “Mother-in-Law” (opening lyric: “The worst person I know”), to Archie Bunker and Meathead, to Helen Rowland’s quip that “it takes one woman twenty years to make a man out of her son, and another woman twenty minutes to make a fool of him,” popular culture has certainly acknowledged the tension that exists between parents and their children by marriage. While certainly not universal, a fair share of marriages experience these tensions.

Jewish sources, both classic and more recent, recognize that these difficulties are not merely the stuff of modern-day punchlines, but in fact have deep roots in human psychology. The Mishnah (Yevamot 117a) assumes that a mother-in-law hates her daughter-in-law, a phenomenon that Rav Soloveitchik views through the prism of the daughter-in-law’s intrusion on the family community that the mother had worked so hard to create:

She refuses to accept her destiny and to surrender her baby to another woman. She resents, and at times her resentment borders on enmity towards her daughter-in-law, since the latter is the one who is blamed for destroying the community. The tension between a woman and her daughter-in-law is proverbial in all languages.[2]

The few examples of relationships between fathers-in-law and sons-in-law in Tanakh do not offer much hope either. Lavan repeatedly duped Yaakov, who ultimately spent fourteen years as an indentured servant, only profiting as a result of some heretofore unknown expertise in animal husbandry.[3] Shaul offered, then denied one daughter, then ultimately gave another daughter as a wife to David,[4] only to hound his son-in-law across the full expanse of the Land of Israel. In post-biblical history, Rabbi Akiva’s father-in-law Kalba Savua chased his own daughter and her new husband out of the house rather than support his son-in-law during his years learning Torah.[5] One ray of light is the relationship between Moshe and Yitro, a relationship wherein Moshe accepts Yitro’s advice on how to administer justice among the people and ultimately begs his father-in-law not to leave (but he leaves anyway).[6]

Yet despite the rocky history of in-law relationships, Halakhah seems to mandate that one respect his or her parents-in-law. While Mekhilta initially derives this requirement from Moshe’s greeting and kissing Yitro,[7] it proceeds to invoke David’s treatment of Shaul, notable in his referring to Shaul as “avi,” my father.[8]

However, while the requirement to respect one’s in-laws is relatively undisputed, the nature of the required respect is the subject of considerable debate. On one extreme, some learn from David that one should respect in-laws as if they were their own parents, with all of the ensuing requirements for their care.[9] More moderately, both Tur and Shulhan Arukh state simply, in the chapter on the laws of respecting one’s own parents, that one is required to respect his father-in-law as well. At the other end of the spectrum, while offering no further exposition of this obligation, both Bah and Pithei Teshuvah require a level of respect tantamount to that of any elder, but not quite on the level that one provides for a parent.

These sources seem to grapple with the issue of determining to what degree someone takes on “new” parents when they get married. Is the parent-in-law merely another elder statesman, albeit one whom they will now encounter frequently? Given some of the natural tensions that occur between in-laws, perhaps the additional reminder within Halakhah was deemed necessary. On the other hand, do the new parents play a role like that played by one’s biological parents, one of support and guidance, albeit focused on a later stage of development?[10]

A third, radically different perspective appears in Sefer Hareidim.[11] He claims that the obligation to honor a parent-in-law stems from the nature of the marital relationship. Husband and wife are considered to be one flesh[12]; thus, by joining together as a unit, each partner assumes the other’s parents as their own: “The father and mother of this one are as the father and mother of the other.”[13] In this schema, there is seemingly no room for negotiation: anything that one would do for his or her own parents, one must perform for one’s in-laws as well.[14]

We return now to the question of mourning for one’s in-laws. Perhaps the strongest proof that neither Tur nor Shulhan Arukh sided with the view that equates in-laws with biological parents is that neither source has any expectation that a person will observe normative mourning practices for his or her parents-in-law. Shulhan Arukh raises the possibility of what might be called “the commutative property of mourning,” that one mourns along with someone that he would have to mourn for; for example, if someone is mourning the loss of a wife, his brothers should join him in mourning.[15] However, regarding one’s wife who is mourning, Shulhan Arukh limits this practice only to a situation where she is mourning her parents, and not any other relatives, since the husband also has some semblance of a requirement to respect his parents-in-law. Nevertheless, both Rema and Shakh (ad loc.) undercut this practice, with the latter maintaining that a relationship based on marriage instead of blood is not sufficient grounds to engage in mourning. And, in fact, common practice is that children-in-law do not formally observe any of the mourning rituals as an obligation.

