Picasso allegedly said: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” On today’s page, the Talmud probes this idea, beginning with the mishnah:
One who rends their garment (on Shabbat) in anger or anguish over a dead relative is exempt. And anyone else who performs labors destructively on Shabbat is exempt. But one who performs a labor destructively in order to repair is liable, and their measure for liability is equivalent to the measure for one who performs that labor constructively.
Standing with families before the funeral and burial of their loved ones, I often talk about kriah, the ceremonial tearing of clothing (or often, in our modern times, a ribbon) as an external manifestation of an internal process. In rending our clothes, we show the ways that our hearts — and our lives — feel torn apart. I also talk about the possibility of mending the rip; our lives will, as lives do, be sewn back together, but they will always look different. We will, at least metaphorically, always see that mended seam.
This mishnah holds that tearing our garments, in pain or in anger, is a destructive act. But one is left to wonder: can it not be mended? In this immediate moment of grief and destruction, is there not a seed of creation, of navigating mourning and grief, of rebuilding life without our loved one?
The Gemara also wonders this:
We learned in the mishna: “One who rends their garment in anger or in anguish over their dead relative is exempt.”
But we also have a contradictory teaching in a different mishnah: “One who rends their garment in anger or in mourning or in anguish over their dead relative is liable for performing a prohibited labor on Shabbat. But even though they desecrate Shabbat by tearing their garment, they nevertheless fulfilled their obligation of rending their garment in mourning.”
Our mishnah says the act of tearing the garment on Shabbat is exempt but, in a standard talmudic move, the Gemara points out how this teaching contradicts another mishnah, which says tearing garments on Shabbat incurs liability. The Gemara now solves the contradiction:
This is not difficult, as this mishnah, which states one is liable for rending his garment, is referring to their own dead relative for whom they are obligated to tear their garment. And that mishnah, which states one is exempt for rending their garment, is referring to any unrelated dead person.
Per the Gemara, when one is tearing one’s garment out of obligation (for a close relative), it is a Shabbat violation. When one tears out of no obligation (for someone who is not a close relative) but merely in raw pain, then the act is exempt. The great medieval philosopher and Talmud commentator Maimonides, explains that obligatory tearing incurs liability because it has a positive, constructive effect — it puts the mourner’s mind at ease. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 10:10)
The act of kriah, of rending our clothes in anger and anguish when we first hear news of the death of a loved one, marks a moment of acceptance, or at least of acknowledgment. In completing this act, a person officially becomes a mourner. I think this is what Maimonides teaches: the act of kriah is, ultimately, a creative act, the first step of imagining what will be, of realizing a world without our loved one. And this is why it is not permitted on Shabbat.
Our original mishnah does not view kriah as constructive, merely destructive. But other rabbinic sources disagree. Robert Frost famously wrote: There is no way out but through. In some small way, the act of kriah is the very first step we take through to a new self, a new reality.