Last night, I spoke about how we live in an era of Disruptive Judaism. I focused on opportunities to rethink and recontextualize three areas: ritual, Israel and community. Now, I want to focus on a specific ritual some in your family probably benefited from but you may not have known. It is one of the most beautiful and sensitive rituals Judaism has developed.
Interestingly, the person benefiting from this ritual, never shares their experiences. And, the people who perform the rituals are expected to be discrete.
I am not talking about a brit milah or naming ceremony for babies. Those are often big occasions with many people involved. I am not thinking of weddings which can be grand occasions.
I am speaking of tahara.
Tahara means purification. These are the rituals performed after someone dies in preparation for burial. Just as Judaism has rituals which welcome us into the world, Judaism also cares for us as we leave the world.
You may not know this about me but I like to journal. On and off for years, I have kept a journal. I recently found my reflections on participating in my first tahara. I want to share some of my first experiences with this beautiful ritual with you because often the first time people focus on tahara is in a moment of crisis. I want us to be prepared and appreciate the sensitivity of our faith.
The second reason I want to share my experience of tahara is because I hope some of you will be interested enough in the caring work of the Chevra Kaddisha, the Burial Society that you will talk to me about how you can become involved.
I changed the name of the deceased for this but I remember him clearly even though I had never met him before.
In midrash Tanchuma (Vayehi 107a), it says: “The highest act of gemilut chesed (acts of loving kindness) is that which is done for the dead for there can never be any thought of repayment.”
Let me read you from an entry from my first year in rabbinical school. I wrote:
I am dust in my life and will surely be so in my death
Yom Kippur Amidah
Since I joined Alan, a fourth year rabbinical student, at a taharah – a ritual preparation of a body for burial, I have been speaking about it constantly. I am torn between my need to process the experience while also wanting to hold onto the experience’s pristine memory and emotions. Hopefully I can balance both desires in writing about it.
Alan gave a presentation to my first year rabbinical school class about taharah and offered a sign-up list for anyone who wanted to observe an actual taharah. Along with many of my classmates, I put my name on the list. Last Wednesday night, I received a phone call from Alan asking if I wanted to join him the following morning to observe the chevra kadisha, the burial society, prepare a person for burial. I knew I needed to say yes right away or the next time I may not have the courage to accept.
All night long I was nervous. I had no idea what I was going to see or feel. It was unlike me but all the sudden I realized I had no idea what to wear to a tahara. I imagined it was a formal and solemn experience but also required lifting and moving. I called Alan and he said I did not need to wear anything special but I wanted to be presentable. Kavod haMet, respect for the dead, is an important tenant which I did not want to violate.
I was so anxious I woke-up before my alarm went off at 5:15am. I got up and started to get dressed. I had set out my clothes the previous night in the living room so I would not wake Rebekah. As I was putting on my normal belt, suddenly I had a powerful sensation this day was truly Yom Kippur.
The liturgy of “who shall live and who shall die” became forefront in my mind at that early hour. I felt I could not wear the leather belt I normally wore. I retrieved a nylon belt from the drawer. I also set aside my running shoes which had leather on them for my canvas Converse.
It felt like this was the day to express material modesty and to be humble by not adorning myself, just like on Yom Kippur. It was the first time I came into contact with a dead body – a met in Hebrew.
I jumped into a cab and met Alan at his apartment. Despite the early hour, I arrived 15 minutes early. We said our greetings and began walking the 15 blocks to the mortuary – Riverside Memorial.
On the walk down, we spoke about general things. How are finals going? What classes are you taking? As we walked along the empty streets, I began to feel claustrophobic. It was almost overwhelming to be participating in such an intimate part of a person’s death. I looked up at the buildings to see the morning sky. I pointed out some of the interesting architecture of the buildings we past. We talked about how most people never look up at this beautiful part of New York. It was not difficult to realize this was my way of burning off nervous energy before the taharah.
I told Alan, if appropriate, I wanted to do more than observe. He told me it was not a machismo test and emphasized helping was not a show of courage. He countered, if I felt queasy, I could leave the room out of respect for the met. I repeated my desire to assist if possible. I believe Judaism is lived rather than only theorized so I wanted to throw myself into this experience.
