The following article was published in the Spring 1991 Journal of Reform Judaism – pages 37-44. It is copyrighted by, and posted here with the kind permission of, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)
By Simone Lotven Sofian*
I am a member of a women’s Chevra Kadisha. In short, I wash bodies. Actually, it is more than just washing. We prepare them for burial in an age-old ritual that has cast a different light on my understanding of the value of ritual in Jewish life and the role that mitzvah plays.
Everyone’s first question when he or she learns of my work is “Why do you do this?” Perhaps an explanation of how I became involved will lead to an understanding of why. About six years ago, the Orthodox rabbi in Lancaster mentioned that he was trying to organize a women’s Chevra Kadisha. There already was one for the men, but women were taken to a nearby city for taharat hametim. I did not say anything at the time and went on vacation. When I got back, I asked him if I could join.
At this same time, I was working intently on my dissertation which is in medieval French religious theater. If one is a medievalist, one is constantly confronted with images of death. People die at home and in the streets. Criminals hang at the crossroads while Jesus and the saints are tortured and martyred on a stage in the middle of the marketplace. Death is depicted as both horrible and grotesque, serene, sorrowful, and yet life-affirming. Death is destruction, but also the universal equalizer, for the body returns to the earth to refertilize new life. Death is portrayed as not only the end, but also the beginning of a never-ending cycle. But, above all, in the Middle Ages, all death is real.
In dealing with these images of death on an intellectual basis, I realized that it is no longer a part of our lives. Although we often see images of violent death in movies, on television, or in newspapers, it is still two-dimensional and separate from daily reality. Modern death is usually attended to by professionals. The dead are immediately taken away by hospital personnel. Funeral directors take care of preparing them for burial. I understood that ‘he reality of death was something I needed to confront. So, I joined the Chevra Kadisha.
Dead people are real to me now. I have touched them, washed them, clothed them. I continue to be part of the Chevra Kadisha because in the process of confronting death I have gained a deeper understanding of both the meaning of mitzvah and my Jewish life within the Jewish community.
II. The Ritual of Taharat haMetim
The act of washing and dressing the body in specific death garments by members of the family or community is found in most cultures. The Mishna (Shabbat 23:5) and the Talmud (Beitza 6a, Mo’ed Katan 8b) speak about washing and shrouding the dead. The ritual of taharat hametim is a medieval development of this earlier practice. My purpose in this paper is not to give an historical explanation of the development of Taharat hametim. Rather, I will discuss tahara as it is practiced by our Chevra Kadisha and delve into the possibility of its relevance in Liberal Judaism.
Before I begin, I must give a disclaimer. In The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning1, Maurice Lamm puts his discussion of the procedure of tahara in an addendum at the back of the book writing especially for those who want to know the details. My description of tahara is necessarily explicit, although my hope is that you will be able to follow it through to the end.
Our Chevra Kadisha is made up of about ten women, and we need four for a Tahara. I am the only member from the Reform synagogue, and the others are fairly equally divided between the Orthodox and Conservative congregations. Both these congregations require tahara for burial in their cemeteries. When someone dies, either the rabbi or the funeral director calls a member of the Chevra Kadisha who then phones the others, gets a group together and sets a time. We deal with two non-Jewish funeral homes who are very cooperative. They let us use any of their facilities and open up for us all hours.
When we arrive, we ask the funeral director if there is anything about the state of the body we should know. This is very important, as will be seen later. We then ritually wash our hands without saying the beracha and put on surgical gloves and aprons. A prayer that includes the person’s name is read asking for God’s mercy. All the prayers are read in English because, although most of us read Hebrew well, we feel that we want the participants to understand everything. The body is unwrapped (the person comes wrapped in a sheet or blanket) and is immediately covered with a clean sheet. If there is any blood on the wrapping, it is folded and put at the foot of the coffin. Another short prayer is then said.
We then start to wash. Only water is used, no soap. During this washing only that part of the body that is being washed is uncovered. While washing, we speak only when necessary, for example, giving directions or asking for help. There is no conversation as such. We are also discrete and do not look at the person with curiosity. The whole process is done with a feeling of respect for the person and consideration for his or her family and friends who would want us to act in this manner.
All hospital bracelets and the like are removed. Also any nail polish is taken off and the nails are cleaned with a toothpick. We then check for any bandages, sores, or blood. Some groups attempt to remove the bandages, but we do not: because we have found that the skin is often so delicate that it tears. We also do not wash the sores or the areas with blood, although the blood can be washed away during tahara. If by chance any blood gets on a wash rag, it also goes into the coffin. The face is washed first, then the right side, then the left side. The body is then inclined to wash the right back, then the left back. As this is being done, verses from Shir Hashirim are recited.
