Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tahara: The Last Kindness

27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.
~Genesis 1: 27

"As far as the zoological kingdom is concerned, death is not a monstrosity; it simply destroys the functionality of the organism. Human death, however, terminates a personality, an ontological dimension, a spiritual individuality who was self-aware and self-conscious, a personality which was driven by vision and hope, which despaired, rejoiced and grieved, which lived not only in the present moment but in both retrospection and anticipation. In a word, death destroys a world."

-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind, pages 46-47

Each person is a world.

In death, a world has been destroyed. Our minds, our personalities, all that we were-it has vanished, utterly disappeared. Only our bodies remain behind.

Judaism has a beautiful approach toward the treatment of the body after death. The Chevra Kadisha, literally 'Holy Society,' oftentimes translated, 'Burial Society' prepare the body for burial through performing a tahara.

But what is a tahara? What is this last act of kindness one performs for the dead? What happens to the body between death and burial? Are these rituals strange? Are they performed respectfully? Can relatives be present? Are they only performed on religious Jews?

These are a sampling of the questions Rochel U. Berman addresses in her fantastic book, Dignity beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial.

There is great beauty in the final rites performed upon the dead. The idea behind them is one of the utmost respect for the dead, and the desire is to preserve the dignity of the individual. Berman explains the origins of the rites, stating:

    It is traditionally believed that God performed the work of the Chevra Kadisha for Moses, who died alone on Zayin Adar, the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar. The anniversary of his birth and death has since become a time for reflection and appreciation for what the Chevra does. In Ecclesiastes we read: "As he came, so shall he go." Just as newborns are washed and dressed as they enter this world, so are the deceased cleansed, purified and dressed as they depart.

    Written around the third century, Mishna Shabbat makes reference to washing and annointing the deceased. Many today feel that this practice is only for the "Orthodox," but it is a long established tradition that tahara is the right of every Jewish person; man, woman, adult, child, observant and non-observant, as well as a convert. [emph mine.] (34)

All Jews have the right to be purified before God.

Burial is a tremendously important part of life in the Jewish religion. Berman explains that the Talmud, in Moed Katan 27b "states that when someone passes away in a city, nobody in the city is permitted to engage in work until the person is buried." However, she clarifies, "this restriction is lifted if the city has designated a burial society" (34). Hence the establishment of the Chevra Kadisha.

The Chevra Kadisha can be based around a shul or synagogue, a particular community, or may be even more wide-ranging. People may volunteer to serve, and may be given a Training Manual to accustom themselves to what will happen during the tahara or may learn through experience and observation, initially being assigned smaller tasks and later on, more physical ones. Depending on the community, Chevra Kadisha members may be preferred to be older rather than younger, and/ or married.

What happens during a tahara?

(The following are direct quotes from pages 215-217 in the work. I feel justified in using these quotes as I believe the desire of the author is to inform more people of the special beauty of this practice, and having these excerpts available on an online forum will serve to explain the ritual in an understandable format, in addition to pointing interested parties toward the author's work.)

1. PRAYER- Throughout the tahara, special prayers are recited that relate to the tasks of preparing the body. These prayers draw uon the Torah, Prophets and the Song of Songs. At several points, they refer to the deceased by his or her Hebrew name, and that of his or her father. For this reason, it is important to provide the funeral chapel with these names, if they are known. In the opening prayer, before the tahara begins the deceased is introduced to God:

Master of the universe! Have compassion for _________, son/ daughter of _______, this deceased, for he/ she is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your servants...Through mercy, hide and disregard the transgression of this departed, Your servant...May he/ she tread with righteous feet into the Garden of Eden, for that is the place of the upright, and God protects the pious. (215)

2. WASHING AND PURIFICATION- The deceased is washed and dried. Fingernails and toenails are cleaned, and jewelry, identification tags, bandages etc. are removed. After being washed, the deceased is ritually purified through immersion in running water. This is similar to the mikvah, or purification bath, that was required of worshippers entering the Temple of Jerusalem. If the funeral chapel does not have a mikvah pool, the purification requires a cascade of water to be poured over the body. (216)

3. DRESSING- When the body has been rendered ritually clean, it is carefully dressed in special clothing called tachrichim, shrouds of white linen. The same shrouds are used for all taharas, in recognition of the equality of all before God. The tachrichim used for both men and women consist of a head covering, shirt, trousers, coat and belt. They are patterned after the outfit worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur. The tachrichim are hand-sewn, and have no pockets, signifying that the deceased carries no worldly goods to the grave.

After a man has been dressed in the shrouds, his tallit, prayer shawl, is placed around his shoulders. If possible, family should bring this tallit to the funeral chapel. If not, one will be provided.

