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?
With appreciation, Jonathan
Your question is an important one for all time, and especially during the current period of mourning that we are in over the destruction of the Temple.
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, paragraphs 1-39).
This law has numerous sources in the Torah and Prophets, as well as in rabbinic writings. One of the first example in the Torah is that Jacob rent his garments when he heard that Joseph had been killed (Genesis/Bereishees 37:34; see also 37:29, II Samuel 13:31, II Kings 6:30).
“Kriya,” or rending 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 at the time of 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.
At the time of kriya, there seems to be a dichotomy of faith:
• On one hand, a blessing is recited upon the act of tearing; “Blessed are You, G-d, King of the Universe, the True Judge.” This affirms our trust and belief in the Almighty, that this loss was not senseless, but that G-d in His infinite wisdom has deemed this tragedy is ultimately the right thing at this time. Although we, from our puny vantage point, cannot fathom the goodness of the loss, as Jews we have complete trust in our Father in heaven.
• On the other hand, kriya is performed, expressing the deepest pent-up emotions of loss and sorrow.
This is, however, not a contradiction. Judaism recognizes that the mourner — despite his or her faith — still needs to express pain and grief (and at times even anger). This powerful, symbolic act gives expression to all those emotions. It is an opportunity for the mourner to express the feeling of loss like no other, and, says the Talmud, is a tremendous relief for the soul of the mourner.
Tearing one’s shirt or jacket also symbolizes the annulment of personal dignity, the disregard for adornment and pleasure at this moment of loss.
There is a deeper Kabbalistic message in the kriya as well: It dramatically expresses our recognition that the body is merely the “clothing of the soul,” and our belief that the soul itself continues to live on for eternity. It is only the “clothing of the soul” of our beloved that has been torn away from them and us, but their spiritual essence remains with us. The Gentile world of old was accustomed to tearing their very flesh at the occasion of the departure of a loved one, which symbolized a finality of the loss, leaving a permanent scar. The Torah forbids us to cut our skin in this manner (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:28). This is because we believe every death is actually a birth — into another world, where the soul lives on. By rending our garments and not our bodies we express this belief that the loss is not final — besides venting our deepest feelings of love and loss.
This is also the reason that it is not a Jewish custom for the mourners to wear black at the funeral or at the shiva, 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 that there’s a hidden goodness even in the worst occurrences.
The Talmud states that kriya is performed not only by one who is in mourning for a close relative, such as a parent or sibling. A Jew performs kriya if present when any fellow Jew passes away, even if he or she had no connection with that Jew. The Talmud equates being present at the passing of a fellow Jew to being present if a Torah scroll was burnt, which is a tragedy which also necessitates kriya.
Kriya is also performed if one’s rabbi/mentor of many years passes, from whom he or she received most of their guidance. This is much like one would tear kriya for their own parent, as the Torah equates a Torah teacher to a parent.
Kriya also applies to one who sees the destroyed Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is the symbol of our exile and all its tragedies, if one has not seen it for a protracted period of time. We do this when going to visit the Kotel (Western Wall) for the first time on a trip to Israel.
Job tore his shirt upon hearing tragic news of Jews killed (Job 1:13, 18-20). All of these situations are expressions of overwhelming loss and grief, coupled with the underpinnings of faith in the “True Judge.”
Unfortunately, this practice, which has been the Jewish way of mourning for millennia, has been abandoned by many only to be 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. One secular Jewish mourner, upon first learning of the practice of kriya, exclaimed, “I’ve got plenty of jackets, but I only had one father!” One clinical psychologist, an observant woman, told me that many who have abandoned the traditional Jewish practices of kriya and mourning end up in her practice when, she feels, many of them would not have needed her professional help had they allowed their emotions to be fully expressed through our time-tested and timeless laws of mourning.
May we enjoy only simchas in the future!
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.