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Why do mourners tear their clothing?

by Rabbi Ari Shishler

  

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Tearing one’s clothing, especially in front of a crowd, is a powerful expression of pain and sorrow.

The practices involved in Jewish mourning do not try to minimize pain or hide it from public view. Torah acknowledges the emotional turmoil (and often anger) that a mourner feels and provides a framework for its expression. In fact, tearing clothes highlights the mourner’s grief and encourages him to express it.1

The Torah mentions many examples of tearing one’s clothing when mourning. Jacob rent his garments when he assumed Joseph was dead, after seeing his bloodstained cloak.2 King David tore his clothes when King Saul died3   and the ever-suffering Job ripped his cloak4 as a sign of mourning.5

The soul has now shed its garment of expression in this life...the soul lives on; it has only outgrown this garment
Originally, people would rip their garments as soon as they heard the sad news. Today, it is done as part of the funeral service, so that the Rabbi can ensure that it is done properly.

A mourner must tear his clothing until he exposes his heart6. This conspicuous sign of his torn shirt represents the broken heart of the mourner.7

It also shows that the mourner can no longer express love to the departed, which is a painful realization.8 As he tears his garment, the mourner shows that his physical relationship with the departed has been severed.

Keriah (tearing the garments) contains a positive message as well. It conveys the duality of mourning. On the one hand, death is a painful loss and one expresses that pain by ripping one’s garment. On the other hand, a garment is not you; it is only an accessory.9

Likewise, the human body is the soul’s accessory. The soul has now shed its garment of expression in this life. There is a subtle message of hope in keriah - that the soul lives on; it has only outgrown this garment.

[Ed. note: Also read about 'How should a mourner tear his or her clothing (kriah)?' ]

Footnotes

  • 1. Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 340:1, 374:4 and commentary of Beit Yehudah note 26.
  • 2. Genesis 37:34.
  • 3. Samuel II 13:31.
  • 4. Job 1:20.
  • 5. G-d commanded Aaron and his surviving sons not to rend their garments after the sudden death of his other sons Nadav & Avihu. G-d had to stress this exception because tearing garments was already standard Jewish mourning practice.
  • 6. One tears the outer clothing usually worn at room temperature. This precludes the cutting of coats and undergarments. A woman should wear something under her torn clothing in order to maintain her modesty.
  • 7. The prophet Joel rebukes people to rend their hearts and not only their clothing (Joel 2:13).
  • 8. Mishnah, Moed Katan 3:5.
  • 9. Gesher HaChaim 4:1, quoting the Zohar, Noach 66.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Joseph
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
Saul
First king of Israel, anointed by the prophet Samuel in 878 BCE. Was dethroned because he failed to carry out G-d's command, and the royal crown was transferred to King David and his descendents.
David
King of Israel who succeeded Saul, becoming king of Israel in 876 BCE. Originally a shepherd, he became popular after he killed the Philistine strongman, Goliath. He is the progenitor of the Davidic royal dynasty -- which will return to the throne with the arrival of King Messiah.