4. THE CASKET- Jewish law requires that the body be allowed to return to the earth as speedily as possible: "For dust thou art and to dust you shall return" (Gen. III, 19). Therefore, the casket must be made entirely of wood, with a few holes in the bottom to hasten the body's natural decomposition. In keeping with the concept of equality in death, the simplest wood casket is most appropriate.

When the body is settled in the casket, shards of pottery are placed on the eyes and mouth as a symbolic reminder of human frailty. Soil from Israel is sprinkled in the casket and over the shrouded body, a concrete connection with the land of our ancestors. The deceased is wrapped in a large linen sheet and the casket is closed. Before closing the casket, the tahara team addresses the deceased as follows:

    _________, son/ daughter of _________, we ask forgiveness of you if we did not treat you respectfully, but we acted in accordance with our custom. May you be an advocate for all of Israel. Go in peace, rest in peace, and arise in your turn at the end of days.

The casket is then closed and each person on the team offers a silent personal prayer for the departed.

The closed casket should not be reopened. It is considered disrespectful and undignified to disturb the preparations that have been made by the Chevra Kadisha, and therefore the practice of viewing the deceased is forbidden by Jewish law.

[This is the end of the tahara.]

5. BURIAL- Finally, the body in a wood casket is taken to the cemetary for burial. [...] Jewish law requires burial as soon as possible after death to facilitate the immediate beginning of its return to earth. For this reason, above-ground mausoleums are prohibited. In accordance with Jewish law, the body is buried in the earth, with family and friends participating in the final rite of filling in the grave.

What kind of garments make up the shrouds?

1. Mitznefet- Women's Head Covering
2. Michansayim- Trousers
3. K'tonet- Shirt
4. Kittel- Jacket
5. Tallit and Mitznefet- Prayer Shawl and Men's Head Covering
6. Assorted Ties

The coffin itself contains a sovev and avnet- sheet and belt- in addition to a straw-filled pillow. The head of the deceased rests on the pillow.

Is there a time when we do not perform a tahara?

Yes. When a Jew dies al kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God's name, we do not perform a tahara upon his body. As Motti, a member of the Chevra Kadisha of ZAKA (an organization established in 1989 to identify disaster and terrorist victims) states:

    We collect every drop of blood and the smallest piece of a body. Every time a blood vessel bursts, there is a cascade of blood. We have special materials that help us absorb this blood for burial.

    If we know for certain to whom the blood and the body parts belong, we put them all together in a plastic bag for burial. When there is blood commingled from a number of deceased victims, then it is buried in one of the existing graves of in a separate grave called kever achim, the "grave of our brothers." A tahara is not performed on any person who is slaughtered because he/ she is a Jew. Those who lose their lives in terrorists attacks and Israeli soldiers who die in combat are buried with their blood and their blood stained clothes. (142)

Why is this so? The idea is that one comes before God to be judged. The tahara generally purifies the person and the body, preparing him to come before God clean and pure. But the one who comes before God after having died al kiddush Hashem wears his bloody garments as though to say, "See?! Look well and account for this merit of mine; I died for the sanctification of Your name!"

There are also times when it becomes difficult to perform the complete tahara because of medical difficulties. In these cases, the members of the tahara team perform as much of the tahara as possible.

How long does a tahara generally take?

Anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour in most cases. However, at times there can be complications or difficulties, so the time is extended.

Who performs the tahara?

Men generally perform the tahara for men, and women perform the tahara for women.


Now that we have focused upon the actual outline of a tahara, we can consider the people who actually take the time out of their busy lives to drop everything, rearrange their schedules, and go off to perform these last rites upon the deceased.

Who are these people? What are their stories? Why are they drawn to this, to the purification of the dead?

Berman discusses the varied reasons people are drawn to become members of the Chevra Kadisha, stating that there are four main ones:

1. Response to Communal Need
2. Response to the Death of a Family-Member or Friend
3. Family History of Participation
4. Suggestion of a Friend or Family Member

Performing a tahara allows a person to come to grips with their own mortality, giving him a new understanding of the fragility and tragic loveliness that encompasses an individual's life. It allows us to say goodbye to others who have died or passed away; through treating this fellow person with dignity and the utmost compassion, one is able to feel a sense of connection to their own loved ones, even if they have passed on. It gives the members of the tahara team a chance to bond with one another; in the silence interrupted only by prayers or minimal speech relating to the work of the tahara, one has the opportunity to reflect upon the life of the man or woman lying there, and perhaps upon one's own life.

