Jewish Burial Practices

 

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a moving “Belief and Practice” segment this week on the Jewish tradition of tahara, the washing and purifying of a dead body, which is considered one of the greatest of all good deeds — mitzvot. Those who perform taharas are volunteer members of the burial society, chevra kadisha. Women attend to deceased women, men to men.

In Jewish practice, if possible, a body is buried within 24 hours. There is no embalming. Our producer Susan Goldstein found three women in Westchester County, New York — Rochel Berman, Nancy Klein, and Mina Crasson — who have been doing taharas for more than 20 years. They agreed to describe their work and demonstrate it on a mannequin, in keeping with the tradition of respecting the dead.

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ROCHEL BERMAN (Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Burial Society of Westchester, New York): No matter whatever is going on in my life, before I walk into the tahara room, no matter how troubled or obsessed I might be about something, it totally disappears during the time of the tahara.

It is the most profound connection with my Judaism. Both task-oriented and spiritual at the same time, and so intensive that it’s almost a lesson for how to do other commandments.

I think it’s considered the greatest mitzvah because the person that you are serving, the deceased, can’t say, “Thank you.”

The purpose of the tahara is to provide comfort for the soul and care for the body. We talk very little, except about the tasks at hand. When we are working on the deceased, we never pass anything over the body. We always walk around as a sign of respect for the dead. I have a distinct sense that the soul is hovering and is in transition as we do this, and that makes us that much more careful with the body.

NANCY KLEIN (Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Burial Society of Westchester, New York, reading prayer): May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, to bring a circle of angels of mercy before the deceased, for she is your servant daughter.

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Ms. BERMAN: It’s definitely changed me. For one thing, it’s put my own mortality in a much sharper focus. I don’t think I have a fear of death, and I could kind of imagine what that would be like. I have thought about my own tahara. And I also find it so enormously uplifting and rewarding that if I would get a call to do it, why wouldn’t I do it? It makes me feel so good about myself; it gives a lift to the rest of the day.

I always like to look at a tahara — it is almost analogous to a three-act play. There are three distinct parts: there is cleansing, there’s purification, and there’s dressing. In the cleansing phase of the tahara, we remove all the bandages and anything extraneous on the body.

Ms. KLEIN (reading): And I will pour upon you pure water.

Ms. BERMAN: The purification is a cascade of 24 quarts of water that are poured by the entire team in a continuous flow. And it is analogous to a mikvah, which is a purification that women go through following their menstrual cycle.

And it’s as if we were washing away all the suffering of their last periods of their lives, and it’s as if it is like a veil that you leave behind.

MINA CRASSON, Ms. KLEIN, and Ms. BERMAN (reading prayer in unison): Tahara he, tahara he, tahara he. She is pure. She is pure. She is pure.

Ms. BERMAN: And then the body is dried, and the final stage is dressing in the shrouds.

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The shrouds are fashioned after the garments that the high priest wore in the temple on Yom Kippur, and they’re white, usually made of linen, hand-sewn with no knots so that they will disintegrate easily. They also have no hems to signify the impermanence, and no pockets, so that you take no worldly goods with you. And everybody, rich or poor, young or old, religious or nonreligious, are all buried in the same garments.

And then the body finally is placed in the casket and wrapped in a large sheet, which creates almost a cocoonlike image. And there is a sense of protectiveness as the person enters the world to come.

We sprinkle earth from Israel at the bottom of the casket before we place the body in there, and after the deceased is completely shrouded, we place it on the eyes and on the heart, and that is our connection with our homeland.

At the end of the tahara, before we close the lid, the team gathers around the casket to ask forgiveness of the soul for any errors of omission or commission, and assure the soul that we have done everything within our power to do this correctly, in accordance with our customs.

Ms. KLEIN (reading prayer): Dina, daughter of Jacob, we ask forgiveness from you if we did not treat you respectfully, but we did as is our custom. May you be a messenger for all of Israel. Go in peace, rest in peace, and arise in your turn at the end of days.

Ms. BERMAN: We address the deceased by name, and that makes it very specific and personalized. And I usually wish her well.

  • Tim Buckles

    A very rare opportunity to witness taharat hametim. An excellent film for a newly formed chevrah, adult learning group or even b’nai mitzvah.

  • David P.

    My Mother, avenu sholom, passed away on January 14th and was taken into the care of the chevra kadisha. Thank you for providing an opportunity to see how she was cared for and prepared according to Jewish custom as she wanted. Your making this video was a mitzvah and I am grateful to you for it.

  • Jonathan Epstein

    Thank you for providing this article and video. I am doing a paper on how the Jews treat illness, death and mourning for a class “Jewish Rituals and Symbols”. This was a valuable resource.

  • Nirvana Rodriguez

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I am looking for answers to why my family practices were so different than others here in New Mexico and I see many farmiliar things. I appreciate your openness with the world. Blessings to you.

