A wonderful story recently appeared in The Chicago Tribune about how to conduct the Jewish rituals for a tahara. Here’s the start of the story by Barbara Brotman, which ran in conjunction with a Chicago area convention of Chevra Kaddisha volunteers.
Tahara: Respect for the dead and comfort for the living
Traditional Jewish ritual of preparing a body for burial is making a comeback with liberal congregations
On the table lay a human form covered by a white sheet. A small group of people gathered around. Nisan Chavkin, steering committee chairman of the Progressive Chevra Kadisha, led them through the ritual.
First the body was to be washed, gently but thoroughly, with most of it kept draped for modesty.
Water was to be poured onto the body from three plastic buckets in a continuous stream: The first bucket poured over one side, moving from the head down to the feet; the second up the other side, the third down over the middle.
As they poured, the group would say, in Hebrew: “She is pure. She is pure. She is pure.”
When that was done, group members carefully pulled loose white pants and a tunic over the body and tied them with strips of cloth around the waist and ankles.
Now the body — actually a volunteer helping at a training demonstration — was ritually cleansed according to Jewish tradition. And now members of Congregation Or Chadash, the latestcongregation to join the Progressive Chevra Kadisha (PCK), were ready to perform the ritual of “tahara,” considered one of the most meaningful and selfless in Judaism.
The Jewish practice of washing and dressing a body for burial, a solid presence in traditional Jewish communities, is rarely practiced by liberal Jews. But in recent years, some of those communities have been reclaiming it.
The PCK was established by four Chicago-area congregations in 2005. Anshe Emet, a Conservative congregation on the North Side, and Congregation Hakafa, in Glenview, each started a chevra kadisha, or sacred society, three years ago.
“It’s an ancient custom that is coming back in non-Orthodox Jewish life,” Chavkin said.
The cleansing ritual will be the focus of a national meeting being held Sunday through Tuesday at the Doubletree Hotel & Conference Center Chicago North Shore in Skokie.
At the ninth annual Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, more than 100 registrants from across the U.S. and Canada will attend sessions that include a tahara demonstration and talks on emotional reactions, how to work with medical examiners and tahara for transgender people.
The ritual is performed by laypeople, men washing men, women washing women. PCK members take monthly turns on call, carrying a beeper. “It’s kind of like a volunteer fire department,” Chavkin said.