Sackcloth (Hebrew שַׂק saḳ) is a term originally denoting a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat's hair. It later came to mean also a garment made from such cloth, which was chiefly worn as a token of mourning by the Israelites. It was furthermore a sign of submission (I Kings xx. 30 et seq.), and was occasionally worn by the Prophets. In Christianity, the tradition of wearing a sackcloth, also known as a hairshirt, continued as a self-imposed means of mortification of the flesh that is often worn during the Christian penetential season of Lent, especially on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and other Fridays of the Lenten season.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says the Old Testament gives no exact description of the garment, so its shape must be a matter of conjecture. According to Adolf Kamphausen, the saḳ was like a corn-bag with an opening for the head, and another for each arm, an opening being made in the garment from top to bottom. Karl Grüneisen ("Ahnenkultus," p. 80) thought the saḳ resembled the hairy mantle used by the Bedouins. Friedrich Schwally (in Stade's "Zeitschrift," xi. 174) concludes that it originally was simply the loin-cloth, which is an entirely different conception from that of Kamphausen or of Grüneisen. Schwally bases his opinion on the fact that the word "ḥagar" חָגַר (to gird) is used in describing the mode of putting on the garment (see Josh. i. 8; Isa. iii. 24, xv. 8, xxii. 12; Jer. vi. 26, xlix. 3). One fastens the saḳ around the hips ("sim be-motnayim," Gen. xxxvii. 34; "he'elah 'al motnayim," Amos viii. 10), while, in describing the doffing of the saḳ, the words "pitteaḥ me-'al motnayim" are used (Isa. xx. 2). According to I Kings xxi. 37 and II Kings vi. 30, it was worn next the skin.
Schwally assumes that in prehistoric times the loin-cloth was the usual and sole garment worn by the Israelites. In historic times it came to be worn for religious purposes only, on extraordinary occasions, or at mourning ceremonies. It is natural that, under certain circumstances, the Prophets also should have worn the saḳ, as in the case of Isaiah, who wore nothing else, and was commanded by God to don it (Isa. xx. 2). Old traditions easily assume a holy character. Thus Schwally points to the circumstance that the Moslem pilgrim, as soon as he puts his foot on Ḥaram, the holy soil, takes off all the clothes he is wearing, and dons the iḥram.
- The text of this article is largely taken from the article Sackcloth in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain in the United States as a work published before 1923.
- Schwally, Das Leben nach dem Tode (The Life After Death), pp. 11 et seq., Giessen, 1892
- Jeffrey, David L. (1992). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 673. ISBN 9780802836342.
- Beaulieu, Geoffrey of; Chartres, William of (29 November 2013). The Sanctity of Louis IX: Early Lives of Saint Louis by Geoffrey of Beaulieu and William of Chartres. Cornell University Press. p. 89. ISBN 9780801469145.
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