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Why Do Mourners Tear Keriah on Their Garments?

Why Do Mourners Tear Keriah on Their Garments?

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Tearing Garments Is an Ancient Tradition

Tearing garments upon the death of a close relative, keriah in Hebrew, dates back to biblical times. Jacob tore his garments when he was shown Joseph’s bloodstained cloak and made to believe that his beloved son was dead.1 King David tore his clothes when his father-in-law, King Saul, died.2 And upon hearing of the tragic deaths of his children and the other tragedies that befell him, Job tore his robe.3

This practice was so widespread that after the deaths of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu during the inauguration of the Tabernacle, Aaron and his surviving sons needed a special command not to tear their garments or let their hair grow as mourners usually did, since this would detract from the joy of the inauguration.4

What is the reasoning behind this practice?

A Diversion From Pain

Some explain that the controlled, religiously sanctioned act of destruction is a therapeutic release from some of the pain and anguish, through diverting the mourner’s thoughts to their torn clothes.5

Keriah Increases the Grief

On the contrary, others opine that, as with other mourning customs, the garments are torn to arouse more anguish and tears from the mourner.6 They argue that if the purpose were to lessen the anguish, there would have been no reason for G‑d to command Aaron and his sons not to tear their clothes during the festivity of the Tabernacle dedication!

The Soul Is Shedding Its Garments

The Zohar writes that the body is like a garment for the soul. In death, the soul sheds its physical garments as it departs to a more ethereal place, where such garments are not needed. Thus, the torn garments are a sign that in essence the soul of the person lives on, beyond the destruction of its erstwhile physical garment.7

Taking this one step further, the mystics say that tearing the garment actually helps the soul let go of its physical attire as it soars upward to heaven.8

Heartbroken in Loss

When mourning most relatives, we tear the right side. However, upon the death of a parent, the tear is made on the left, “exposing the heart.” The Jerusalem Talmud explains that this symbolizes the loss of the mourners’ ability to fulfill the mitzvah to honor their father and mother (at least on a biblical level). We suffer deeply when we can no longer give love to those we love.9

Some explain that mourners tear the clothing over the heart to symbolize that they are heartbroken over their loss.10

Ripping Apart the Judgment

When tragedy strikes, it is a sign that it is a time of severe judgment, when the prosecutorial angels are especially active. Ripping the garment, which the kabbalists explain represents the Divine attribute of gevurah (“severity”), we rip apart the harsh decrees, as it were.11

Arousing Compassion and Prayers

Mourner's tear their outer clothing worn at room temperature. 12 When others see that they are exposed and recognize their pain, they are inspired to pray to G‑d for mercy and compassion.13

In conclusion, let us all pray for the day when G‑d will “ wipe the tears off every face”14 with the coming of Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead!

Footnotes
4.
Leviticus 10:6 and Rashi ad loc.
5.
See Mishneh Torah, Hil. Shabbat 10:10; Halachot Ketanot 111; Torah Temimah, Leviticus 10:6.
6.
Rabbi Yehuda Ayash, Beit Yehuda 26 .
7.
See Zohar 1:66a and Gesher Hachaim 4:1.
9.
Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan 3:8.
12.
This precludes the cutting of coats and undergarments.
13.
Maavar Yabok, Imrei Noam 31.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Janice Lakewood November 11, 2017

Pain, anguish, anger are energies and I have found that the ripping of the garment is therapuetic. And expressive on the outside what happens on the inside. Reply

Hersh Goldm,an Swampscott, MA November 10, 2017

Klotz Komment: to article on Why Mourners Rend Garment.

If the mourners stay in the house all Shiva-week with nothing to do but eat and sleep they are likely to put on weight. So they prepare for Shiva by tearing the clothes (strategically placed tear at the seams) so they can have the tailor let it out later into a stylish fit and so the garment won't get too uncomfortably tight (and possibly, even burst) during the shivah period. Over the years, the general population remembered only the tearing of the garment and developed their own details of the rituals, styles and customs of how and where to do the
tear.
(I'm Just joking) Reply

Anonymous Sacramento November 9, 2017

Must one mourn an abusive parent? Reply

Janice Lakewood November 11, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Mourning is a natural response; not a must oriented task - sounds like still in process of forgiving, ask your therapist or Rabbi Reply

Yehuda Shurpin (author) November 12, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

I am very sorry for your pain. One should indeed mourn their parents even if they were abusive. Here are two articles that should help give some perspective on this very painful subject.
My Cruel Parent Died - On forgiving a mean deceased parent in Jewish thought

Honor My Mother?! Reply

Ben November 12, 2017
in response to Yehuda Shurpin (author):

I suspect you were not terribly abused as a child, as I was. I am happy for you.

My abuse continued right into adulthood. I am now close to 60 years of age, but the emotional, spiritual - and even financial -
abuse is continuing, even as I 'honor' her.

Jewish therapists have told me to stop sending my mother birthday gifts and the like, to stop honoring her.

There are Litvishe rabbonim (and even Gedolim) who teach one is not required to honor an abusive parent. Reply

Anonymous Santa Rosa November 9, 2017

Keriah I wonder in our excessively materialistic modern times if this tear (also the same word as the tears of grief we shed) shows how important love is. That our clothing is really not so important compared to the bonds we have with those we deeply care for. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn November 8, 2017

The torning of the cloth was from the dead''s clothes himself, than the living relatives showing compassion to the dead also make Kriah. Reply

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