But perhaps the approach of Sefer Hareidim can offer a pathway to comfort. After all, if the marital union brings the spouse into the pre-existing parent-child relationship, then that should find expression in a multitude of actions, ideas, and mindsets. In discussing the significance of the kaddish that a child says for a parent, Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes,

The deeds of the child can redeem the life of the parent, even after the parents’ death! It is a neat reversal, a “merit of the children.” The ethical, religious and social virtues of children place haloes on their parents. The Talmud declares, bera mezakeh aba, the son endows the father. Elsewhere, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says, mah zar’o bachayim, af hu bachayim, so long as his children live, so long does the parent live. They who leave worthy children do not die in spirit. Their mortal remains are interred in the earth, but their teachings remain among men.[16]

In this view, it is not the mourning rituals themselves which serve as the final acts of honor for one’s parents, but rather the living out of their legacy that does so. In fact, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin writes critically of the practices of aveilim saying an ever-increasing number of kaddishes, noting that kaddish is only meaningful insofar as one sanctifies God’s name in the world. He thus prefers that a mourner expend more effort on Torah study and giving tzedakah as a proper memorial to his or her parents, with kaddish serving as a less salient and more muted aspect of mourning.[17] In this view, the non-hilkhot aveilut acts of mourning and memorial, whose performance is not restricted to the aveilim, become more significant than the formal and more well-known rituals.

Surely one who marries into a family, who deemed a potential spouse a fitting match based on whom their parents raised them to be, who spends years learning and integrating the practices, customs, and history of their new family – surely such an individual becomes a part of that legacy and will help to preserve and amplify that legacy, both through their own actions and potentially through the grandchildren of the deceased. While denied the formal opportunity to sit shivah or recite kaddish, the “forgotten mourners,” whose emotional attachment is necessarily less intense than those who have a biological attachment, can still process their grief by recognizing their role in promulgating the ideals that their loved ones have set out.

Dedicated to the memory of my beloved in-laws, Shlomo and Marsha Fredman.

My thanks to Tzipora Ross, Sarah Rudolph, and David Wolkenfeld for their comments and insights.

[1] Rabbi Marc Smilowitz, “Foreward: Two Faces of Halacha,” in Rabbi David Brofsky, Hilkhot Avelut: Understanding the Laws of Mourning (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2019), xv-xix.

[2] “Torah and Shekhinah,” in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2000), 166.

[3] Genesis 29:18-28; 30:28-43.

[4] I Samuel 18:17-29.

[5] Ketubot 62b.

[6] Exodus 18:13-27; Numbers 10:29-32. I assume that Moshe addresses Yitro in these verses.

[7] Mekhilta de-Rashbi 18.

[8] I Samuel 24:12. While Metzudat Tziyon and Radak interpret the term as simply one of respect for the king, the aforementioned Mekhilta, Tur Yoreh De’ah 240, and Taz assume that David invoked this term due to their familial relationship. See also Arukh Ha-Shulhan Yoreh De’ah 240:42 for further analysis.

[9] Midrash Tehillim 7:4; also cited in and expanded upon by Bah, Yoreh De’ah 240.

[10] See Sefer Ha-Hinukh #33, who writes that the underlying reason for the mitzvah of kibud av va-em is a sense of recognition and gratitude for one’s parents, both because gratitude is an essential trait and because it will eventually lead one to express gratitude toward God for all of His infinite goodness towards us. Within this framework, perhaps one should express gratitude towards in-laws for all of their efforts in raising one’s spouse.

[11] Written by Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri of Tzfat (1533-1600), perhaps best known as the presumed author of the piyut Yedid Nefesh.

[12] Genesis 2:24.

[13] Sefer Hareidim, Perek 1, Mitzvot Asei Min Ha-Torah Ha-teluyot Ba-peh Be-kaneh V-efshar Le-kayman Be-khol Yom.

[14] It should be noted that virtually all commentaries assume that the obligations are the same for a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law. See Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 240:38 for the clearest exposition of this.

[15] Yoreh De’ah 374:6. This would only apply in the presence of the mourner. The non-mourning sibling has no requirement to sit shivah for his sibling’s spouse.

[16] Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 1969), 158-159.

[17] Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Ha-Pardes, Adar 5723. My thanks to Sarah Rudolph for sharing this source with me.

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Ross is Assistant Principal at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ.