Kriah: A Tangible and Obligatory Expression of Grief

Kriah, or tearing of a piece of clothing, helps mourners confront the reality of death.

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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
         of loss.

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.

Oligations of Kriah

When mourning a parent, as opposed to other relatives, the obligation to tear always remains, even long after the initial mourning period has concluded. The Talmud explains this as a function of the duty to honor one's parents, which continues after the death of the parent. But this raises questions in cases--more and more frequent--where the child feels no emotional bond with the parent. We might well ask if an abused child or one with large emotional distance from the parent still must tear. Halakhically [according to Jewish law], the answer is yes, because, at the very least, the biological bond has been severed. One acknowledges the fact that the deceased parent brought the survivor into the world, even if he or she did not fulfill the obligations of parenting.

The torn garment may be pasted or repaired after the mourning period, yet it will never look as it did before. This symbolizes that while life goes on, it can never be completely the same after the loss has occurred. In the case of the death of parents, it also conn­otes the fact that the mourner is no longer fully able to fulfill the mitzvah [commandment] of honoring them.

The Talmud states that the tear has to be done b'shaat himum, literally at a time of great emotional turmoil or pain. It can be argued that anytime one feels this way can be considered b'shaat himum. Our custom today is to tear at the time of greatest emotional feeling. Usually, this is just before the funeral service, though it is occasionally just afterward, or sometimes at the gravesite. After the initial shiva week of mourning is over, the garment need not be worn.

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Joseph Ozarowski

Rabbi Joseph S. Ozarowski is Rabbi of the Elmont Jewish Center, Elmont, NY.