The person is now ready for taharat hametim. Three buckets of water equal to nine kavim (about 24 quarts) are filled. Gloves are removed and hands are ritually washed again with no beracha. The gloves are put back on. In some places, the person is stood up on a special board for tahara. We do not do this. We use a special gurney made for embalming which drains like a sink. Once tahara is started, it cannot he stopped. A continuous stream of water is poured from the buckets over the body but not the face which is covered, while the woman pouring repeats “tahara hi” three times. Two women do this in tandem while one women holds the gurney steady. The women performing tahara should not be menstruating but if no one else is available, they may do it. The person is then dried and covered while the clothing, tachrichim, are prepared.
The tachrichim consist of trousers sewn across the bottom of the legs (michnasayim), blouse (kelonit), coat (kitel), cap, and face cloth. There are also sashes that are tied below the knees and around the waist. The tachrichim were originally made of linen, but since linen is too expensive, they are now made of cotton. No knots are used. Instead, the ties are twisted into the form of a shin. Before dressing another prayer is said. After we finish, the body is placed on a sheet (sovev) and put into the coffin. Soil from Israel is scattered over the body and in the coffin. Pieces of pottery are put on the eyes and mouth and twigs are placed into the right hand. The sheet is wrapped over the person. The lid is put on and the last two prayers are said: one before wheeling the coffin out of the tahara room, the other in the funeral chapel. The prayers include the priestly blessing. We then clean up and put everything away. Finally we wash our hands once more outside the building, again with no beracha.
Tahara is not formed on a person who has died violently with an open wound, or one on whom an autopsy has been performed. However, all the other parts of the ritual are performed.
There are a couple of points that I want to bring out in describing a tahara. The ritual is the same for men and women, including the basic garments used. In some communities, the men are wrapped in a talit with the tzitzit cut off. However, this is not a universal practice and is a topic of debate among Orthodox posekim. It could be said that this is one case where a ritual is separate but equal, which leads to my second point. The women’s Chevra Kadisha must make ritual decisions.
The best way to explain this is by an example. Tahara is not performed, as I said, in specific cases. However, it is not always so black and white. In washing the body, we are supposed to be very careful about injuring the skin or causing blood or fluid to escape. In one instance, a woman in her 90s died after a very long decline in which gradually her body just stopped working. As we started to prepare her for washing, we realized that her skin was so delicate that it was tearing under our touch. We called the Orthodox rabbi who said he could not make a decision because he could not look at the body. We had to decide. We, the women’s chevra kadisha decided not to perform the tahara. We washed her hands, face, and feet, laid the garments over her, put on the cap and veil and placed her in the sovev. We then finished as I have already described.
Taharat hametim is perhaps the most completely egalitarian of all Jewish rituals. It is performed by both men and women, and it is applied to all, male or female, rich or poor, young or old, in the same way. The larger issue is whether this is a ritual that has any meaning as mitzvah to Liberal Jews.
III. Taharat haMetim in a Liberal Context
I approach the mitzvot, and thereby ritual, by asking, “Why should I do this?” rather than “Why shouldn’t I do this?” By using the affirmative, I am trying to include all ritual which must also fulfill certain criteria. Does it uphold the sanctity and worth of the individual? Does it promote the betterment of the world? Can it be performed equally by men and women? Does it help connect with generations past and future? Does it help our sense of spirituality and perceptions of God’s holiness?
Another aspect of ritual must also be discussed: the role of those who take part in the ritual. Ritual in itself does not cause any change. Shabbat does not start because the candles are lit. Rather those partaking in the ritual accept the change which the symbolic act signifies. This is also true of the rituals connected to the life cycle. There is no physical change in the man aid woman before and after the wedding ceremony. It is because the couple agrees to the efficacy of the symbols that they signify the change from unmarried to married. This is also the case when the person on whom the ritual is being performed is not aware of its significance. The child involved in a Berit Mila or Berit haBat is not aware of his/her change in status. Rather, it is the parents, and by extension the congregation of Israel who confer the meaning on the ritual by accepting the child’s symbolic entrance into the covenant.
We who are members of the Chevra Kadisha acknowledge the symbolic power of taharat hametim by participating in the ritual. Through taharat hametim, we mark the end of the life of a Jew, just as each significant point of a Jew’s life is marked by a ritual event. Taharat hametim can be looked upon as a part of the greater Jewish ritual associated with death, but also as the only part in which specific respect for the body of the dead Jew and its function in his/her life is taken into consideration.
Taharat hametim on a primary level is done simply for the sanctification of God’s name. Neither I nor the deceased derive any benefit from the performance of this mitzvah. There is the issue of purification, but unlike other times of ritual purification that accompanies a change in status this purification does not permit the dead person to perform more mitzvot. It also does not affect his or her inheritance in the world to come. However because I also derive no specific benefit from this mitzvah, it has enhanced my spirituality. This diverse group of women selflessly acting and praying together has allowed me to better understand the beauty of life and the wisdom of God’s creation in the cycle of birth and death.
