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Interview with Rabbi Mosha Epstein

Interview with Rabbi Mosha Epstein: 2002

Chevra Kadisha Interviews - Published by Kavod v'Nichum

 5763 - December 2002  - 400 subscribers 

Rabbi Mosha Epstein researched and compiled the Tahara Manual of Practices, available for purchase from Kavod v'Nichum at
http://www.jewish-funerals.org/cttaharamanual


Chevra Kadisha Interviews: Would you tell us a little about the environment where you grew up?

Rabbi Mosha Epstein: I was born in 1940 in the Bronx. At that time the Bronx had many more Jews than most of the rest of the New York City. Maybe even more rabbis than in all of Israel. It was a very learned place. Even though many Jews were not observant,  they had a background and interest in learning. 

In 1956 I went to yeshiva in Brooklyn. I remember that when I mentioned the Chevra Kadisha to my mother and she said that I should not do Taharah, that I was to learn Torah. She didn't grasp the enormity of what she said. Local rabbis just did not get involved in Chevra Kadisha work. 

Even as I was learning from Rabbi Feinstein, I never asked about Tahara. My uncle is a Rosh Yeshivah - educated in Europe. When I asked him about Taharah, his response was that he had never seen a Tahara - other people did it.

CKI: Why was this the attitude?

RME: Because you could be studying Talmud; why would you be washing bodies? There are others to do the Tahara. But, of course, now there are no others to do the Tahara and we see that it was a big mistake to not be involved. 

CKI: Were things different when you came to Connecticut?

RME: When I came to Bridgeport Connecticut in 1966, Tahara was still something the rabbis did not do. The funeral home had a tahara group. That was how it worked. They were reliable - but elderly and very secretive. They didn't talk about who was in the Chevra Kadisha or the procedures they used.  

CKI: What caused the system to change?

RME: By the middle 1980's - most of the older people who had been doing tahara, either died or moved away. We had to bring in a group from New York City to do the tahara. They charged $300 if they did the tahara in the evening, $600 if they had to come in during the day.  Thus the families that were following the halacha of an immediate burial were often charged twice as much as other families.  

By the middle 1990's younger people were asking who is running tahara. They were saying that they didn't know the people coming in to do the tahara. How could they have any feeling for the Met, the person who had died?

So we started to do some initial research on how to do tahara. We quickly found that there were variances from community to community. So I undertook a complete research project. I read books and talked to different Chevra Kadisha groups in NYC , Detroit and Boston . I also reviewed many pamphlets and manuals from different Chevra Kadisha groups. I also interviewed Chevra Kadisha members  from Bridgeport.

CKI: Can you tell us about some of the differences  that you discovered?

RME: The traditions of the Chevra Kadisha varied depending on country of origin - Polish varied from Russian which varied from Czeck. For example, the tachrichim, the burial garments were different and changed still further when undertakers exerted more control. Another example is that women don't have hoods in Bridgeport - instead we use double caps like they do in Baltimore. 

CKI: What is your approach to the community Chevra Kadisha?

RME: Our rule is that to be a full member of the Chevra Kadisha you must be shomer Shabbat - if you are not, you can be a Chevra Kadisha helper - but you can't do dressing or the prayers. But I understand that in small towns, there needs to be more flexibility. For example I will be speaking and teaching in Hartford  Connecticut at Temple Emanuel which is not an Orthodox shul. Here the Conservative shul is taking over the Jewish Funeral Home and working closely with the Orthodox Community.  I am very supportive and encouraging of this process.  

CKI: What is the importance of your book - Tahara Manual of Practices?

RME: The Tahara Manual of Practices is a complete "How To"  manual. It simplifies the process and procedures of Tahara. The questions and answers provide explanations and point out differences.

CKI: What advice you would give for new or potential members of a Chevra Kadisha?     

RME:  I would say three things. 1. Understand the importance of Tahara - this is Jews taking care of Jews. We can't leave the prayers, the washing and the dressing to others. 2. We must address the fear of death. 3. Our individuals lives are limited, but our collective life continues. In the article by Rabbi Rackovsky [page 72] he says, "The ceremonies for the care of the deceased, and in particular the tahara ceremony, affirm the continuity of existence." "The ceremony communicates that the integrity and essence of every Jew who ever lived is maintained forever."