By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
The headlines on Jewish newspapers and websites are often filled with bad news and tidings. Person X passed away from Covid-19. Car runs over a border guard. Company X faces financial ruin.
And yet, we know from both yesterday’s daf (Psachim 3b) and today’s daf (Psachim 4a) that one should not be the bearer of bad news. Doing so invokes the pasuk of Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei (10:18), “umotzi dibah hu k’sil – one who voices bad news is a fool.” – The Gemorah relates three episodes one after the other where bad news is told over but only by manner of a hint. The Gemorah applies the aforementioned verse. Should websites, therefore, refrain from reporting such things? And if they do report them – should they do so indirectly – only alluding to them?
I recall my saintly father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Hirsch zt”l and his illustrious chavrusa of over half a century, Rabbi Chaim Polskin zt’l, telling each other that they had a levaya to attend that afternoon – without identifying the name of which of their friends had passed on. They found out only at the levaya itself. Such was their observance of this ideal.
Before we attempt to find the answer, it is important to first identify the various reasons why we should not be the bearer of such news. The Chasam Sofer in his chiddushim on the page (“Rav”) asks the question, pointing out that, at the end of the day, the bad news ends up being conveyed – anyway – through the hint.
The Chasam Sofer explains that Hashem watches over the broken-hearted, to heal them and comfort them, as Dovid haMelech explains in Tehillim (51:19), “lev nishbar v’nidkeh Hashem lo sivzeh – Hashem will not deject a broken and crushed heart” and (Tehillim 91:15), “imo anochi b’tzarah – I am with him in despair.” However, points out the Chasam Sofer – every negative tiding contains upon it a ruach of tumah – a spirit of impurity. It causes that Hashem not mention His Holy Name on evil – see Sifrei Ki Saitzei 254 – venishmarta mikol davar rah also includes bad tidings and veshav m’acharecha).
The withdrawal of Hashem’s shechina brought about by mentioning the evil tiding thus causes the removal of the healing and comfort that hashem generally provides. Hinting, on the other hand, does not drive the Shechina away.
Rashi, however, on Psachim 3b “Ahadrei” indicates that the reason for it is that if they were to find out immediately – the information would unduly shock them.
The prohibition, or perhaps more accurately, custom is discussed in Shulchan Aruch as well (YD 402:2). His language is somewhat ambiguous – in the beginning he writes that one is not obligated in informing another of a death – but it would seem that it would be permitted. Yet, he concludes that one who does so is called a kh’sil.
There are, of course, exceptions to the prohibition which would lead to differences in Halacha. In many communities, a car drives slowly around the neighborhood announcing a levaya. This is done for kavod hameis for the honor of the deceased – and most Poskim permit it.
Another exception mentioned by the Ramah is if there are sons that can say Kaddish for the deceased. The exception is not permitted, however, on a Yom Tov so as not to bring anguish on a holiday. The Maharam Shick in his responsa (Orech Chaim #26) writes that this is an obligation based upon the verse, “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” If you are obligated to save another person during his lifetime – you are certainly obligated to save him after his demise – and kaddish elevates the soul.
FOR WEBSITES AND NEWSPAPERS
Rabbi Dovid Tahari, a Sefardic Poseik from Beitar Illit, in his sefer entitled, “Zichron Yitzchok” (p. 327) suggests that the prohibition does exist in writing. His proof is that in the illustrations in the Gemorah, they could have just imparted the information through writing. The fact that they didn’t is indicative that there would have been a prohibition as well.
One can, of course, object that the import is that they had met up and generally speaking writing then was only does with ink and quill, something that was not exactly common when one meets up with someone.
Rav Yitzchok Yoseph in his Yalkut Yosef Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Vol II Siman 338 Chapter 3 also rules that it is prohibited to inform in writing as well.
When one considers the reason of the Chasam Sopher – it would seem unlikely that the Shechina would be driven away from a distance – and it would thus be unlikely that according to him – it would be prohibited on that account.
On the other hand, according to Rashi, it is highly likely that it could shock the reader at a distance. This is perhaps borne out by an incident that occurred on February 3rd, 1959. The famed American musician Buddy Holly died in a plane crash and his wife, Maria Elena, who was pregnant at the time, suffered a miscarriage when she heard of his death. His mother as well, collapsed when she heard the news.
The incident forever changed America in that from that point on authorities and media did not report of deaths until the family members were previously informed See Time Magazine article by Claire Suddath, (February 3, 2009 entitled The Day the Music Died.) That was the turning point which changed the policy. The minhag in the world at large is like Rashi.
One could perhaps draw a distinction between the case of February 3rd, ’59, and websites and newspapers in that the Feb. 3rd bad news was heard on television, whereas the negative information on newspapers and websites would be read.
The fact that it may also be a minhag rather than a halacha may also be grounds to be more lenient. It is this author’s view, however, that the websites should be more sensitive to this halacha – and should only allude to it, unless there is a clear cut “kavod HaMeis” such as encouraging people to attend funerals.
It should be further noted that Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l, the founder of the Mussar Movement, wrote that during an epidemic or pandemic people have a tendency to get more depressed. He advises that people not engage in overly depressive activities on this account during such times.