Being a member of the Chevra Kadisha has strengthened my Judaism because the ritual aspects of tahara demonstrate that, even in death, Judaism affirms the sanctity of life and the basic equality of all. The respect we show, the care we take with each step of the process, the fact that it is the same for each individual, assert the worth of every human life. I am also well aware that I am helping to close a life in a way that ties me and also this person to those who have preceded her. I hope, in being a member of this Chevra Kadisha to continue a chain so that what I did for her will also be done for me.
Does Taharat hametim help promote the betterment of the world? This perhaps is the most difficult question to answer. Bettering the world is often seen in grand acts: working for civil rights or peace, helping the poor or victim of disaster or disease. The impetus for doing these things comes from Torah which teaches us to care for and respect our world and all that it contains. However it is often the little acts such as recycling our cans and bottles or finding someone a job that we are capable of doing. Taharat hametim is a small act that promotes betterment because it teaches respect for the dead and consequently respect for the living. If we as Jews are so careful in our treatment of the dead who are not even aware of our act, how much more so should be our treatment of the living.
Specifically, the benefit to others of my involvement became apparent only recently. Not long ago, the mother of one of my friends died very suddenly. She had been an active member of both the Reform and Orthodox synagogue. The family welcomed us to Lancaster ten years ago and we have shared both good times and bad. The funeral was scheduled for the Reform Synagogue with burial in the Orthodox synagogues cemetery which requires tahara. The day before the funeral my husband and I went over to the house. My husband wanted to prepare the family for the funeral as much as was possible. After they finished talking my friend said she knew I was a member of the Chevra Kadisha, but now she needed to know exactly what we do. I explained the steps, and then she asked why I do it. I tried the best I could to explain my reasons: in essence, my desire to honor the dead in accordance with Jewish tradition. After the Funeral, she told me how comforting it was to her that we had prepared her mother. She knew that we did it with reverence and respect, that we were not simply doing a job. It helped her in her grief to know that we were the last people to take care of her mother.
The preceding episode leads me to discuss some problems. Lancaster in this case is perhaps the best of all possible worlds. We are large enough to support a Chevra Kadisha, but small enough that it can be maintained as a truly communal organization. We also deal with two non-Jewish funeral directors who open their facilities to us with no interference. I do not know what happens in specific cities, but I understand that the Chevra Kadisha is sometimes controlled by the funeral director who then charges for this service. Although this makes it easier to get people to perform the tahara and therefore insures that the body is prepared as required, the spirit behind the formation of a Chevra Kadisha no longer comes into play. That ritual is emptied of meaning.
This professionalization has reached its peak in Israel where tahara is truly an assembly-line operation. The Progressive movement in Israel is seeking to establish a cemetery where tahara is not required, and I understand why. In Israel, bodies are lined up in a big room and a group whose job it is to perform tahara do them as quickly as possible. Before the funeral a family member is brought into this room full of corpses, the sovev is opened, and he/he must identify the dead person. I need not go into how crass, disrespectful, and shocking is this behavior and the attitude it implies.
Through my membership in the Chevra Kadisha, and my subsequent examination of my relationship to mitzvah and its accompanying ritual, I have reached a clearer understanding and affirmation of the importance of Jewish belief and observance at all points in my life. Although this paper is not a proposal for specific action, I do nevertheless believe that taharat hametim is a ritual that needs to be openly and honestly discussed. I can find no examination of this aspect of the Jewish death ritual in the current literature. For example, in Gates of Mitzvah, tahara and the tachrichim are mentioned. However, there is no reflection upon their symbolic importance as occurs with other aspects of death and mourning (for example, keri’a, kaddish, halvayat hamet, shiv’a). In my approach to ritual mitzvot in a liberal context, reference to the Orthodox viewpoint regarding these mitzvot, or any folk elements that have accrued, are irrelevant. The criteria that I have proposed are not in any way Orthodox, and I would not suggest that any ritual be incorporated simply because it is part of Orthodox or Conservative practice. However, I do believe that the discussion of the relationship of taharat hametim to liberal concepts of mitzvah, and whether it is relevant to the Liberal Jew, will perhaps shed a different light on the continuing debate on the ritual mitzvot. Rituals previously rejected have again found a place in the life of the Reform Jew. Other rituals have been modified and adjusted to our criteria. We now have Reform mohallim who bring baby boys into the covenant and Berit ha Bat which does the same for girls. Perhaps we should start to discuss openly the value of taharat hametim as an appropriate ritual symbol of the ending of that same covenantal life.
1. Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (New York: Jonathan David, 1972).
2. Simeon J. Masslin, ed., Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR, 1979), p. 53
*Simone Lotven Sofian has been a member of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania women’s Chevra Kadisha since 1984. She is married to Rabbi David M. Sofian and teaches French at the Lancaster Country Day School.