Parshat Vayeshev – פרשת וישב

Parshat Vayeshev – פרשת וישב


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

Parshat Vayeshev – פרשת וישב

December 9, 2017 – כא כסלו תשעח


Tearing a Garment


Reuben returned to the pit where Joseph had been held captive and saw that the cistern was empty.  Reuben assumed – incorrectly – that Joseph was dead, so he tore his garments in a display of mourning (Genesis 37:29).  Upon hearing the reports of Joseph’s supposed grizzly death, Jacob, too, tore his clothing as an act of mourning (37:34).  Joshua rent his clothes in the aftermath of the disastrous Battle of Ai, at which 36 Israelites were killed (Joshua 7:6).  Jephthah rent his clothes upon realizing that he would have to sacrifice his daughter in fulfillment of his vow (Judges 11:35).  Ahab tore his garments upon hearing Elijah’s prophecy about the gruesome end of his dynasty (I Kings 21:27).  The King of Israel tore his garments while in a state of helpless dread, uncertain how to respond to the Aramean king’s demand that he should heal Naaman’s leprosy (II Kings 5:7).  Job tore his robe in grief over the news of the deaths of his many children (Job 1:20).  Josiah tore his garments in grief upon hearing Shaphan read from the scroll of the Law (II Chronicles 34:19).


The above Scriptural passages indicate that in ancient Israel tearing one’s garments was considered an acceptable physical response to hearing news about the deaths of loved ones, national tragedy, impending disaster, or upon the realization of spiritual failing.  In those instances, the act of tearing – keriah (קריעה) – was more likely a spontaneous emotional reaction to bad tidings and not the performance of a statutory ritual act.


Some scholars regard the rending of garments as an acceptable alternative to the more objectionable bereavement practices of the Canaanites.  Scripture warns the priestly class that “They shall not smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh (Leviticus 21:5).”  Another verse, applicable to all Israelites, is more explicit in its connection to funerary rites.  “You are children of the Lord your God.  You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead (Deuteronomy 14:1).”  Self-harm is abhorrent, even for the purpose of memorializing the recently departed.  Doing damage to mere material possessions is, comparatively, benign.


Halakhah requires mourners (defined as the seven kinds of immediate family members: mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, and spouse) to tear a garment before the onset of the bereavement period (Yoreh Deah 340:1).  The Talmud derived this obligation from the instruction Moses issued to Aaron, Elazar, and Ithamar following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu.  “Do not dishevel your hair and do not rend your clothes, lest you die (Leviticus 10:6).”  Aaron and his surviving sons were ordered not to perform any funerary rites lest they detract from the festivities associated with the dedication of the Tabernacle.  The Talmud infers from this prohibition that was specific to Aaron that, under ordinary conditions, all other mourners are positively obligated to make themselves disheveled and to tear their clothing (Moed Katan 15a).


What purpose does keriah serve?


Maimonides explained that keriah helps the emotionally rattled mourner to regain his or her composure and mental stability (Hilkhot Shabbat 10:10).  Torah Temimah noted that the salutary psychological effect of tearing the garment is what transforms the act from an otherwise forbidden example of בל תשחית (needless destruction) into a meritorious deed (Leviticus 10 note 7).  When officiating at a funeral, I tell the mourners that it is the natural tendency of human beings to lash out in anger over the loss of a family member.  But rather than allow people to indulge in extreme and regrettable bouts of destructiveness, Judaism channels those emotions into a regulated and restrained pre-funeral ceremony.  Most mourners perform keriah delicately and hesitantly, concerned primarily to satisfy the technical requirement but also desirous of avoiding totally ruining their garments.  Others use two hands and pull out their shirts with ferocity, displaying their grief and simultaneously demonstrating their need lawfully to express violent anguish.


The great medieval halakhists debated whether keriah is a Biblically-, or instead a Rabbinically-, mandated law.  For Ra’avad it was the former; for Ramban it was the latter.  The Talmud claims that one who neglects to perform keriah is subject to the death penalty (Moed Katan 24a). That assertion was not intended literally to mean that an earthly court would execute a mourner for neglecting a funerary rite.  Rather, it is consistent with the oft-repeated statement that “one who violates the words of the sages is deserving of death” (Berakhot 4b).  The Rabbis used hyperbolic language in an attempt to bolster the average Jew’s commitment to the observance of post-Biblical (i.e. Rabbinic) enactments.  Keriah, not expressly commanded in the Torah, may have fallen out of favor in the Amoraic period.


In the post-emancipation era, some progressive Jews considered the traditional Jewish funerary rites primitive, Oriental, and incompatible with the zeitgeist.  The 1846 Reform Rabbinical Conference at Breslau abolished keriah.  For the 19th century European gentleman, no act of physical destruction — even if limited to a four-inch tear to a shirt or jacket – could be countenanced in a lifecycle ritual.


The devastating impact of assimilation and religious indifference upon the American Jewish community is most noticeable at funerals.  Essential rites are often either omitted or willfully performed incorrectly.  One example is that families walk away from the cemetery before the grave has been filled in.  Another is that shiva is observed only for three (or fewer) days.  A third is that keriah is performed by tearing a ribbon rather than a real article of clothing.  So entrenched is the departure from tradition that, whenever I enter the funeral home chapel, the first thing the funeral director asks is “How many keriah ribbons do you need?”  For some Jews, wearing the ribbon may be an emotionally significant act and a visible sign that they are in mourning.  But the torn ribbon – aside from being halakhically invalid in terms of satisfying the keriah obligation – lacks the authenticity of a torn shirt or suit jacket.  Sadly, for many Jews the ribbon is a sign not of their discomfort as mourners but of their unease with Judaism and its required rituals.