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Why is Keriah Performed on the Left Side for Parents but on the Right Side for Other Relatives?

 Responsa in a Moment: Volume 6, Issue No. 7, June 2012

Yoreh Deah 340:9 in the Shakh and the Taz

Question from a rabbi who recently lost his father:

For all these years I have conducted funerals and cut keriah according to Yoreh Deah, children on the left and spouses on the right. My mother blanched at this and we still did it for her on the right, but it has made me wonder: How far back can we trace this distinction? It feels like a statement that blood is thicker than contracts. Is this true? Or does the child need to have his/her heart exposed, in order to get in touch with their own feelings? Can you help me with this?


I) The Talmudic Period

The tractate of Moed Kattan which deals with the laws of mourning makes a number of distinctions between keriah for a parent as opposed to other relatives. The following are some of these laws as summarized in Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 340: 9, 12-14:

For all deceased he tears a handbreadth of the outermost garment and it is enough; for his father and mother he tears all of his garments even if he is wearing ten garments until he uncovers his heart…

For all deceased he may leave the border [of the garment] intact and tear below it; for his father and mother he must tear the entire border.

For all the deceased he should tear on the inside so that others do not see; but for his father and mother he must tear on the outside in front of everyone.

For all the deceased, if he wants he tears by hand or with a utensil; for his father and mother by hand.

For all the deceased, if he changes his clothes within seven days he changes them and does not tear; for his father and mother if he changes them within seven days he tears all of the clothes and does not repair them ever, just like the original clothes he was wearing…

It is clear from these and other laws that mourning for a parent was considered by the Talmudic Sages much more traumatic than mourning for other relatives.

However, it is also clear from the Talmud that no distinction was made between a parent and another relative regarding which side of the garment should be torn. Rabbi Shabetai Rapoport (1621-1660; the Shakh to Yoreh Deah 340, subparagraph 19) refers to the following source: “Our Sages taught: they told him his father died and he tore, [and later they told him] his son died and he added…”. In other words, if a parent dies, you tear your garment and if another relative subsequently dies, you then add to that tearin the very same place (Moed Kattan 26b and Yoreh Deah340:22). The Talmud does not mention which side, but both tears are made on the same side in the same place.

II) The Early Ashkenazic Custom

The “grandfather” of all Ashkenazic customs was R. Ya’akov Mollin, the Maharil of Mainz (1360-1427). Hundreds if not thousands of his customs were codified by R. Moshe Isserles (1525-1572) in his Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulhan Arukh. Many of his customs were recorded by his devoted disciple Rabbi Zalman in Minhagei Maharil. There we find touching details about the death of the Maharil’s wife in the year 1426 (ed. Spitzer,Jerusalem, 1989, p. 607). Among other details, we are told that

the Rabbi took a knife and made a cut on top of all of his son’s garments except the kutonet [undershirt?], and he told [his son] that he himself should tear every garment until opposite his heart, and he made the keriah on the right side of the collar.

In other words, the Maharil, who is the source of a large percentage of Ashkenazic customs, helped his son cut keriahfor his mother on the right side of his garment.

III) ­R. Shlomo Luria – the Source for Today’s Custom

R. Shlomo Luria (the Maharshal,Poland, 1510-1573) was a brilliant rabbi and halakhic authority who was very well-known in his time, but much less so today.

In his little-known commentary to the Tur, which has only been printed once (in the back of Tur El Hamekorot, Jeusalem, 1959 to Yoreh Deah 340, s.v. v’koreah) he wrote: “And regarding keriah, we have the custom that for a father or mother, [one tears] on the left side, and for other relatives such as his children and siblings on the right, and so I have found”. It should be noted that the Maharshal gives no explanation for this custom.

The Maharshal was subsequently quoted by R. Yoel Sirkes, theBah (1561-1640) in his commentary to Tur Yoreh Deah 340 (s.v. al kol hametim, fol. 289b in the standard editions) who adds a reason:

Nevertheless, it stands to reason that since for his father and mother he needs to tear [all his garments] until he uncovers his heart [see Yoreh Deah 340:9 quoted above], and the heart is on the left, therefore, he must tear on the left to uncover his heart, and so is the custom in the communities according to the Maharshal.

In other words, this custom began in Poland in the 16th century and R. Yoel Sirkes justified it in the basis of logic in the 17th century.

