By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
We recently had a loss in our family, and the observant children of my cousin ripped their garments at the funeral. I have seen people pin a “torn” piece of garment onto their jacket as a sign of mourning, but not actually tear the garment itself. What is the significance of this custom?
— Jonathan R.
What you noticed is actually not a custom, rather one of the basic tenets of mourning in Jewish Law (“Code of Jewish Law,” Yoreh Deah Ch. 340 pp. 1-39). This law has numerous sources in the Torah and Prophets, as well as in rabbinic writings.
One of the first examples in the Torah is that Jacob rent his garments when he heard Joseph had been killed, (Genesis 37:34; see also 37:29, II Samuel 13:31, II Kings 6:30).
“K’riya,” or tearing one’s shirt and/or jacket, is a core Jewish response to tragedy, especially the loss of a close relative. Today, it is customarily performed during the funeral, although at times it is performed upon receipt of the news of the passing, such as if one cannot be present at the funeral.
There seems to be a dichotomy of faith at the time of k’riya. On one hand, a blessing is recited upon the act of tearing: “Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, the True Judge.” This affirms our trust and belief in the almighty that this loss was not senseless, but that God in His infinite wisdom has deemed it the right thing at this time. On the other hand, k’riya expresses the deepest pent-up emotions of loss and sorrow.
This is not a contradiction. Judaism recognizes that mourners — despite their faith — still need to express pain, grief and, at times, anger. This powerful, symbolic act gives expression to all those emotions. It is, says the Talmud, a tremendous relief for the soul of the mourner.
Tearing one’s shirt or jacket also symbolizes the annulment of personal dignity and disregard for adornment and pleasure at this moment of loss.
There is a deeper Kabbalistic message, as well. K’riya dramatically expresses our recognition that the body is merely the “clothing of the soul” and our belief that the soul lives on for eternity. It is only the body that has been torn away from them and us, but their spiritual essence remains.
The gentile world of old was accustomed to tearing their very flesh when a loved one departed, symbolizing a finality of the loss by leaving a permanent scar. The Torah forbids us to cut our skin in this manner (Leviticus 19:28). This is because we believe every death is actually a birth — into another world, where the soul lives on. By renting our garments and not our bodies, we express this belief that the loss is not final.
This is also the reason that wearing black at the funeral or shiva is not a Jewish custom, as it is in other religions. (This non-Jewish custom has been mistakenly adapted by many Jews.) The loss is not final or eternal, which black clothing represents, and we have faith in the “true judge” that all is not “black,” but there’s a hidden goodness even in the worst occurrences.
The Talmud states that k’riya is performed not only to mourn a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, but also when any fellow Jew passes away, even if there was no connection. The Talmud equates being present at the passing of a fellow Jew to being present if a Torah scroll was burned, a tragedy that also necessitates k’riya.
K’riya is also performed if one’s rabbi/mentor of many years passes. This is much like one would tear k’riya for one’s own parent, as the Torah equates a Torah teacher to a parent.
K’riya also applies to one who sees the destroyed Temple mount in Jerusalem, the symbol of our exile and all its tragedies, if one has not seen it for a while. We do this when going to visit the Kotel for the first time on a trip to Israel.
Unfortunately, this practice, which has been the Jewish way of mourning for millennia, has been abandoned by many, replaced by the pinning of a torn black ribbon. Besides having no source in our literature or tradition, this act does nothing to help one cope with grief.
In the words of one secular Jewish mourner, upon first learning of the practice of k’riya, he exclaimed, “I’ve got plenty of jackets, but I only had one father.”
One clinical psychologist, an observant woman, said many who have abandoned k’riya and traditional Jewish mourning end up in her practice when, she believes, many of them would not have needed her had they allowed their emotions to be fully expressed through our time-tested and timeless laws of mourning.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.