LG: “In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, you are supposed to make a tear in your clothing to show that you’re in mourning. And the reason for that is, I guess, or the reason that tradition evolved is because people used to tear their skin, they were so anguished they would pull their hair out. Jews are not supposed to do that. It’s called Keriyah, you rip your clothes to show you’re in mourning.
[Jews are] not supposed to pierce or tattoo because your body belongs to God, so you’re not supposed to make marks on it or tears at it.”
The informant is my mother. She is a 57-year-old woman of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry who was born in California and currently lives in New York City. Her father was a German refugee who escaped Nazi persecution as a child and conveyed to his children the value of carrying on Jewish beliefs and traditions. She learned about this practice in the Torah study group she takes with her rabbi.
She learned that this tradition was derived from a biblical story, Leviticus 10:1-7, in which the sons of Aaron light a fire in the temple to honor God despite His commands not to do so. As punishment, God kills Aaron’s sons. However, he also punishes Aaron by inhibiting him from mourning practices, which included tearing one’s clothing. LG said that because Aaron was specifically prevented from mourning because he dishonored God, people interpreted that they should tear their clothes as to preserve the meaning of God’s punishment.
There are many Jewish cultural traditions which take place when someone is mourning. These practices rely heavily on members of the community caring for the person who lost someone. I think that Keriyah is a visual symbol of mourning that indicates a person’s desire for support.
Moreover, grief is a visceral experience and confronting the futility of words in the face of it can lead people to hurt themselves as a way to communicate or express their agony. Tearing one’s clothes is a physical manifestation of grief that can substitute harming one’s body, which is sinful according to Jewish belief because one’s body belongs to God. However, I think that the practice is not merely grounded in piety, but also a practical way to care for the mourning, to make sure they don’t physically harm themselves.