Sackloth and Torn Clothes

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(This is #11 of the presentations for the series “Fashion Statements: Lessons from Garments in the Bible.”)


When I was young, I remember watching the Incredible Hulk, and whenever Dr. Bruce Banner would get angry, he would tear his clothes as he transforms into the Hulk. Similarly, the professional wrestlers in the WWF would also tear their shirts on the ring to show their ripped bodies.

But do you know that tearing one’s clothes is an ancient tradition among the Jews? But it is not when they are angry or wrestling. It is associated with mourning, grief, and loss.

The first mention of someone tearing his garments is in Genesis. In the story of Joseph when he was sold by his brothers to merchants traveling to Egypt, “When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes” (Genesis 37:29). A short time later, “Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34) when he thought that Joseph had been killed.

Given that during those ancient times, garments are hard and quite expensive to produce, and people probably have only a few pair to wear, so tearing their clothes was a big deal. Besides tearing one’s garment, wearing sackloth and putting ashes just like what Jacob did, were also part of showing grief and mourning.

Sackloth and ashes can also mean a sign of humility and repentance. When Jonah declared to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them for their wickedness, everyone from the king on down responded with repentance, fasting, and sackcloth and ashes (Jonah 3:5–7). They even put sackcloth on their animals (verse 8). God showed mercy on them and spared them because they repented.

What is a sackloth anyway? If you are familiar with the “sako ng bigas” which is also known now as burlap, then that is something similar. It is a coarse fabric, or could be of a coarse material, like that of black goat’s hair. I would say that it would be uncomfortable to wear it, especially if that is the only one you would wear and it’s next to your skin. It is rough and prickly, but I believe that is the idea behind it. They want to show publicly that they are uncomfortable and miserable.

Back to the tearing of one’s garment, this tradition is continued today in the Jewish practice of keriah. Today’s ritual is less spontaneous and more regulated. The garment is cut by a rabbi at a funeral service, as the bereaved recite words relating to God’s sovereignty. One tradition says that the mourner must tear the clothing over the heart—a sign of a broken heart.

I wonder those people today who have tear in their clothes, especially in their jeans, are they mourning too?

Anyway, it is interesting that the high priest in the Bible, as I mentioned in a previous presentation, was not allowed to tear his clothes: “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” (Leviticus 21:10). The special nature of the high priestly office dictated a separation from some of the common customs, including that of mourning.

In our times today, we don’t need these rituals anymore. For in simple terms, the practice of tearing one’s clothes, and wearing of sackcloth and ashes are outward sign of one’s inward condition. But what is more important than the outward showing of grief is the true sorrow for sin and the genuine repentance of the heart.

God sees the heart and He requires more than the external ritual. The prophet Joel relayed God’s command: “Rend your heart and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). That God’s command as written by Joel also came with a promise: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:13).

Friends, our genuine repentance will lead to God’s forgiveness. And we can celebrate just like what David wrote in Psalms 30:11: “You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”

(*photo from

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