    A New York trial lawyer offered the following: "After my first tahara, which was in the morning, I got on the subway to go to my office. It was a very crowded train and I found that my mindset was vastly different from what it usually was. I didn't object to the crowds which usually irritate me. I found myself looking into each person's face and thinking about the split-second difference between life and death. I was so happy to be in a throng of live people. The crush of humanity was exhilirating. It felt good to breathe in all its messy splendor!" (95)

There is the physician who states that, "When I do a tahara, it's metaphorically an extension of the care I provide my patients. It brings it full cycle and there is a sense of closure to it" (96). Another person likened the experience to allowing the dead man's "soul to pass through a veil, leaving behind it all the sorrow and suffering of his final days" (95).

People who participate in these final rites for the dead speak of it movingly and powerfully. They could be anyone, everyone. As Berman writes, the construction worker and the corporate lawyer may work together on a tahara team, moving the body, cleaning the nailpolish from the dead woman's fingernails, cutting off tubes protruding from the skin (or removing them, if possible to do so without causing further bleeding) and the like. No matter one's job or position, we are all equal before God, and there is no more moving place to realize this than within the quiet room, looking upon the dead figure.

    Steve, who is with a midwest Chevra, says, "I find that my mind rarely wanders. I'm very focused on the tasks at hand because here is a dead person in front of me, a person whose life on earth is over. I ruminate about the different life experiences he may have had and the people he may have met. There is a sense of awe that overcomes me. We have before us not only the person's remains, but the totality of who he was. Tahara is a very physical act and when I do things that are physical, I'm always very focused." (94)

They are ordinary people. They give up their time; they prepare the dead to stand before God, but they are ordinary. You know them. You see them at shul, in the supermarket, good people leading lives as best they can. But within that room, they become something more than ordinary; their true essence is expressed in a deeply feeling, compassionate, kind way. They stand beside the dead and they treat him with utter kindness. Loving-kindness, hesed shel emes. This is the last kindness, the kindness for the dead.

I find this to be truly amazing, absolutely extraordinary. These people obviously have the capacity to love and to give in ways that I hope to emulate in the future. They are not recognized for what they do, but that is not its purpose. They aim to find "satisfaction of the soul." Nevertheless, on behalf of all of us, we owe a tremendous debt and extend our gratitude to the tahara volunteers and Chevra Kadishas throughout the entire world.

Please realize that I have not touched the merest part of what Rochel Berman manages to relate in her book. It is a fantastic book. She herself has performed hundreds of taharas, if not more, and she has sections in her work relating to the Holocaust, personal identity, variations in ritual procedures with regard to the Tahara, the people who participate, what it is really like (how to dress), difficult taharas, medical complications, quotes from others (many others), and her entire approach is comprehensible, interesting, and very easily understandable. I now have an understanding of what happens to the body after death, and it is immensely comforting.

How wondrous is God! And how wondrous his people!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Very moving and informative,
Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!

now, is this what you decided to volunteer for???

ahem--you never DID tell us what you decided...

Anonymous said...

Taharos are definitely an experience. I myself have attended 2 taharos in my time with the Chevra Kadisha. The first time I was completely freaked out (I was a bit young at the time) and stood off to the side saying the tefillos with an elderly gentleman who couldn't do much else (lack of physical strength, I presume) and was the official tefillah guy while the preparations are made. I held my gaze in an averted fashion the entire time, so all I remember of the meis are trace glimpses of arms and legs.

Following that tahara, I basically swore off doing them for a while, feeling as though I lacked the proper maturity to handle them emotionally.

The second time I did a tahara was 3 years later, but I made a special effort to attend this one. The man was the OB-GYN who delivered me. I felt as though I had a special obligation to help escort out of this world the man who escorted me in. I actively participated in the tahara process, pouring water over the meis from a large bucket, while reciting "tahara zu." I also helped in the drying and dressing afterward, as well as placing him in the casket.

The extreme symbolism isn't lost on me, and I definitely gained from the experience. It IS the ultimate chessed, but one should only become a member of the chevra kadisha and perform taharos when they are ready.

I remember a story a friend of mine told me regarding my grandfather, who was the president of the chevra kadisha for many years at my shul. He is a business man and travels frequently. After he moved into town, he met my grandfather and wanted to join the chevra kadisha. He explained that he has to travel a lot for his business, but would like to help whenever he could.

My grandfather's response?

"You know, We don't exactly schedule appointments for these kind of things."

This is very true, as a member of the chevra kadisha - you don't want to have any jobs - and it is wonderful when you don't. But when you do, the sensitivity and kindness exhibited knows no bounds.

Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Curious Jew,

Thank you for this splendid piece about the chesed shel emes that a tahara represents. I found it very informative and even more engaging as I thought of my late son Ben Z'L.

Thank you.

I am,

Very Sincerely Yours,

Alan D. Busch

Anonymous said...

Thank you for conveying the exquisite beauty of this ritual. I have often wondered about it. I was not able to see my uncle before he died, but knowing that his body was gently prepared to join with the purity of earth comforts me. This is what I will specify in my own burial wishes.