The world of the Bible is full of symbolism that modern readers at times notice and do not appreciate, but very often miss entirely. People’s customs, traditions, and folkways about most ordinary matters of life often reflect deep into their spiritual thinking. But our own culture obscure that and may not even allow us to notice those meanings. Take death and mourning customs, for example. They are so unique from culture to culture.
In some societies, people burn the bodies of their dead and reduce them to ashes. Others groups shun such practices. Some cultures preserve their dead, embalming the bodies, prolonging the farewell. Others cultures rush to bury those who died as soon as possible. Some cultures touch, kiss, and hug the dead and want to keep the bodies of the deceased close to them, even in their house. Other cultures do not touch dead bodies. Some people groups have open casket ceremonies and pay thousands of dollars for exotic woods and elaborate finishes on the caskets. Other people prefer to bury the dead in a shroud and never wish to look at the face of the deceased. How people mourn the dead is so different today. And in the ancient times described in the Bible folkways were also very diverse from one people group to another.
The people of the ancient Near East (a sizable area) often displayed their mourning by shaving their heads, shaving their beards, sometimes tearing their clothes. Some would even make cuts and gashes on their bodies to express the pain (Jer. 48:37, Jer. 41:5). Though ancient Jews were also people of the Near East, closely intersecting with many nations of the Mediterranean they did not morn by following such customs.
There are some similarities, though. At times, Israelites pulled on their hair and beards to illustrate the internal suffering. But they did not outright shave their heads when they mourned (Ezr. 9:3). Why? Because their God expressly forbade Israel to engage in some of the practices of the nations around them. And the reason is often a deeper, conceptual meaning behind such practices.
“They shall not make any baldness on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts in their flesh.” (Lev. 21:5 NASB)
Understanding the spiritual ideas of people described in the Bible brings us closer to the ancient texts. It allows us to see how original audiences understood themselves and the contents of what we read. (Want to look deeper, read “The Symbolism of Jewish Beard”)
In fact in modern Jewish tradition mourners do not shave or cut hair and even stop grooming altogether during the period of mourning. Some people even cover their mirrors to stop the impulse and the habit of grooming. Jewish tradition teaches to avoid looking at themselves because the focus during this time is not on oneself. Ancient Israelites mourned by putting on sackcloth. They often would put ashes on themselves and sit on them on the ground (Gen 37:34; Dan 9:3; Luke 10:13). That is a strange behavior. But it clearly shows that things are not normal.
And such mourning behavior did not just occur when someone died. Repentance before God and expectation of impending trouble was another reason to mourn, another reason to express sorrow and regret in a very symbolic way. (1 Kings 21:27, Neh. 9:1. Is 32:11). In many ways, impending destruction can be mourned just as expected death.
“When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes (וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת־בְּגָדָיו) put on sackcloth and ashes (וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר), and went out into the midst of the city and wailed loudly and bitterly.” (Est 4:1)
This behavior may sound very unusual to modern people, but these peculiar folkways have clear logic and concrete meaning behind them. In Hebrew שַׂק (sak) or שַׂקִּים (sakim) is “sackcloth” – a rough fabric woven from goat or camel hair, used mostly for storage and not very comfortable to wear. The point of deliberate mourning is to be reminded of suffering end express the feelings of regret and sadness and humility. One’s discomfort usually helps this. The discomfort makes the mourner focus on most important matters and not lose focus. It also displays an attitude of awareness to God.
The Hebrew word for “ashes” is אֵפֶר (efer) and they symbolize terrible ruin and destruction. The fire burns up everything in its path and leaves behind only ashes. That is is the image and the feeling that this object conveys. Thus אֵפֶר (efer) “ashes” serve as the ultimate symbol of desolation and ruin. The word should not be confused with a similar sounding word עָפָר (afar) “dust”. The words may sound similar and may remind of us of each other, but the spelling is different. Dust is a natural part of our environment. Ashes are different. They are remains of somethign which was burned up and destroyed. As the wind blows and they are carried away leaving behind nothing.
Tearing clothes also represents the act of destruction. Even during modern Jewish funerals people take pieces of cloth and tear them usually at the grave site. It is customary to attach these torn pieces to cloth to the clothing of mourners. One’s garments in the ancient world were very expensive and were even used as a substitute for currency at times. Deliberately destroying one’s own clothes is a visual expression of utter grief and inner turmoil. Once again it is an act of contrition which can express that even costly items such as clothes are not as important as the reason for which the mourner tears his garments.
All these peculiar customs and unusual behaviors express regret and humility before our Maker. The symbolize destruction and ruin. They function as a recognition of man’s frail being, as an admission of our instability. They stress the condition of our existence without the Almighty’s goodness in our lives.
There are many other Jewish customs of mourning and grief, like Sitting Shivah and special prayers like Kaddish, the custom of Yahrzeit – the annual remembrance of those who died. And this short article cannot be comprehensive to explain all of them. All of these are deeply spiritual traditions and some go back to distant antiquity. Despite being ancient they may not be directly tied to how the Bible describes mourning in ancient Israel. Nevertheless, the understanding of such folkways is often very helpful because the world of symbols is a living world.
Customs are often deep and ever-changing. Sometimes even not so ancient traditions we encounter lead us to understand the symbolism of truly ancient customs mentioned in the Bible. Why? Because of the living cultural connection that people carry for centuries and centuries and often pass on through family dynamics.