For today’s 30 Funerals in 30 Days post, we go behind the scenes at the funeral home for two tahara rituals. The tahara is the Jewish ritual of washing and dressing the body before burial.
In the Jewish tradition, the body of the deceased is treated with care and respect, extending dignity to the earthly vessel that the human spirit has left behind. This task is undertaken by the local Chevra Kadisha, a volunteer organization that cares for the bodies of the dead according to Jewish law and ancient custom.
Chevra Kadisha is a Hebrew phrase that means “sacred society” or “holy friends.” These anonymous volunteers are not paid for their services, for the act of caring for the dead is a mitzvah (a good deed and true act of loving kindness), because there can be no reciprocity from the deceased. In keeping with the spirit of modesty and respect for the dead, men perform the purification for men, women for women.
I’m a member of our local Chevra Kadisha. Traditionally, the tahara is performed anonymously, so no one knows who helped prepare the body. To maintain this veil, the women who were washed and dressed will not be identified.
This purification ceremony is customarily done on the day of the funeral. However, the Jewish holiday calendar can throw a huge wrench in funeral plans.
The first woman actually died on Wednesday, but she could not be buried until Sunday. That’s because Wednesday evening was Shemini Atzeret and the last day of Sukkot, followed by Simchat Torah on Friday, and the Sabbath on Saturday. No burial may take place on holidays or the Sabbath. The second woman died at sundown on Friday evening, and we did her tahara on Sunday, although she will be buried on Monday.
For today’s taharot (plural of tahara) we had a team of six women to minister to the deceased. Individuals make take turns reading prayers and psalms while tending to the body. Our tradition is to maintain the modesty of the dead by keeping parts of the body not being worked on covered by a sheet. We start by lighting a memorial candle and saying this prayer, “Source of Kindness and Compassion.” The English translation:
Source of kindness and compassion, whose ways are ways of mercy and truth, you have commanded us to act with loving kindness and righteousness toward the dead, and to engage in their proper burial. Grant us the courage and strength to properly perform this work, this holy task of cleaning and washing the body, dressing the dead in shrouds, and burying the deceased.
Guide our hands and hearts as we do this work, and enable us to fulfill this commandment of love. Help us to see your face in the face of the deceased, even as we see You in the faces of those who share this task with us. Source of life and death, be with us now and always.
Before starting, the team stands near the deceased and recite the prayer, “Life of All the Worlds.”
Life of all worlds, have compassion for (name), daughter/son of (names) and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, who followed you in faithfulness. May her/his soul and spirit rest with the righteous, for You give eternal life to those who have died, even as You bring death to the living.
Blessed are You, for when we ask, you pardon and forgive the errors and offenses of the departed of Israel. May it be Your will, God of our ancestors, to bring together a circle of angels of mercy before the deceased, for s/he is Your beloved, the daughter/son of those who sought Your presence.
Rock of all worlds, as You who are attentive to all who struggle, save this soul from pain as s/he travels the path from life to death. Blessed are You, abounding in loving kindness, source of compassion. You are the One who makes peace in the high places for those who love and revere Your name. You are praised, for with compassion You redeem Your people Israel from all suffering.
May it be Your will, God of our mothers and fathers, to remember the merit of the holy covenant: “I will place my Torah in their innermost parts and write it upon their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Blessed are You, O God, maker of the covenant in compassion and mercy. You, O God, are the Source of Goodness; You forgive all who call upon You. “Sweep aside our transgressions like a mist, disperse them like a cloud.” (Yom Kippur morning service).
Blessed are You, generous in counsel and powerfully compassionate. May the one who has died walk with the righteous through the Garden of Eden, the place of those who stand upright in Your presence. Blessed are You, Source of all gentleness and love. Grant mercy to the departed of your people Israel. May this be Your will. Amen.
First, the body is carefully washed with warm water, and all clothing, bandages and foreign objects are removed. Any hair or blood removed during cleansing is put in a bag to be placed in the coffin, to keep as much of the body intact as possible. Water is then poured over the body and the sheet, while one member of the team reads a passage from the Song of Songs. For a woman, the passage is:
How fine you are, my love, your eyes like doves’ behind your veil
Your hair – as black as goats winding down the slopes
Your teeth – a flock of sheep rising from the stream in twos, each with its twin
Your lips – like woven threads of crimson silk
A gleam of pomegranate – your forehead through your veil
Your neck – a tower adorned with shields
Your breasts – twin fawns in fields of flowers
How fine you are, my love, my perfect one.
