Please explain tearing garments, plucking hair and wearing sackcloth and ashes as in Ezra 9:3 and Esther 4:1.

Ezra’s reaction reflects how appalled he was by the sin of the Israelite people. After having been strictly commanded to be separate from the heathen nations around them and to have no dealings with them, the Israelites, even leaders and rulers were intermarrying outside their nation.

Ezra was God’s agent and prophet at the time and knew how dependant the nation was on God and also how abominable to God the actions of the Israelites were. He knew how serious the outcome of the offense would be. He was so distraught that he tore his garments and plucked out his hair. Both actions were Hebrew symbols of mourning.

The tearing of ones outer garment was a way of expressing great grief or sorrow. Similar, was the custom of putting on sackcloth (a coarsely woven fabric worn around the loins) which signified mourning. Sackcloth and ashes were often combined to show great distress, protest, humility or desperation. Such was Mordecai’s distress when he learned of the plan to annihilate the Jews.