As we turned the corner to walk the last block to the funeral home, Alan asked how I was feeling. I was very nervous. Just before we walked in, Alan mentioned he did not know how old the person was who died. It flashed through my head that it could be somebody young. Maybe a child; maybe a teenager or somebody my age. I had assumed it was an elderly person but there was no way to know.
We walked through the loading dock. It was surprisingly small for trucks but I imagined it would be the perfect size for a hearse to back into and unload or load its cargo. Alan said hello to the funeral home staff. They were a group of Italian men sitting around joking. The banter could have suggested this was any company office rather than a funeral home.
I drank a few cups of water from the cooler to calm my nerves and walked down to the basement
Heneni muchan u’mezuman…
I am ready to fulfill the commandment …
I was surprised to see caskets leaning against the wall. I remember saying silently ‘Here we go.’ I was relieved to learn they were empty and were only being stored there. Alan moved through the basement with a practiced intentionality. He knew what needed to be done, where things were and it was time to get to work. I was far more hesitant. We went into a smaller room which had a porcelain table to the side. The table had a hole in the bottom and was built on a hinge which allowed it to tilt. On the walls were laminated prayers and readings in large lettering for easy reading. Texts were both in Hebrew and English. I saw a sink only knee high to the left near the porcelain table. Supplies such as rags, buckets, a hair brush, and other things were on shelves around the room.
The body was not present. A staff person told us the “gentleman” was Seymour Schwartz*
At no point throughout the entire process did the
Chevra Kadisha leave Mr. Schwartz alone.
Alan began organizing the room making sure supplies were easily accessible. During a tahara, any unnecessary delay is considered disrespectful to the deceased. Additionally, during a tahara there is no conversation in the room other than what is necessary for the ritual.
I was instructed to begin filling three buckets to the top which would act as a mikvah.
After, I followed Alan into the casket showroom. Like a car dealership, a funeral home must display its inventory for people to select. There were dozens of open caskets, each perfectly lit. It was as if the caskets beauty would distract the purchaser from the sad implication of their acquisition. Alan showed me different caskets most of which were kosher. A few used metal though and therefore are not traditionally accepted. An aron, a casket, should be made of all wood so it can completely return to dust.
Remember that word for casket – aron.
From the plain pine box to fancier caskets costing thousands, it was surreal to be walking through this showroom. I tried to imagine how overwhelming it must be for a family who is raw from facing a death and needing to make these decisions.
In the rest of Jewish life chiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah, is embraced. In burial though, simplicity is the expectation. It was Rabban Gamliel in the 1st Century who taught because rich or poor, scholarly or simpleton, no matter one’s social status everyone dies; and because we are all equal in God’s eyes, bezelem Elohim, everyone should be extended the same honor by being buried in the same type of simple shrouds and casket.
We collected some more supplies and then returned to the tahara room where the two other men of the chevra kaddisha were preparing.
We put on gowns, booties, and a double layer of surgical gloves. We proceeded to ritually wash our hands over the latex gloves. We were ready… or at least they were.
A candle was lit which would sit at Mr. Schwartz’s head. The Rosh read a prayer to focus us on the work I was to observe, that they were going to do. One verse jumped out at me: “Therefore, may it by Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to bring a circle of angels of mercy before the deceased…”
Maybe the chevra kaddisha were those angels surrounding the deceased.
Mr. Schwartz died out of town and was flown to New York for burial. The airline box was brought into the room.
The Rosh asked me to help lift the body out of the box and onto the table. Alan looked at me and said, ‘So, you wanted to help.’
Mr. Schwartz was an older man. He was still wearing a hospital gown. One person stood at his feet, I was at his midsection, one person at his back and the Rosh at his head. 1-2-3 and we lifted Mr. Schwartz onto the table.
The ritual we call Tahara is a three step process. Cleaning, Purifying, and Dressing. As materials are being passed from person to person, it is never passed over the met. Every action takes into consideration Kavod HaMet, honoring the deceased.
