Danny Siegel
Danny Siegel

Kriah: Tearing a Piece of Clothing as a Sign of Mourning

Kriah is the Jewish tradition of tearing a piece of clothing  as a sign of mourning for specific relatives and for other designated indiviuals

It is my personal time-management practice, that, if I have a block of time without other work, I will often let my eye roam arbitrarily around my library until something — it
could be anything — interests me. Recently the subject was kriah.

It is a well-known Jewish practice in the early process of mourning for a relative to tear some piece of clothing. Even if nowadays it is a black ribbon instead of a shirt of blouse, it nevertheless I traditional gesture of grief connecting the mourner to a practice all the way back to Biblical times.

From a long time ago, I had remembered that kriah also is to be done if you happen to be present at the moment someone dies — even if you did not know that person. Some commentators actually compare this situation to a person who has seen a Sefer Torah that was burned. Some texts attempt to explain exactly what is meant by what initially appears to be a remote comparison. One of the comments compares Torah to light, and the breath/soul of a person as a lamp of God. (Proverbs 20:27, Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Mourning, Yoreh De’ah 340:5,7.)

Both situations describe being in the immediate presence. I suspected, though, that there were others for whom you might perform the Mitzvah of kriah if you learned of their death. This is some of what I found in the Tur, Rabbi Jacob Ben’s Asher’s 14th Century law code (Laws of Mourning, 340):

1. For one’s Rav/Rabbi. Usually this refers to the person from whom one learned  “rov chochmato”, most of one’s wisdom. I take this term to mean (to use the Rabbinic terminology) transmitting sitray Torah and sitray derech eretz, the most significant portion of the secrets/wisdom of the Torah and the secrets/ wisdom of how to life one’s life.

2. But the Tur continues, expanding the meaning of “Rav”, specifically one who taught a student even just one Mishna. By extension, I understand this as anyone who has taught us one thing (Torah and/or life-guidance) that was so powerful it has stayed with us and has been integral to who we became are and who we are.

3. The Tur goes even further, relating that kriah is to be performed even for your chavruta, your Torah-study partner. Here, too, I extend the meaning to anyone else (not a “Rav”) with whom you have been regularly exchanging the important lessons of Torah and life.

Finally, and understandably, because of the Rabbis’ overwhelming devotion to Torah, all of the categories above relate to someone who has been engaged in Torah study. Still, there is one kind of person, my personal favorite, that does not fit into those Torah-groups — the “adam kasher“. As the Shulchan Aruch goes on to explain (Yoreh De’ah 340:6), an Adam Kasher is a person who was not suspected of wrongdoing, nor of having neglected a Mitzvah, nor had a bad reputation — in brief, a person of impeccable Menschlichkeit — even though that person may not have been a great Torah scholar— and even though you weren’t present when the Adam Kasher died. For the Adam Kasher one must also perform kriah. Yoreh De’ah 340:6).

About the Adam Kasher, there are some interesting comments:
1. Rabbi Moshe Isserles states that you only have to tear if you were actually there when the adam kasher died. But even if you were not, you are required to weep and mourn.

2. The “Shach” (Rabbi Shabtai ben Meir HaKohen’s 17th Century commentary “Siftay Kohen”) adds that the adam kasher was consistently “on the lookout” for opportunities to do acts of gemillut chassadim, caring, loving acts benefiting other people.

3. Whoever weeps and mourns for an adam kasher, all sins are forgiven because of the honor that the mourner showed for that adam kasher. (Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 25a). Parenthetically, I find it curious that there is no mention of the deceased person’s frumkeit, personal piety.

Of equal importance, I believe that for all of the people mentioned above, while they were alive, we owe it to them to tell them what they mean to us. I believe this is only a preliminary examination of the study of kriah. Further research in our texts — Talmud Yerushalmi, the various medieval commentators from Spain, North Africa, and Provence, the late 19th-early 20th century Aruch HaShulchan, the voluminous responsa literature, and studies in  contemporary Halachic journals — will yield additional, even greater insights.

However, I do not believe that this should simply be an intellectual exercise. To the contrary, I think some of the material will possibly provide practical guidance about how we prioritize our relationships with others and how we might better live our lives as Jews and as human beings.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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