In Bible times, what was the significance of a person’s deliberately ripping apart his garments?
THE Scriptures describe a number of situations in which individuals tore their own clothes. Such an action may seem strange to modern-day readers, yet among the Jews it was an expression of strong emotion caused by despair, grief, humiliation, indignation, or mourning.
For example, Reuben “ripped his garments apart” when he found that his plan to deliver his brother Joseph was foiled because Joseph had been sold into slavery. Their father, Jacob, “ripped his garments apart” when he assumed that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal. (Gen. 37:18-35) Job “ripped apart his garment” when he was told that all his children were killed. (Job 1:18-20) A messenger “with his garments ripped apart” appeared before High Priest Eli to inform him that the Israelites had been defeated in battle, Eli’s two sons had been killed, and the ark of the covenant had been captured. (1 Sam. 4:12-17) When Josiah heard the words of the Law being read to him and recognized the errors of his people, “he ripped his garments apart.”
At Jesus’ trial, High Priest Caiaphas “ripped his outer garments” when he heard what he wrongly judged as blasphemy. (Matt. 26:59-66) A rabbinic tradition dictated that any who heard the divine name being blasphemed were obliged to rend their garments. Another rabbinic opinion postdating the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, however, stated that “he who hears the Divine Name blasphemed nowadays need not rend his garments, for otherwise one’s garments would be reduced to tatters.”
Of course, the act of ripping one’s clothing was of no value in God’s eyes unless the person’s grief was genuine. Thus, Jehovah told his people to ‘rip apart their hearts, and not their garments, and return to him.’