The Hebrews, at the death of their friends and relations, made striking demonstrations of grief and mourning. They wept, tore their clothes, smote their breasts, threw dust upon their heads, Joshua 7:6, and lay upon the ground, went barefooted, pulled their hair and beards, or cut them, Ezra 9:3 Isaiah 15:2, and made incisions on their breasts, or tore them with their nails, Leviticus 19:28 21:5 Jeremiah 16:6 48:37. The time of mourning was commonly seven days, 1 Samuel 31:11-13; but it was lengthened or shortened according to circumstances, Zechariah 12:10. That for Moses and Aaron was prolonged to thirty days, Numbers 20:29 Deuteronomy 34:8; and that for Jacob to seventy days, Genesis 50:3.
During the time of their mourning, the near relations of the deceased continued sitting in their houses, and fasted, 2 Samuel 12:16, or ate on the ground. The food they took was thought unclean, and even themselves were judged impure. "Their sacrifices shall be unto them as the bread of mourners: all that eat thereof shall be polluted," Hosea 9:4. Their faces were covered, and in all that time they could not apply themselves to any occupation, nor read the book of the law, nor offer their usual prayers. They did not dress themselves, nor make their beds, nor uncover their heads, nor shave themselves, nor cut their nails, nor go into the bath, nor salute any body. Nobody spoke to them unless they spoke first, Job 2:11-13. Their friends commonly went to visit and comfort them, John 11:19,39, bringing them food, 2 Samuel 3:35 Jeremiah 16:7. They also went up to the roof, or upon the platform of their houses, to bewail their misfortune: "They shall gird themselves with sackcloth; on the tops of their houses, and in their streets, every one shall howl, weeping abundantly," Isaiah 15:3 Jeremiah 48:38. The mourning dress among the Hebrews was not fixed either by law or custom. We only find in Scripture that they used to tear their garments, a custom still observed; but now they tear a small part merely, and for form’s sake, 2 Samuel 13:19 2 Chronicles 34:27 Ezra 9:3 Job 2:12 Joel 2:13. Anciently in times of mourning, they clothed themselves in sackcloth, or haircloth, that is, in clothes of coarse brown or black stuff, 2 Samuel 3:31 1 Kings 21:27 Esther 4:1 Psalms 35:13 69:11.
They hired women to weep and wail, and also persons to play on instruments, at the funerals of the rich or distinguished, Jeremiah 9:17. In Matthew 9:23, we observe a company of minstrels or players on the flute, at the funeral of a girl of twelve year of age. All that met a funeral procession were accustomed to join them for a time, to accompany them on their way, sometimes relieving the bearers of the bier, and mingling their tears with those of the mourners, Romans 12:15.
The custom of hiring women to weep and wail has come down to modern times. The following account of such a scene at Nablous, the ancient Shechem, is form Dr. Jowett. The governor of the city had died the very morning of Dr. Jowett’s arrival. "On coming within sight of the gate, we perceived a numerous company of females, who were singing in a kind of recitative, far from melancholy, and beating time with their hands. If this be mourning, I thought, it is of a strange kind. It had indeed sometimes more the air of angry defiance. But on our reaching the gate, it was suddenly exchanged for most hideous plaints and shrieks, which, with the feeling that we were entering a city at no time celebrated for its hospitality, struck a very dismal impression upon my mind. They accompanied us a few paces; but it soon appeared that the gate was their station, to which having received nothing from us, they returned. We learned, in the course of the evening, that these were only a small detachment of a very numerous body of ‘cunning women’ with the design, as of old, to make the eyes of all the inhabitants ‘run down with tears, and their eyelids gush out with water,’ Jeremiah 9:17-18. For this good service, they would, the next morning wait upon the government and principal persons, to receive some trifling fee."
Some of the Jewish forms of mourning are the appropriate and universal language of grief; others, to our modern and occidental taste, savor of extravagance. None of these were enjoined by their religion, which rather restricted than encouraged them, Leviticus 10:6 19:27 21:1-11 Numbers 6:7 Deuteronomy 14:1. They were the established customs of the times. Sorrow finds some relief in reversing all the usages of ordinary life. Christianity, however, moderates and assuages our grief; shows us a Father’s hand holding the rod, and the dark valley itself penetrated by the heavenly light into which it emerges, 1 Corinthians 15:53-55 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 Revelation 7:13-17 14:13.
These dictionary topics are from American Tract Society Bible Dictionary published in 1859. Public Domain, copy freely.
Rand, W. W. "Entry for 'MOURNING'". "American Tract Society Bible Dictionary".