At the time of Jesus’ death, the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom.
I had been taught that the temple curtain was very tall, and this detail shows that it couldn’t have been ripped by human hands. i.e. God did it directly, by His Spirit power, or possibly by using His power over creation, the earthquake, to make it happen.
Then the inevitable questions started coming to mind! So I did some research. The curtain or ‘veil’ in Herod’s temple was indeed very tall (between 15 and 20 metres depending on the source, and on different interpretations of the actual length of a ‘cubit), very heavy (estimates from 4-6 tons) and also very thick. Not at all the gauzy fabric that the word ‘veil’ brings to mind. My favourite comments came from Josephus, that the veil was four inches (10cm) thick and that horses tied to each side could not pull the veil apart; and from the Talmud which states that ‘it took some 300 priests to carry it to its place’.
My next thought was about fabric being torn, which is something I do when making dusters out of old sheets. When else would fabric be consciously torn? Often, in the Old Testament, people would tear their clothes on hearing about someone’s death, e.g. when Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, he tore his garments (Genesis 37:34); in 2 Samuel 1:11, David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and rent them upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan; Job, grieving, for his children, stood up and rent his clothes (Job 1.20).
This ancient Jewish tradition, called in Hebrew Keriah or Kriah, continues to this day, although the original action, coming naturally out of grief and anger, is now carried out in a very sanitised form. Some key features are:
It is always performed standing. (See Job1:20) The act of standing shows respect for the deceased; and strength, drawn from God, at a time of grief.
Traditionally, it is performed at the moment of hearing of the death, wherever the mourner may be at that time, and is accompanied by reciting a blessing of God. (Nowadays it is more likely to be supervised by the Rabbi just before the funeral or interment.)
The tear is made vertically, beginning near the neck. In recent times this has been reduced to a length of approximately 10 cm. This tear is a halachic (Jewish law that supplements scriptural law) requirement to "expose the heart", i.e. the tear represents a torn heart. (Joel 2:13)
And then, after a happy morning of fact-finding and thinking about Hebrews 10:19-22, imagination took over …
The anguished father stands -
grasps the fabric,
rends it asunder.
as air trembles.
the mercy seat revealed
as lamp light quivers.
‘Come, my Son,
come to my heart,
for you have made