THE “KERIAH” RIBBON
THE LAWS GOVERNING the tearing of the garments at the death of a relative (keriah) are detailed, extensive, and very strict. In the Shulchan Aruch, they occupy an entire large section of thirty-nine subdivisions ( YoreDeah 340). There the law is given that whoever is present at the death of a worthy Israelite must tear his garments. Even if not present at the death, relatives must tear their garments for the seven relatives for whom they are in duty bound to observe mourning. For a parent the laws are stricter than for other relatives. While for other relatives it is sufficient if one garment is torn, for a parent all the garments must be torn until the heart is exposed.
With all these strict detailed laws, it seems strange that it has become customary among modern Orthodox in America not to tear the garments at all, even for the death of a parent. It is now a widespread custom in many (modern) Orthodox funerals for the undertaker to pin a small bit of black ribbon (about four inches long) onto the garment of the mourners and to cut that ribbon in lieu of keriah. Greenwald, in his compendium of mourning laws, is shocked at this new custom. He calls it “a mockery and a joke,” and he blames it on the undertakers, who, he says, violate the old laws and make laws for themselves.
Yet, although this black keriah ribbon is a mere evasion of the required tearing of the garments, nevertheless questions of observance and proper usage have already begun to cluster around it. People ask for guidance as to how long the ribbon should be worn. Should it be transferred from one garment to another during the week of shiva, or during the thirty days of mourning, shloshim?
Of course there can be no definite answer to these questions because they are based upon a new American usage which all Orthodox authorities would scorn (as Greenwald did) as an avoidance of the basic religious obligation. Nevertheless, evidently rabbis are groping about for answers to the questions that are now being asked of them in this regard.
If an answer can be given at all, it must be based upon the distinction which the laws of keriah make between the keriah observance for parents and the observance for other deceased relatives. For parents, if during shiva the mourner changes from one garment to another, he must tear this second garment, but for the other relatives one need not do so. So one might answer, then, that if it is a mourning for parents, the ribbon should be transferred from one garment to another during the mourning period.
And people also ask how long the ribbon should be worn. That, too, may be answered by analogy. For all other relatives the tear may be basted up after seven days (and permanently sewn after thirty days). But for one’s parents, one may not even baste it until after thirty days. Thus one might extend this to apply to the ribbon and say that the ribbon, when mourning for a parent, should be worn for thirty days and for other bereaved for seven days.
But it must be understood that all the above suggestions are merely theorizing on the basis of analogy. The whole use of the ribbon, instead of actual tearing of the garments, is brushed aside as meaningless by Orthodox authorities.