(Photo/Wikimedia CC0)
(Photo/Wikimedia CC0)

Why we tear an item of clothing at a Jewish funeral

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 19:1–20:27

Each time I walk with a family as they bring a loved one to their final resting place, I marvel again at the honesty and wisdom of traditional Jewish mourning rituals. Among those are the kriyah, or “cutting” ceremony, which I conduct quietly before the main service. The closest relatives stand together, supporting each other in a private, intimate circle. They recite the brief prayer acknowledging as Dayan Ha’emet (the Judge of Truth) and affirm that “the Creator has given and the Creator has taken; praised be the name of the Creator” (Job 1:21). In a gesture of inexpressible profundity, the mourners then tear a small black ribbon affixed to their clothing, close to the heart.

In parts of the Jewish world, kriyah is still done on an article of clothing, which is worn during shiva, the first, and likely most intense period of grief. The tearing of black ribbons, which some also wear throughout shiva, is a more recent development, but the practice of “rending the garments” hearkens back to some of our oldest Biblical stories. We find Job (1:20) and King David (2 Samuel 13:31) honoring the mitzvah in this week’s portion, Kedoshim. to “not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead” (Leviticus 19:28 — in this week’s Torah portion) by tearing their clothing upon receiving unthinkable news.

Mourning practices in parts of the world, including the ancient Near East, often included gashing of the skin and permanent self-mutilation. The Levitical prohibition responded to that rite, which may still be done in some places, and begs us to not release the terrible pain of loss and emotional torment by hurting our Divinely created bodies.

The “Holiness Code,” as this remarkable portion is known, offers many prescriptions for living in ways that are mindful, respectful and full of care.

Not all of the commandments apply to our time and sensibilities, but many are still absolutely relevant and necessary. Some are far more famous, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14), but something about the mitzvah of the how we are not to mourn is especially poignant for how it led to the kriyah ritual that is with us still today.

Though the Torah forbids cutting one’s skin as a demonstration of visible grief, our ancestors respected and preserved the impetus to tear something. They knew, in their wisdom and compassion, that the act of tearing was essential and necessary.

The Yiddish word for “funeral” is levaya. It derives from the words “to escort or accompany,” which describes exactly what we do at that august ceremony, both for the dead and the living. Since a levaya is often one of the few formal Jewish rituals in which people will take a personal part, every moment can, and should, leave a lasting and meaningful impression.

Kriyah can be a surprisingly powerful experience. The physical motions of holding and ripping the cloth provide something sanctioned “to do” at a time that can be utterly bewildering and frightening. We tear the cloth as if to say: We are being torn from one chapter of our lives to the next. The departed one has been torn away from us, even if their lives were full and they drew their final breaths surrounded by love and free of pain. We tear the cloth, which cannot be made whole again, to say we accept that life will never be the same without the loved one in our world.

The act of kriyah is a cathartic one, often opening the floodgate of emotions that may have been held in check, giving permission for tears and words to flow. The sight of the torn ribbon or item of clothing, worn near the beating heart of the mourner, is as the early rabbis called it, a “m’galeh et libo,” a revealing of the heart, broken in grief. It is a silent, but immensely potent announcement of loss which can open the channels for support and comfort.

I am amazed continually by the creativity and resilience of the Jewish People. We rejected the earlier and physically destructive mourning ritual, but retained the therapeutic benefit and multi-layered symbolism of tearing a piece of cloth. It is yet another way that Judaism reaffirms its commitment to life and living, even as we look with honesty and courage at the ultimate Truth.

But this commandment appears in the Holiness Code, and that cannot be accidental. Every mitzvah in the parashah can have an argument made for why our ancestors felt it was a prescription for kedushah (sanctity), for deepening our connection to the Divine.

Kriyah is a unique portal to holiness, because once it is done, the levaya can proceed, and the mourners can officially recite the Kaddish, the formula whose name means “holy.” Kaddish pulls mourners to their feet to stand before the God of All and praise the Holy Name. It is what we promised to do at the start of the ceremony with the words from Job. With it, we gently close the circle of holiness that ought to rightfully embrace both the deceased and the mourners.

May our hearts be open to holiness, and may all who mourn be comforted.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].