The ancient practice of tearing clothes is a tangible expression of grief and anger in the face of death.
Kriah is a Hebrew word meaning "tearing." It refers to the act of tearing one's clothes or cutting a black ribbon worn on one's clothes. This rending is a striking expression of grief and anger at the loss of a loved one.
Kriah is an ancient tradition. When our patriarch Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments (Genesis 37:34). Likewise, in II Samuel 1:11 we are told that King David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and rent them upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan. Job, too, in grieving for his children, stood up and rent his clothes (Job 1:20).
The child, parent, spouse, and sibling of the deceased perform the act of Kriah. It is usually done at the funeral home before the funeral service begins. If a black ribbon is used, the funeral director provides it. Kriah is always performed standing. The act of standing shows strength at a time of grief. A cut is made on the left side of the clothing for parents—over the heart—and on the right side for all other relatives. Sometimes people choose to express deep feelings of grief by cutting on the left side for relatives other than their parents.
As the tear or cut is made, the family recites the following blessing:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha'olam dayan ha'emet.
Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True Judge.
The torn garment or ribbon is worn during the seven days of Shiva (but not on Shabbat and festival days). Some people continue the practice for the 30-day period of mourning (Sheloshim).
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Mourner's Handbook (Behrman House), by an editorial committee chaired by Rabbi William Cutter.