And Jacob rent his garments, and he wore sackcloth and he mourned for his son many days. (Genesis 37:34)
The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) writes that part of the process of mourning for a relative is to tear the side of one’s garment one tefach (handbreadth). This is known as kriah. For a sibling, spouse or child we tear the right side of the outer garment. For a parent we tear the left side of each garment (Yoreh Deah 340:9).
Just before the tear is made the blessing of Baruch … Dayan HaEmet (Blessed … is the True Judge) is recited. Although kriah can be performed when the news of the death is received our custom is to wait until just before the burial.
In addition, if a one is present at the time a fellow Jew passes away there is an obligation to perform kriah on the outer garment even if there is no familial relationship.
The reason for kriah is more than a mere expression of grief but rather symbolic of the idea 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.
Kriah is also performed on seeing the ruins of the Temple (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’ (Orach Chaim 561:2).
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach (d. 1995) held that people living in the new part of Jerusalem do not have to perform kriah for the Temple even if they had not seen it for thirty days (Halichot Shlomo, Tefillah 23).
We learn from this that when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was comparable to the body and soul of the Jewish people. Just as we must mourn the loss of a relative, we must mourn over its destruction and pray that it will soon be rebuilt.