The most basic statement of mourning that is required by Jewish law is keriya – tearing one’s clothing as a sign of loss. The Mishna (24b) teaches that keriya is only done by immediate family members, but the Gemara on our daf extends the requirement to other people, as well. Upon hearing that a great Sage has passed on, for example, everyone is supposed to tear their clothes. Another case is when a person is in the presence of someone who dies. A baraita quotes R Shimon ben Elazar who teaches that someone who is standing next to a person at the moment that he dies is obligated to perform keriya, since it is like being in the presence of a burning sefer Torah.
The comparison between a dying person and a burning sefer Torah is explained by the rishonim in a variety of ways:
- One version of Rashi suggests that both a sefer Torah and a human soul are referred to as “the candle of God” and the loss of either one deserves a show of mourning.
- According to another version of Rashi, it is the potential Torah study that is lost with someone’s death that is comparable to a burning sefer Torah.
- Rashi in Massekhet Shabbat argues that even the simplest Jewish person is full of the mitzvot that he has fulfilled, and as such can be compared to a sefer Torah.
Two explanations are offered by the Ramban. In one he says that we tear our clothes over a sefer Torah as well as over someone who fulfills the commandments found in the Torah; in the other he compares the soul to the letters and words written in the Torah scroll. Just as the burning sefer Torah loses its writing, the dying man loses his soul. In a similar vein, there are those who explain that the keriya that we perform is on the loss of holiness that occurs when the soul exits the body.