After the body is washed, it is purified through a mikvah, a ritual bath utilized to mark Jewish life cycle events. We change our protective gloves to mark the transition from physical cleansing to ritual cleansing.
For tahara, water is poured onto the body from pitchers that are passed continuously around until seven passes have been made. Two people pour, while others hold a clean sheet like a chuppah (wedding canopy) over the body and the heads of those pouring.
During this ritual, we chant “Elohai, neshama, shena ta-ta-bi tehora hee,” which means “Oh God, the soul that you have given me is a pure one.” The body is then dried carefully and gently dressed in burial garments.
Burial garments are pure cotton or linen, reflecting the clothing of the High Priest as described in Exodus and Leviticus. Usually, the garments include an under-tunic, an over-tunic, a head covering, and pants with no opening for the feet, indicating this person will not be walking anywhere.
The garments are white, a symbol of purity, and have no pockets, symbolizing that no material possessions can be taken into the afterlife, reaffirming “you can’t take it with you.” As the deceased is buried only in these garments, there’s no need to worry about selecting clothing or shoes.
This is the reading recited before and while the dressing takes place:
And he (the angel of God) raised his voice and spoke to those who were standing before him saying, “Remove the soiled garments from him (the High Priest),” and he said to him, “Behold, I have removed your iniquity from you and I will clothe you in fine garments.
I greatly delight in God; my soul rejoices in my Source. For God has clothed me in garments of deliverance, and God has wrapped me in a coat of justice. And with the linen headdress shall he be attired. And the linen breeches shall be over his flesh. He shall put on the holy linen tunic. And he shall gird himself with a linen Avnet. And God Almighty give you mercy.
The pants and tunics have drawstrings. When tying the drawstrings, the tradition is to make a slip knot wrapped seven times, the number of completion. The loop is then pointed toward the heart.
The practice of burying all Jews in the same type of simple garments was instituted eighteen hundred years ago when Rabbi Gamaliel instructed that rich and poor are equal before God. We all have the same parent; we all come to the same end – dust to dust.
Now comes the time to move the body into a plain wooden coffin with no metal parts. The first woman was very large, and we needed to use a hydraulic lift to raise her off of the preparation table and over to the casket. The second woman was very small and light, and we were able to lift and carry her on a sheet by holding the edges firmly.
The coffin can be of any kind of wood, but inexpensive soft woods such as pine are preferred over hardwoods such as oak, because they decompose more rapidly. Holes drilled in the bottom of the casket help facilitate the process. The body, the linen garments, and the wood all deteriorate at about the same rate.
Finally, potsherds, fragments of pottery, are placed over the eyes and mouth, as a sign that these eyes no longer see and the mouth no longer speaks. Earth from Israel is sprinkled over the body.
There is a belief held by Orthodox Jews that when the Messiah appears there will be a resurrection of the dead and those who lived a pious life will roll underground to the Holy Land to be resurrected. The earth from Israel placed in the coffin prepares them for the trip. This ritual is often done even if the deceased was not Orthodox.
Then we all take turns speaking to the deceased, offering our prayers and apologies for any awkwardness during the tahara. Then we set in place the lid of the casket and the memorial candle on top.
We finish with the Priestly Blessing and another prayer, which actually names angels. Many may not realize there are angels in the Jewish tradition.
May God bless you and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face be lifted up to you and give you peace.
For the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
In the name of the God of Israel:
At my right hand, Michael,
At my left hand, Gabriel,
Before me, Uriel,
Behind me, Raphael,
And above my head, God’s sheltering Presence;
Above my head, Shechina.
O house of Israel, come let us walk in God’s light. The Rock of Israel has spoken and called the world into being, from the east where the sun rises, to the place where it sets. Peace shall come and each of us shall rest in our appointed place. For dust we are, and unto dust we return.
God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed is God’s name.
Each Chevra Kadisha has their own variations on the tahara ceremony. May the women in today’s taharot rest in peace.