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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Dayan Ha-emet

Unlike most of the other mitzvot that come from the Torah or rabbinic tradition, kriah has no specific blessing recited over its performance. The rabbis were reluctant to attach a blessing to a seeming act of destruction, even one warranted by the Torah. However, there is a very important blessing associated with the grief period and, since medieval times, said before per­forming kriah. The blessing is Dayan Ha-emet: "Blessed are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, the true judge."

While this blessing is traditionally said any time one receives very bad news, it takes on special meaning here. It has been classically explained as the attempt to justify God's actions, be they good or bad. This flows from the traditional belief, expressed in the Talmud, that "whatever God does is for the good." Jewish life certainly affirms this as a general tenet, and some mourners are able to accept the idea. Yet it is not always satisfying. When deep grief and loss strike, one is not always ready to accept stan­dard theological wisdom or dogma. However, the basic idea behind this blessing acknowledges God's ultimate power over life and death.

During aninut, the period between the death and the burial, the mourner attempts to come to grips with the tragedy that has occurred. By referring to God as "the true judge," the survivor is helped to recognize that death as well as life is part of God's ultimate plan. Much of the funeral service moves the mourner to face the stark reality of what has occurred, and kriah is the first step.

Another explanation sees this blessing not as an affirmation of faith in the face of tragedy but rather as a goal toward which to work. The ultimate hope of consolation and healing involves the reaffirmation of faith, but this does not happen immediately. Rather, the mourner can view the blessing as an agenda, something for which to strive within the mourning and healing process.

Symbolic Substitutes for Kriah

There is no question that historically and halakhically, the tear­ing of clothing has been a significant part of the Jewish process of grieving. Unfortunately, too many modern Jews have shied away from this psychodrama of sorrow. Some reject kriah because they simply reject halakhic practice.

Others, more well meaning, desire to spare grieving family mem­bers a perceived "barbaric ritual." Thus, the black ribbon was devel­oped as a symbolic substitute for kriah. However, the black ribbon seems more an imitation of the non-Jewish custom of wearing a black armband as a sign of mourning. Most people I speak with believe for some reason that the ribbon must be worn for a full month, though there is no source in halakhah to indicate that a kriah garment is to be worn that long.

Symbolism of Kriah

Most importantly, the actual tearing done by the mourner addresses the emotions that all mourners endure. The pain and loss felt in the heart, the confrontation with the finality of death, and the cathartic ripping of the material--symbolizing the ripping of the relationship, never to be fully restored--are all deep emotional issues which simply cannot be addressed by a ribbon.

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Joseph Ozarowski

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