A friend recently lost both parents in the same week. At the funeral of the first parent he performed Kriah with a ribbon. Five days later at the second funeral not even the conservative rabbi was sure whether to tear a second ribbon or to further tear the first. In the end they decided on two ribbons. Is there correct halacha for such an instance?
At first, I took this as a very straightforward halachic (Jewish law) question of how to do something, to which there was a very straight halachic answer (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, Hilchot Kri’ah 320:21) which states that when there is a death, one performs kri’ah (tearing), and when it is followed by another death within the week, one tears again.
But then I realized that what was at stake was a slightly different question, the underlying question, which is indeed a values question: Originally, when one performed kri’ah – tearing- what one tore was one’s clothing. Over time, it has become the custom to tear, not one’s clothing, but a ribbon. This was done on the assumption that the clothing one was wearing was expensive to replace.
Today, most people attend funerals dressed in “good” clothing – what they would wear to work, rather than one’s street clothing, and it is more expensive than the sort of clothing one might wear on the street. However, in the time of the Shulchan Aruch, people might only own a few items of clothing; they made their own clothing, and clothing was expensive and laborious to produce. In some sense, the clothing might be considered to have been more valuable then. Of course, people would also mend their clothing when it became worn – or torn- and it was normal for people to wear clothing that had been mended. Today, it would be odd for anyone over the age of twelve to wear clothing that has been mended, and particularly one wouldn’t wear mended clothing to work – one would simply replace the item.
The question you ask – what to do about a ribbon which has been cut, comes because we have made the idea of kri’ah a purely symbolic act. Rather than an act of passion and grief – of rending one’s clothing in sadness at the time of hearing the news of the death and saying “Baruch Dayan Emet – blessed is the True Judge,” as we attempt to remember that God’s judgments are to be accepted- we have neatly separated ourselves from the death with a mere symbol of sadness.
What I would suggest is that we should discard this custom, and go back to actually rending our clothing. While business clothing is expensive, it is not really required for funeral clothing, especially the immediate family’s funeral clothing- to be business attire. To the contrary, we should consider wearing mourning clothing which are, while not sloppy, not necessarily the most expensive item in the closet. Rather we should consider wearing a less expensive item and actually tearing it in grief.
This would return us as mourners to people who are genuinely mourning, rather than separating us from the process of grief and the actuality of death by pinning on a mere symbol of mourning. After all, isn’t one's mother or father worth a $40 shirt?
This question is helpful because it gives us a chance to elucidate the rabbinic mitzvah (commandment) of keriah, the tearing of a garment as an expression of grief or mourning.
In the Torah, when Aaron’s son’s, Nadav and Avihu die, he and his remaining sons are enjoined not to mourn. “...Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes...” (Leviticus 10:6) From this injunction the Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate Moed Kattan 24a) learned that there is an obligation to tear clothing as a sign of mourning.
This tearing is deeply cathartic and became a powerful symbol of grief. We perform keriah in different ways and for different people. As with most issues in Jewish law, there are complex and meaningful customs associated with the practice.
Keriah is not only performed for the loss of a loved one, but also when one is in the room when a person passes away, for on the death of certain rabbinic scholars, and on seeing the cities of Jerusalem and Judah in destruction.
Some of these keriot have fallen out of practice but the ones for relatives have not and, even in communities where observance of other customs is less strict, keriah remains.
When performing keriah there are a number of factors: the garment, the relationship to the one who has passed, the actual tearing, whether the garment can be repaired, to name only a few.
The customs that follow concern the passing of a parent. Custom dictates that when a parent dies one tears an actual garment, beginning at the left side in the neck/collar and until the area of the heart is revealed, approximately 3 inches. No matter how many garments are worn they should each be torn in the same way. For reasons of modesty one may turn the garment closest to the chest around, so that the tear is in the back, but should have an outer garment that displays the tear. The tear may be started by anyone with or without a blade but should primarily be torn by the mourner. The clothing should not be torn on a seam and, when dealing with the loss of a parent, the clothes should not be permanently repaired. If the mourner changes clothes during the shiva they should tear the newly donned garment.
The custom of tearing a ribbon has no status in Orthodox legal tradition and is viewed, by some, as a significant insult to the custom and seriousness that are demanded of a mourner. The keriah shows that there is nothing in the world that can compare to the brokeness of losing a parent. From a psychological perspective there is a moment of catharsis in the tearing but also a valuable sense of physical action when the experience of the moment is mostly emotional.
When someone suffers two losses in a short time span, the second following less than seven days from the first, then it is appropriate to tear the already torn garments a second time some space over from the first tear thus resulting in two recognizable tears. The tear should follow the same regulations as the first, including the recitation of a blessing and the extent of the tear.
May we all be blessed to quickly see an end to tragedy and an increase in the health and healing of all people.
First, my condolences to your friend. It must be an incredibly difficult and painful time for him, as he continues to process both of these losses.
Our ancient texts do not shy away from the experience of painful losses. Aaron, Moses’ brother, suffers the unspeakable loss of not one but two of his children. Because of the circumstances surrounding their death, Aaron is commanded NOT to observe what were, apparently, the expected mourning rituals of the time. Among the commands, the text teaches: “...Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes...” (Leviticus 10:6). Because he is enjoined NOT to rend his clothes, the rabbis of the Talmud (Moed Kattan, 24a) understand that keriah, or the tearing of a garment, is an obligation of a mourner. And, our tradition understands that the loss of a parent is a different experience from other losses; when we perform keriah for another relative, we tear the garment (or, in modern times—a ribbon) on the right side. But for a parent, we tear it on the left side—the side closest to our hearts.
In Jewish tradition, there is a clear distinction between mourners and everyone else. We mourn, according to Judaism, for parents, children, spouses, and siblings. In reality, of course, we grieve for so many others, just as others will grieve for our parents, children, spouses, and siblings. But, nonetheless, we recognize the uniqueness of those particular relationships, and our mourning customs do as well. They say that these relationships—no matter how complicated they might be—are the foundational relationships in our lives, and we mourn their loss differently than others do, or than we might grieve for other people in our lives.
When I explain the custom of keriah, I talk about the outward significance. I explain that anyone who encounters a mourner during shiva will know, by the simple fact of the ribbon, that they are the mourners, they are the ones who need comforting. That small piece of black fabric—or a torn garment—speaks for itself; it says: I am mourning, and it allows visitors to fill their respsonsibility to be nichum avelim, coming to comfort those who mourn.
As I understand the halakha, it is permitted to make two tears in a garment when two losses are suffered close together. And so, I think that wearing two ribbons in this case is an appropriate way to acknowledge that he experienced the death of not one, but two, close relatives in a short time span, and hopefully—to then be able to receive the support and comfort he might need.
May your friend be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
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