Today’s daf (Moed Katan 22b) speaks about קריעה – the tefach-long tear that a mourner rips into their clothes upon the death of a close family member, and on first glance, קריעה is purely a destructive act.
However, as the Rambam makes clear in his Hilchot Shabbat 10:10, the קריעה performed by a mourner does have a constructive purpose, and this is מפני שמיישב את דעתו בדבר זה וינוח יצרו והואיל וחמתו שוככת בדבר זה הרי הוא כמתקן – ‘because, [by performing קריעה, a mourner] is able to achieve a measure of mindfulness concerning their [loss], and this [act of tearing] can thereby [help] calm their impulse. Consequently, [since the act of קריעה] serves to assuage the anger [of the mourner], it is considered as a constructive act.’
According to this rationale, it is what the mourner does – in this case to the clothing – which provides some psychological relief. As Rabbi Maurice Lamm explains in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning: ‘it allows the mourner to give vent to his pent-up anguish by means of a controlled, religiously sanctioned act’ and ‘…work through and dissipate… anger in a symbolic and, to a great extent, unconscious fashion.’ But if this is so, why, in particular, is this performed on the clothes of the mourner?
An obvious answer is that, by doing so, a mourner literally wears their grief – and at least in some instances, also their anger – upon themselves. Yet the question still remains: why is this done on a piece of clothing?
I believe that an answer relates to what a piece of cloth actually is – namely an item that has been carefully crafted through the interweaving of different threads to create a fabric that is seen as one and that holds each other together. And when a piece of clothing or fabric is ripped, not only is each thread then visible, but each thread is also vulnerable as well. Given this, קריעה is not merely a way for a mourner to channel their grief and anger, but also a display to others of their loss and vulnerability as well. Ultimately, the קריעה points to an absence and a fracture in the life of the mourner that has left them disjointed from their loved one, and from a part of themselves.
Yet, at the same time, these very strands that hang from the torn garment communicate to those who see or speak to the mourner wearing this torn garment that, notwithstanding the great pain and loss that they are currently feeling, they are able to proudly say, to quote Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “I was adored once too.”