The first step, cleaning the body, is called Rechitsah. For Rechitsah, the body was cleaned with water in a set pattern of top right, bottom right, top left, bottom left. If any medical instruments remained in the body such as tubing, IV equipment, etc. it is removed unless it would harm the met.
The readings while cleaning the body came from Song of Songs. These are considered love songs between God and the Jewish People so reciting these words of love as we were caring for Mr. Schwartz was deeply moving. The love poetry of Song of Songs is frequently used at weddings. Used here though, the rabbis wanted to truly show God’s love for each person. It was an amazing selection which spoke of the beauty of the body.
With softly running water, the body was gently cleaned off. All the wrapping around the body was placed into a medical refuse can. I now understood what the hole at the bottom of the table was for. It was for the water to drain. Though not a messy process, taharah is certainly a wet one.
For this to Me is like the waters of Noah, nevermore would flood the earth, So I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.
The second step is to ritually purify the body through a mikvah of sorts.
This is called Tahara, purifying.
We raised Mr. Schwartz onto wood planks so the water could pass over and under him thus creating a type of Mikvah. The three large buckets of water I had prepared were poured over the body – one after the other. The Rosh chanted taharah hu, taharah hu, taharah hu with each bucket. (He is purified; He is purified; He is purified.) It was done with purpose and caring.
We removed the planks from under Mr. Schwartz and dried him, the table and the planks.
The last step is called Halbashah, dressing in the tachrichin, the burial shrouds. As Rabban Gamliel instructed, the shrouds are simple white pants, a white shirt, a head piece, a kittle and a tallit.
The shirt was placed on first, then the pants and finally the kittle. All the ties on the outfit were tied in special ways according to custom. The final tie on the kittle was made into a shin so there were three points up. I was reminded of the shin we make with the straps of our tefillin on our hand.
The intersection of so many different aspects of Jewish ritual came wonderfully together for me during the tahara.
Soil from Israel was placed on the body, on the head, and in the coffin. A plate was broken (like a wedding) and pottery shards were placed on his eyes and mouth and finally the hood was placed on his head. We lifted Mr. Schwartz into the plain pine casket.
As I helped place the lid on the coffin, we recited the Priestly Blessing over Mr. Schwartz.
May God bless and protect you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift up His face upon you and give you peace.
I would never have thought of that blessing for this sacred moment but it was perfect.
We wheeled the coffin out to the funeral home staff. And do you know what we recited? Do you recall the word I pointed out earlier? – Aron, coffin
In English it is: And when the Ark (ha’aron) moved forward, Moses would say ‘Rise up, O God, and let Your enemies be scattered and let those who hate You flee before You.’ It is from the Book of Numbers but you know it from someplace else.
As we moved the aron, the casket, we recited:
Where is that from? The Torah service. By bringing this verse in to the tahara, the rabbis are equating the aron, the Ark which held the 10 Commandments, the manna from God and was the symbol of God’s power… to the aron, the coffin which also contains the symbol of God’s power and miracles – a human being.
And that was it. There was a group of women waiting outside to use the room after us.
When you seek to be alone with God, have at least one companion with you.
Hasidic advice Liqqutim Yeqarim 15b
We took off the surgical gowns. We washed with soap and that was the morning. The process began at 6:45am and was completed by 7:45am.
As Alan and I walked back, he asked me how I felt. All I could say was “Honored.”
I was honored to be Mr. Schwartz’s companion.
It has been 20 years since that tahara and I continue to think about Mr. Schwartz. While I never knew him, the hour we spent together had a deep impact on me.
The work of the chevra kadisha is remarkable. The beauty of the tahara ceremony is so special. Now two things: 1) You now have a better appreciation for the sensitivity and caring Judaism has for us – even after we die. You will be more prepared when you need to include the tahara ceremony for a loved one. 2) I invite you to get more directly involved in Beth El’s chevra kadisha. Please contact me and let me know you would like to learn more about how it works and if you would like to observe a tahara. Darryl Sherman and Sara Greenbaum are the heads of our chevra kaddisha.
As we turn to page 290 for the Yizkor service, we quietly express appreciation to those members of a chevra kadisha someplace who took care of our loved ones before their burial… and we can stand with confidence that they were treated with dignity and respect.