Bringing a small baby to a shiva
Rabbanit Surale Rosen
She'elaDear Rabbanit. I was once present at a shiva to which you had brought a small baby. I was surprised that one of the mourners asked you to take the baby out, at which point you respectfully and quietly left the building. Since the person who was sitting shiva is a learned rabbi I wondered whether he was correct that you should not have brought the baby, and whether you indeed needed to leave.
The Gemara in Moed Katan 26b quotes Rav Pappa:
“And Rav Pappa said: A Sage taught in Evel Rabbati: A mourner should not place a young child in his lap because the child will bring him to laughter, and he will be disgraced in the eyes of other people because he laughed while in mourning.”
The prohibition is explicit – a mourner should refrain from anything that may cause him/her to rejoice or laugh. The reason given, however, is somewhat quizzical – so that he is not ridiculed, or, disgraced by his inappropriate behavior while sitting shiva. It’s not that the Gemara prohibits laughter per se but is disturbed by the disrespect the mourner himself demonstrates while mourning.
It is evident from the Gemara that Chazal recognize and acknowledge a mourner’s elusive range of emotions during a shiva. The tendency to move from crying to laughter, from deep sadness to fond and happy memories is an innate element in the process of mourning. Chazal therefore do not forbid actual laughter; rather, they forbid stimulus that may result in laughing out of enjoyment that might suggest a sign of disrespect.
The Tur (Yoreh Deah 391) expounds upon the prohibition to engage in anything that may bring happiness or joy throughout the initial 30 days of mourning. "אבל אסור בשמחה כל שלושים יום" – (literally: a mourner is forbidden to be in happiness). It is even forbidden to have a baby on his lap since it may cause him to laugh. However, this is prohibited only during the Shiva.
The BaCh (391:1) explains why it is that holding a baby is only forbidden during the shiva and not throughout the 30 days: “there are different types of happiness. The reason to prohibit holding a baby is only due to our concern that it may cause the mourner to laugh. However, what is undoubtedly a happy occasion, like a feast, the mourner is forbidden to attend during the entirety of 30 days and for those mourning their parents, for 12 months.” We can see from the Bayit Chadash that the reason for not holding a baby isn’t because a mourner is not allowed to feel happiness but to give it an expression by laughing, to actually engage in a joyous moment. Once the shiva is over and the customs of mourning are less severe, we do not prohibit what may cause laughter but only what is undoubtedly a joyous gathering such as a feast.
The Beit Yosef (391:1) points out that the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Mourning 5:20) brings the Halakha regarding a baby in a different context. Unlike the Tur who mentioned it in the context of happiness that is prohibited, the Rambam brings it with the Halakhot that are to do with refraining from greeting a mourner and the prohibition to answer a greeting. If a mourner mustn’t be greeted then all the more so he should refrain from unnecessary talk since it is a time for silent reflection rather than lively conversation. So too it is prohibited to hold a baby since it may bring him to laughter.
It is evident that the Rambam’s main concern is with the mourner’s active engagement with his surroundings during the shiva. The 7 days of mourning are a time for personal reflection rather than for lively and active engagement with the world.
From all of the above, as well as from the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 391:1) we see that the prohibition to hold a baby during the shiva pertains to the mourners only. There is no mention that people making a shiva call are prohibited from bringing babies.
Since we should strive to be מלמד זכות, to try and find justification for what we deem as improper behavior on the part of the mourners towards people who come to comfort them, we should bear in mind how strenuous and difficult a shiva can be. The stress and pain mourners experience can, at times, result in their behaving in ways that in other circumstances would not be characteristic of them. In this case, perhaps the mourner was particularly nervous that he would end up holding the baby or that merely looking at the baby would bring him joy.