Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, Jack Riemer ed. (published by Schocken Books).
The practice of tearing a garment as a tangible show of grief goes back to the Bible. There are numerous instances in the Torah where people tear their clothes to show sorrow. Kriah is the graphic act manifesting the anguish one feels at the loss of life.
While many situations in earlier times warranted tearing, kriah today is done for the closest relatives for whom one mourns: parents, children, siblings, and spouse. One may also tear for other relatives.
Reasons to Practice Kriah
Rabbinic sources offer half a dozen possible reasons for the practice of kriah:
1. It deepens the sense of pain and sorrow.
2. It confronts the individual with the recognition of the sanctity and importance of life at a time
3. The loss of an article of clothing graphically symbolizes the personal sense of loss.
4. The cathartic process rids the heart of cruelty and anger by sensitizing it to loss, thereby
fostering return, reconciliation, and repentance.
5. Tearing the clothing is symbolic of the rending of the relationship between the deceased and
those still alive.
6. It serves as a substitute for or sublimation of ancient pagan self-mutilation rituals not
permitted in Jewish law.
Kriah is done on an article of clothing worn on or near the heart, such as a jacket, sweater, vest, shirt, blouse, bodice, or, minimally, a necktie or neck scarf. Rabbinic sources describe this as m’galeh et libo, revealing the heart. The tearing of a garment near the heart symbolizes the emotions felt in the heart at this time. The tear is made on the left side for parents and the right side for other relatives.