Why did people in the Old Testament tear their robes?

How do you express grief when you experience something sad or painful? Customs vary around the world. 

One example is when people attend funerals and choose to wear black. Or a widow might wear a dark veil after the passing of her husband to cover her face during her time of sadness.

These are expressions of grief, sadness and loss, familiar in our own culture. 

The Old Testament has stories of people tearing their clothes.  texbeck

In the Bible, many individuals ripped apart their clothes to express strong emotion such as shame, anger, or mourning. 

Let's take Reuben, for example. Genesis 37:29 says that when Reuben found out that his brothers had sold Joseph off as a slave, he was shocked and 'ripped his garments apart'. A few days later when their father, Jacob, was tricked into believing that his son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, he too ripped his garment apart. 

'Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. "No," he said, "I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave." So his father wept for him' (Genesis 37:34-3)

Job also 'ripped apart his garment' when he heard that all his children had been killed (Job 1: 18-20). Before bringing the tragic news to Eli that the Israelites had been defeated in the battle and that Eli''s sons had been killed, a messenger ripped his clothes apart (1 Samuel 4:12-17). Lastly David and all the men with him ripped their clothes when Saul and Jonathan were killed – 'All the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan' (2 Samuel 1:11-12).

Tearing your clothes marked tragic situations, particluarly death, shock or shame. 

The exception, however, was the high priest, who was not allowed to tear his clothes. Leviticus 21:10 says: 'The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not... tear his clothes'. The special nature of the high priestly office gave a separation from some of the common customs for ordinary people, including that of mourning. 

Tearing one's clothes was clearly a public and powerful expression of grief in ancient times. Even today, the practice is continued in the Jewish community and is called Keriah. However, it is less spontaneous and more ceremonial. One tradition says that the mourner must tear the clothing over the heart – a sign of a broken heart.

The tradition of tearing clothes began as an expression of deep grief or mental tribulation. It was also sacrificial, as clothes were relatively much more expensive than they are today, and it was a way of showing that considerations of status and respect were to be put aside because what had happened was so important. 

Private grief is one thing, but garments were also torn at times of deep national significance – and this is where the practice might be relevant in some form today. In Joel 2:13 the prophet calls on the people to repent, saying: 'Rip apart your hearts, and not your garments, and return to Jehovah your God.' Are there ways in which we could show a costly, self-sacrificing and self-forgetful devotion to God, repenting for our own sins and the sins of our nation?