A Time To Mourn

Is there a difference between grieving and mourning? I would think it would be two separate words in Hebrew. Can you tell us the difference if any?


Susan D.

Dear Susan,

Before we could look at the Hebrew, we wanted to see what the English words meant. Our trusty thesaurus suggested that, for the most part, mourning and grieving are interchangeable, though perhaps mourning has a slightly stronger synergy with death.

Since this is an Ask the Rabbi and Susan answer, rather than a dissertation, we are going to focus only on one aspect of grieving/mourning. Some English versions of the Bible that we glanced at translate several different Hebrew words all as “grieving.” Those same Hebrew words are also sometimes translated as sadness and even as pain, both physical and emotional. (TZaaR, ETZeV, RA)

In general, one of the most useful distinctions we can make is that mourning—the Hebrew word AVel or EVel—tends to have external signs. It is associated with clothing (Genesis 37:34) or a specific number of days that mourning practices are followed (Genesis 27:41; Deuteronomy 34:8).

When the period of official mourning, with all its various specific practices, ends, we still experience sadness or, as you say, grieving. That, however, is an internal processing that should be relatively invisible to most other people. So the Hebrew words other than AVeL would refer to more emotion-based than action-based reactions as well as being experienced more privately.

This conveys an important message to us. We need to recognize loss and acknowledge our emotions. However, it is also important for us to resume living joyfully. If there was not a Bible-mandated ending to the period of mourning, it might feel disloyal to ever stop mourning a loved one. It would be difficult to live productively in a constant state of mourning. We do not wait to rejoin the world with its vitality and pleasure until we ‘feel like it.’ As Ecclesiastes 3 notes, there is a time (and place) for everything. At a certain point mourning—public actions—cease and that is usually ahead of when our internal grieving abates. Ending that official mourning on a Godly timetable rather than leaving it to our feelings, actually helps us to contain our grief and, ideally, transform it into treasured memories that don’t stop us from continuing to live productive and sunny lives.

We hope that gives you some direction,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

In our Recommended Bible:

Mourning: אבל
Genesis 37:34 – p. 116, 6th line, 5th word from the right – ‘and he mourned’ ויתאבל
Genesis 27:41- p. 80, 10th line, 5th word from the right.
Deuteronomy 34:8 – p. 646, 7th line from the bottom, 5th word from the right.

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