Various peoples of the ancient Near East typically mourned by shaving their heads, shaving their beards, sometimes tearing their clothes, and even by making cuts and gashes on their bodies (cf. Jer 41:5; 48:37). Ancient Jews, however, at times pulled on their hair and beards to illustrate the internal suffering but they did not shave their heads when they mourned (Ezra 9:3) because God expressly forbade them to engage in such practices (Lev 21:5).
In modern Jewish tradition, mourners do not shave or cut hair and they even stop grooming altogether during the period of mourning. Ancient Israelites mourned by putting on sackcloth. They put ashes on themselves and sat on them on the ground (see Gen 37:34; Dan 9:3; Lk 10:13). And mourning did not just occur when someone died; repentance before God and expectation of impending trouble was another reason to mourn (cf. 1 Kgs 21:27, Neh 9:1; Isa 32:11)
“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 may sound very unusual to modern people, but these peculiar folkways have clear logic and symbolic 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). But that is the point of deliberate mourning: to bring about a sense of humility. The Hebrew word for “ashes” (אֵפֶר; efer) symbolizes ruin and destruction. The fire burns up everything in its path and leaves behind only ashes. Thus “ashes” (אֵפֶר; efer) serve as the ultimate symbol of desolation.
Tearing clothes also represents the act of destruction. Garments in the ancient world were very expensive and were even used as a substitute for currency. Deliberately destroying one’s own clothes is a visual expression of grief and inner turmoil. These customs and unusual behaviors express regret and humility before our Maker; they serve as a recognition of human frailty and underscore the condition of our existence without God’s goodness in our lives.
When we do simple Hebrew word studies, the depth of Scripture (previously hidden behind the English translation) opens up to us in a new and beautiful way! Someone said it well: “To read the Bible always and only in translation is like listening to Bach always and only on harmonica. You will get the tune, but you will miss everything else.” We designed a way for you to learn basic Hebrew!