And Ya’akov rent his garments, and he wore sackcloth, and he mourned for his son many days. (Bereishit 37:34)
The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law written 1563, see Yoreh Deah 340:9) rules that part of the process of mourning for a relative is to tear one tefach (handbreadth) at the side of one’s garment. This is known as kriyah. For a sibling, spouse or child, the right side of the outer garment is torn. For a parent, the left side of each garment is torn.
Just before the tear is made, the blessing of ‘Baruch… Dayan HaEmet’ (Blessed… is the True Judge) is recited. Although kriyah can be performed when the news of the death is received, our custom is to wait until just before the burial.
In addition, if one is present at the time a fellow Jew passes away, there is an obligation to perform kriyah on the outer garment even if there is no familial relationship.
The reason for kriyah is more than a mere expression of grief. It symbolises that just as our clothing covers our body, so too our body is a type of clothing to our soul. When a person dies, their body has gone – it is torn, but their soul lives on.
Kriyah is also performed upon seeing the ruins of the Temple (the Western Wall and Temple Mount) for the first time in thirty days. This is preceded by saying ‘Our house of holiness and glory, in which our forefathers sang praise to You has been burnt, and all that we hold dear and precious has been destroyed’ (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 561:2).
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach (d.1995) ruled that people living in the newer parts of Jerusalem do not have to perform kriyah for the Temple, even if they had not seen it for 30 days.
We learn from this that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was comparable to the body and soul of the Jewish people. In addition to mourning over the loss of a relative, we also mourn over the Temple’s destruction and pray that it will be rebuilt soon.