Perhaps the most dramatic and emotionally evocative aspect of Jewish mourning and funerary traditions is the practice of “Keriyah.” We tear our clothing (some use a black ribbon attached to the clothing) as a sign of our grief.

Children mourning a parent make the tear on the left side, as if to expose a broken heart. Those mourning a sibling, spouse, or child make the tear on the right side, opposite the heart. The tear is an outer expression of the inner pain we endure… a symbol of the damage that has been done to the fabric of one’s family. Keriyah is a religiously sanctioned act of destruction, an outlet for those whose grief cannot always be put into words.

Keriyah is also a sign worn by mourners that they require the support, and comfort of friends and an understanding community. Keriyah is a call for kindness.

The Bible records that, at times of loss and bereavement, Jacob, King David, and Job all tore their clothing. Mordecai tore his clothing in response to Haman’s genocidal designs.

Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian Renaissance scholar, humanist, and poet, wrote: “Tears are heard within the harp I touch.” In Jewish tradition’s wise and therapeutic approach to bereavement, both tears and tears offer poetic testimony to our pain.

(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)

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