Hesped Kitanim

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg


L’zecher nishmas Avigayil Kirah, daughter of Rabbi Ari and Tamar Ginsberg, niftar on 23 Adar Bet, 5771.


My brother Ari and I took up this area in 2009, soon after his daughter, Avigayil, was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease. The average person, when first reading of this halacha, might see it as restrictive and difficult to internalize. Yet Ari’s desire to understand the halachos were then, as always, motivated by a true love of the system of Torah. 

At a lecture given in 1980 at Yeshiva University (The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Vol 2, pg. 10), the Rav questioned the decision by a famous woman, whose son had recently been assassinated, to purchase a brand new dress for the funeral. He could not understand how someone could be caught up in the world of fashion during such a sad time and made the following observation:

“Nevertheless, we cannot move totally in the opposite direction and of everything in an extreme contrary fashion. To exaggerate mourning and act in a crazed manner is also wrong. What the Laws of Mourning seek to accomplish is to guide us to act logically and within certain standards that the Torah has formulated. This concept applies both at times of distress and also in times of excitement and rapture, such as marriage. This is the concept behind the laws of the seven days of mourning and the seven days of rejoicing for the bride and groom.”

The thrust of this concept lies in the need to maintain balance when mourning a loved one, expressing anguish and despair within defined halachic boundaries. This idea takes is central to understanding  what would seem to be a counter-intuitive halacha regarding hesped and the loss of a child.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 24b) asks the following:

“And what is the rule in respect of making lamentation (hesped) for them [kettanim]? R. Meir in the name of R. Ishmael says: In the case of the poor lamentation is made for a child of three and in the case of the rich for a child of five. R. Judah speaking in his [R. Ishmael's.] name says: With the poor [they make a lament] for children of five; with the rich for children of six. And [as for] the children of ‘elders’, they are [treated] in the same way as the children of the poor. Said R. Giddal b. Menashia, as citing Rab, The halachah is as stated by R. Judah in the name of R. Ishmael.”

The Rambam (Hilchos Avel 12:9) codifies this halacha, writing that one does not offer a hesped for a kattan, using the age of five and six as the shiur of child warranting a hesped. (Due to space constraints, the issue of rich vs. poor and the specific debate over the ages will not be taken up)

Why does this distinction exist with regards to the kattan? One could easily argue that the sadness and complete despair one feels at the loss of a child at such a young age is more “deserving” of the opportunity to offer a hesped. Yet the halacha is clear – a hesped is not given. 

The Rambam (ibid 1) writes that offering hesped is considered kavod hames, honor afforded the dead. This seems like an obvious idea, and yet it does not apply to the kattan below age five or six. We therefore need to take a closer look at the role of hesped and how it functions to honor the deceased. The basic idea of hesped is the halachic mechanism of verbalizing the sadness and grief experienced by the individual. It involves discussing the impact the deceased individual had both on the maspid, family, and the rest of the nation.  Honoring the deceased through hesped, then, is more than simply paying homage to that specific person and his personal effect on the mourner – at its most basic, it involves recognizing the loss of this tzelem Elokim, this person who possessed and made use of his ability to engage in yediyas Hashem, and how his actions and thoughts serves to help benefit all he encountered. If this is the case, then we can begin to understand why the kattan under 5/6 is excluded. There is one common thread that ties the different ages together: they all refer to the ages where a child first becomes subject to chinuch, Jewish education (whereas the ages of five and six may be more well-known to some, there are opinions that at the age of three, a child is taught how to read Tanach). What is so significant about this? The age of chinuch reflects a certain stage in the development of the mind of the child. Every human is born with a tzelem Elokim. Yet it exists, in a sense, in a potential state until the age of chinuch. This is not to say that a child does not use his mind before that age. The halachic system, though, seeks an objective measure of the actualization of this part of the human existence. In this case, it is the ability to start understanding the Torah, to be involved in the system of miztvos, which ultimately determines at what point the tzelem Elokim has emerged in an identifiable manner. Therefore, we can now see the rationale for not offering a hesped for a child below the age of chinuch. One of the main ideas of hesped is the recognition of the impact this tzelem Elokim had on both the personal and societal level.  Chazal recognized there is a fundamental shift from this point when this essential aspect of mankind exists in a form not yet expressed, a potential waiting to manifest. This is reflected in hesped. Hesped involves recounting the effect the deceased had on the maspidim, the family, and the nation as a whole. This effect, though, cannot manifest itself in the emotional void that exists as a result of the tragedy. It must include the effect of this individual on Bnai Yisrael, as measured through his ideas and deeds. There is no means, then, to give hesped for a deceased child, as he has not yet had the opportunity to affect the nation in such a manner. We see, then, a clear example of the importance Chazal placed in the moderation of mourning.