It was subsequently quoted in recent works about the laws of mourning (R. Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, New York, 1969, p. 43, revised edition, New York, 2000, p. 45; R. Tzvi Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life, London, 1964; third edition, Northvale, New Jersey and London, 1989, p. 26; R. Isaac Klein, A Time to be Born A Time to Die, New York, 1976, p. 29 [and the Hebrew version Eit Laledet V’eit Lamut, edited by David Golinkin, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 33] and a Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, New York, 1979, p. 279; R. Carl Astor in R. Martin Cohen and R. Michael Katz, eds., The Observant Life, New York, 2012, p. 285).

IV) The Custom Was Not Entirely Accepted

Nevertheless, this custom was not welcomed in the 17th century. Rabbi David Halevi, the Taz, (1586-1667) records the opinions of the Maharil, the Maharshal, and his father-in-law the Bah, but does not take a clear stand (Taz to Yoreh Deah 340, sub-paragraph 6).

Rabbi Shabetai Rappaport, the Shakh, mentioned above, quotes the Maharshal and the Bah, but adds: “this is from the point of view of custom, but according to the law, it appears [mashma] that on the side one tears for his father and mother one also tears for other relatives” and he then refers to the sources quoted above at the end of paragraph I.

V) After the Fact, Either Side is Acceptable

Many later halakhic authorities stress that if a person performskeriah on the right side for a parent, he has fulfilled his obligation after the fact and does not need to tear his garment on the left and vice versa.

This is the opinion of R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulay, the Hida (1724-1806, Shiyurey Brakhah to Yoreh Deah 340, subparagraph 11) and R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820, Hokhmat Adam 152:6). R. Hayyim Hizkiya Medini, (1832-1904, Sedei Hemed, ed. Shneyerson, Vol. 4, p. 710, paragraph 173), quoting five rabbis, adds that it is also alright after the fact if a person tore on the left for another relative. R. Yehiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908, Arukh Hashulhan, Yoreh Deah 340:8) stresses that this is a custom and not a law “and if he switched either way he has fulfilled his obligation”.

Recent rabbis in this camp include R. Yehiel Michal Tukechinsky, Gesher Hahayyim, Jerusalem, 1960, p. 59; R. Aharon Levin, Zikhron Meir, Toronto, 1985, p. 201; R. Hayyim Binyamin Goldberg, Penei Baruch, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 13; R. Abner Weiss, Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Guide, Hoboken and New York, 1991, p. 70; R. Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef: Hilkhot Bikur Holim V’aveilut, Jerusalem, 2004, p. 213; and R. Gavriel Goldman,Mei’olam V’ad Olam, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 103 (I have found only one rabbi who debates whether one shouldredo keriah if he tore on the wrong side – see Shevet Shimon onYoreh Deah 340 quoted in Kol Bo Al Aveilut, p. 31, paragraph 17).

VI) A Parent Should Tear on the Left Side for a Child

This was the opinion of two rabbis – Hadrat Kodesh, part 2, 41 (quoted by R. Yekutiel Greenwald, Kol Bo Al Aveilut, Jerusalem and New York, 1973, p. 31, note 20) and Kuntress Aharon to Lehem Hapanim on Yoreh Deah 340 by R. Moshe Katz, Hena, 1716 in the name of Ma’ane Lashon (quoted by Rabbi Shalom Shachna Tehernick, Hayim Uveracha L’mishmeret Shalom, New York, 1949, p. 46, paragraph 67, s.v. keriah).

I have not yet seen these two books but it seems clear that they were willing to modify the Maharshal’s custom.

VII) Summary and Conclusions

The Talmud and subsequent codes of Jewish law devote quite a lot of space to the laws of keriah. None of the early sources until the 16th century make a distinction between keriah on the left for parents and on the right for other relatives. Indeed, the Maharil helped his son tear on the right for his mother.

The Maharshal in the 16th century is the first to mention a custom which differentiates between parents and other relatives and the Bah explained this custom in the 17th century on the basis of logic – since a child tears all garments and “bears the heart”, he should tear on the left side.

This custom was questioned by the Shakh in the 17th century. It was later accepted, but most authorities stressed that it is a custom and not binding after the fact. Others changed the custom and said that a parent tears for a child on the left side.

Therefore, those who want to follow the Maharshal’s custom may certainly do so, but from the point of view of Jewish law, one can cut keriah on either side for all relatives.

David Golinkin
7 Tammuz 5772

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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