בנים אתם לה’ אלהיכם לא תתגדדו ולא תשימו קרחה בין עיניכם למת
“You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead”
The concept of cutting oneself as an act of mourning is very foreign to the sensibilities of us modern-day westerners, but is surprisingly common among many unrelated pagan cultures. The custom is still practiced by some Shia Muslims in the Ashura Festival commemorating the death of Mohammed’s grandson, the isiku ritual in Nigeria and a handful of other cultures, but for the most part has fallen out of vogue.
It is clear that this was a common practice in the middle east in Biblical times. In fact, it is even referenced in the Sumerian poem from the 3rd millenia BC – Dumuzi’s Dream (lines 235 – 244):
“Utu accepted his tears. He changed his hands into gazelle (1 ms. has instead: snake) hands, he changed his feet into gazelle (1 ms. has instead: snake) feet, so he evaded the demons, and escaped with his life to the holy sheepfold, his sister’s sheepfold. He approached the holy sheepfold, his sister’s sheepfold. Jectin-ana cried toward heaven, cried toward earth. Her cries covered the horizon completely like a cloth, they were spread out like linen. She lacerated her eyes, she lacerated her face, she lacerated her ears in public; in private she lacerated her buttocks.”
Generally speaking, it is clear that the Torah disapproves of the practice. What is noteworthy is the apparent non sequitur in the verse:
“You are children of the Lord your G-d” followed by the prohibition of cutting oneself over a death. The classical commentators offer various connections. For instance, Rashi says that it is not befitting for the sons of a king to be scarred or to make themselves bald. The Ktav VehaKabbalah says that since your Father will never die, we should not get to bent out of shape over death, because we’ll always have our Father. There are a bunch of ways that a creative mind could make a connection.
A rather inspiring interpretation is found in the Tikkunei Zohar 68:1, while it doesn’t directly address the question, it goes on to say from the verse that when the Jews fear G-d, His love for them is stronger than death, and when He must separate from them, His pain is worse than death. (Recommended reading as I don’t plan on translating the whole passage at this point.)
However, our sages have learnt another law from this verse, the Sifrei learns:
לא תתגודדו. לא תעשו אגודות [אגודות], אלא היו כלכם אגודה אחת. וכן הוא אומר (עמוס ט): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה.
Don’t make yourselves separate bundles, everyone should be one bundle. And so it is said (Amos 9): And his bundle was established on the land.
So the word tisgoddedu is interpreted in two ways: gedida making a deep scar and agudah a bundle (the literal translation is either scarify yourselves – or- bundlify yourselves). The implications of this double entendre are fleshed out in the Talmud – Yebomoth 13, the upshot being a prohibition against having a single Beis Din (Courts of Law) in a town where some of the Rabbis rule one way and some of the Rabbis rule another way. (Interestingly, Maimonides rules that this even applies to two Batei Dinim in the same town – which is according to Abaye’s opinion for a possible explanation – see כפות תמרים – סוכה מד עמוד ב). Maimonides says the reasoning for this prohhibition is because such behavior causes fighting. Rashi rationalizes it slightly different – that it makes it seem as though there are two Torahs.
Whether or not this law is considered Biblical or Rabbinical is also unclear.
But the question remains – if part of the Rabbis honestly believe one interpretation of the Law and part of the Rabbis honestly believe a conflicting one, practically speaking, what should they do? The Tosfos Rid claims that they are obligated to continue arguing until one side is convinced – in the case where they can’t reach an agreement, the lenient opinion shouldn’t rely on their own opinion but should rather be careful for the more stringent opinion. Besides this being a recipe for things getting more and more stringent, The Tosfos Rid’s opinion raises many new questions – which will not be fleshed out here 😉 . (e.g. – what about when neither is more stringent or lenient but simply different – and what about the rule that when in doubt about a Rabbinic law we are lenient?)
But nowadays there are many Jews with many different opinions and customs, most notably Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Sometimes there is no set Sephardic or Ashkenazic Beis Din in town – how then do they do about keeping two separate versions of Halacha, one for Sephardim and one for Ashkenazim? This has been the topic of many many responsa – particularly in the era of the Expulsion of Jews from Spain.
Rabbi Mordechai Bennet (1753–1829) explains that the only prohibition of לא תתגודדו is at the beginning of the disagreement, but a dispute that the earlier generations had, everyone has to follow his Rabbis and his customs – even within the same shul (שו”ת פרשת מרדכי או”ח ד).
Similar to Rashi’s sentiments that it is unfitting for the sons of G-d to be scarred, it seems that disunity is not something befitting such elevated people either. But as we saw from the Tosfos Rid, this does not mean we should brush our disagreements under the rug – rather it requires us to continue to engage in honest debate and dialogue and it requires that we allow ourselves to be convinced by the arguments of those we disagree with if they are compelling. This form of civilized debate and intellectual honesty is truly noble and befitting for the sons of G-d.