  • Troy John Heffernan

    Shalom! I have come to appreciate the Jewish Burial Society. I viewed the video and I thought it was EXELLENT!!

  • valerie patterson

    God bless you and thank you for sharing. I am a christian and I have to tell you that it is all about love and care. You are wonderful. I was so moved,what a blessing you are to your people.GOD SEES ALL thank you again.

  • Kris Chelek

    Read with interest.

    Very surprised to know that you believe in the immortality of the soul and a ‘life hereafter’ the Hebrew Scriptures are clear that the dead are unconscience of nothing at all (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10) Like Job the scriptures tell us that like Job, we are awaiting a resurrection to the earth as King David wrote about so beautifully in the Psalms at Psalm 37/11,12, and 29 talks about living forever upon the earth.

    Death is sleep. Immortalaity of the soul is a pagan belief and unfortunately, after the first century, the Greeks had an enormous impact on the Jewish religion and many beliefs that would not have been accepted by Moses or the ancient Israelites is accepted now as fact.

    I appreciated finding out about this Tahara as a business associate of mine is a Hasidic Jew and just performed this Tahara on a fellow Jew.

  • Ian Newton

    Isaiah 53…

  • Michael Sutila

    I’m a Christain and find this practice most respectful. What an ultimate act of respect and love shown for the deaceased by their fellow man. Unbelievably touched by this! Thank you for sharing something so sacred!

  • dema

    its very similar to what muslims do..

    they wash the body then splash musk on it and cover everything but the face, the face coveres when the body lies in the hole before throwing sand on it…

    its called tahara too.. tahara is an arabic original word meaning cleanliness..

    i witnessed my grandfathers tahara,, his facial muscles changed shape to him smiling at us with his eyes closed and he was dead!…

    me my family and alot of people saw that.. it was satisfying and we never seen anything like this in our lives..

  • Jimmy Savell

    WOW!!! Thank you for sharing with me. This gives me a greater respect and understanding of how you take care of the body of someone that has passed on. I am a Christian and this makes me respect the Jewish people even more. Thanks for opening my eyes. Shalom My Friend

  • Susan Proctr

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful article. I, too, am a member of Chevra Kaddisha and performing tahara is one of the most deeply spiritual experiences I have ever had.

  • Andie

    Can a Christian’s who desires it be prepared for burial by a tahara? I find this immensely comforting and it seems very natural and close to God. As a Christian, would I be turned away for this service?

  • Shoshannah

    As a member of my community’s chevra chadisha, thank you for this beautiful and informative article. I understand that Christianity until recently performed similar customs but they have given way to letting the mortician do this work, removing the religious aspect of it. I was unaware that Islam had adopted a modified version of the Jewish tradition. It is too bad we can’t all focus on our similarities and not on our differences.

  • Mordechai

    In response to Andie’s question about whether a Christian can benefit from tahara: Jewish morticians and/or funeral homes won’t prepare a non-Jew’s body, BUT your funeral home/mortician can learn the practice, whether or not they are Jewish, and apply it to you upon your death. There is no law saying you can’t have a Jewish funeral – or part of one as a Christian PS: my family owned the first – and largest Jewish funeral home in California. Contact me if you have any questions: sharques@yahoo.com

  • Linda

    Very nicely done. Lots of information in the light of respect. Thank you

  • Eugene FRANK

    Chris Chelek’s chide at the notion of the immortality of the soul, is too concrete: the notion that the ‘soul’, i.e. the memory of the individual’s place in our life (universe) will never be forgotten, fused with the notion of the vulnerability of the person/body in death that we sanctify in the Taraha ritual, enforces the need to have the privilege of this mitzva is the rare moment when we are given the moment to do a good deed to erase a deed we regret.

    In the Taraha, attending the dead, he/she provides each of a chance to enrich our life, and pass that on to eternity.

    It is only in this moments of needing to contemplate the finality of death and the fragility of life, those few moments when we can enact a deed that purifies us by it’s unselfishness, that we face immortality.

  • Laurie

    Thank you so much for sharing this with the world. I am studying to become a funeral director, and really want to learn each and every burial right that is performed in order to expand my understanding of each religious service. Even though I will not be performing the Taraha, I am glad to see the ceremony performed. I am LDS, and I am happy to find some similarities in our burial process. I truly appreciate this special look into such a deeply spiritual and important part of the jewish religion.

  • Geraldine Larson

    Very Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Sandra Labadia

    Shalom Sisters,

    Thank you for sharing this Noble Spiritual Passage.

    I am a Chaplain and I would like to learn this Jewish Practice so that I may offer this to my Jewish Patients.
    Is it possible that I may receive training by the Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Burial Society of Westchester, New York.
    I would be forever humbled, grateful and honored.

    Sincerely,
    Sandra

  • Mrs. Lisa Clason

    Thank you so much for showing us this most intimate form of burial. I have not felt right about any of today’s practices. This is what is right for me. Thank you for your beautiful explanation.