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Home  »  We Do The Best We Can – Part 1



Lynn Greenhough


A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of

the requirements for the degree of






We accept this thesis as conforming

to the required standard



Dr. Neil Gillman, supervisor, Jewish Theological Seminary


Doug Hamilton, Ph.D., Committee Chair, Royal Roads University


Dr. Louis Sutker, Congregation Emanu-El Hevra Kadisha


Michael Goldberg, Congregation Emanu-El Hevra Kadisha


Royal Roads University

April, 2001


©Lynn Greenhough





Table of contents

Acknowledgments                                                                                                    iii

Glossary                                                                                                                 iv


Chapter One: The Question

Stating the problem                                                                                                 p. 1

My introduction to the Hevra Kadisha                                                                       p. 2

Potential causes of the problem                                                                                p. 4

The organization                                                                                                     p. 9


Chapter Two:  Literature Review

Introduction                                                                                                            p. 11

Origins of burial practices                                                                                        p. 13

Simplicity of ritual                                                                                                    p. 16

Jews in medieval Europe                                                                                          p. 21

Development of mortuary manuals                                                                             p. 24

Transition of customs                                                                                               p. 26

Hevra Kadisha in North America                                                                               p. 28

The challenge of modernity and secularization                                                            p. 29


Texts about contemporary practices                                                                           p. 32
Magazine articles                                                                                                     p. 34

Books: Halakhic and popular                                                                                    p. 36

Taharah manuals                                                                                                      p. 41


Ritual: a time and a place for everything                                                                    p. 44

Thanatology: the cultural absence and presence of death                                            p. 45

Function of ritual                                                                                                      p. 48

Myth, symbol, and ritual                                                                                            p. 50

Hevra Kadisha – ritual as transformative                                                                     p. 52

Psychological and emotional benefits of ritual                                                             p. 52

Observance and personal choice                                                                               p. 53


Leadership and learning                                                                                            p. 56

Lay leadership                                                                                                          p. 56

History of Jewish learning for adults                                                                            p. 58

Opportunities for adult learning                                                                                   p. 61

Learning styles                                                                                                          p. 63

Bringing it all together                                                                                                p. 64

Chapter Three: Methodology

Research Methods                                                                                                   p. 67

Data Gathering Tools: Interviews                                                                                p. 69

Study Conduct: Managing the data                                                                            p. 73


Chapter Four: Study Findings

Small communities                                                                                                    p. 75

Membership                                                                                                             p. 81

Why join a Hevra Kadisha?                                                                                      p. 88


Training                                                                                                                  p. 95

Safety                                                                                                                     p. 100

Funeral homes                                                                                                         p. 103


Taharah manuals                                                                                                     p. 106

Taharah procedures: washing and purification                                                           p. 110

Taharah: Takhrikhim                                                                                                p. 113

Specific local customs                                                                                             p. 118

Covering the face                                                                                                    p. 118

Sherblach/earth                                                                                                       p. 120

Fingernails and toenails                                                                                           p. 123

Egg/wine wash                                                                                                        p. 123


Problems: Practical                                                                                                  p. 126

Problems: Political                                                                                                    p. 134


Consulting                                                                                                                p. 141

Study Conclusions: “We do the best we can”                                                              p. 147

Study recommendations                                                                                            p. 149

Secondary recommendations                                                                                    p. 151


Chapter Five:  Research Implications

Organization Implementation                                                                                      p. 153

Future Research                                                                                                       p. 154

Project Deliverables                                                                                                   p. 155


Chapter Six:  Lessons Learned

Review of Research Project                                                                                        p. 157

Conduct and management of project: MALT competencies                                            p. 159


Bibliography                                                                                                            p. 167


Appendices                                                                                                             p. 176



I could never have written, “We do the best we can” without the heart-felt stories related to me by the participants in this study. All participants shared an immense responsibility and great pride in their work. So much Jewish life is guided by text, by Talmud and Midrash. Yet, ultimately these texts must be brought to life through our hearts and our hands. My former rabbi, Rabbi Victor Reinstein first taught me to look at Torah in a very special way. Torah begins with the letter bet, the first letter in Beresheit, the beginning of creation. Torah ends with a lamed, the final letter in the final word in Torah,  Israel. Together the lamed and bet spell lev, the Hebrew word for heart. Truly, the work of the Hevra Kadisha is a work of Torah, and a work of heart.

Thank you Neil, for bringing me into formal Jewish learning through one of the first Internet courses that JTS offered. Thank you for your invitation to come and learn with you and then extending your hand further when you agreed to supervise this project. You have pushed me and challenged me and encouraged me.

Thank you to my spouse, partner, editor and dear friend, Holly Devor. We are truly a team. Your love, your belief in me and in this work has been profoundly sustaining and inspiring. My parents, Harry and Mary Greenhough supported my return to school in many ways. I thank them both for their love and for their pleasure in my learning.

I want to acknowledge my sister Ray Greenhough, who died when she was only seventeen months old. Ray’s death imbued my life with a need to understand and make peace with death. She is buried across the road from Royal Roads University. I also want to acknowledge my dear friend Goldie, z’l  whose death first led me to participate in our Hevra Kadisha. With much love, I honor the blessing of their memory. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha olam, dayan ha’emet. Praised are you, God of eternity, the true Judge.


Adar                                The last month of the Jewish biblical calendar year

Aleph                                      First letter in the Hebrew aleph-bet

Aron                                        Casket carrying the physical remains of a Jew

Aron Kodesh                         Holy Ark of the Covenant

Ashkenazi                              Northern European Jews, Germany, Poland, Russia

Avnet                                      Belt to tie over the kittel in the takhrikhim

Ba’alei teshuvah                   Jews who only as adults become ritually observant

Ballebatim                             Historically, persons of high standing in a community,

Bar/Bat Mitzvah                    Literally ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ of the commandments. Marks the  13th birthday plus one day where boys become adults and 12th (or13th) birthday plus one day for girls when they are responsible for observing all mitzvot.

Bayit                                    house

B’rakhah                              Blessing

bet                                      Second letter in the Hebrew aleph-bet

Bet haMidrash                      Literally house of study, synagogue

Bikkur holim                          Mitzvah of visiting the sick as well as the ‘visiting the sick’ committee

Bobbe-myseh                       Yiddish: old wives tales

Brit                                       Covenant

Brit milah                               Ritual circumcision traditionally done on the at eighth day after the birth of a male child

D’rash                                   Sermon; words about Torah portion

Daf yomi                                Page of Talmud studied daily

Daled                                     Fourth letter in Hebrew aleph-bet

Dayan ha’emet                     Final words in the traditional blessing recited when hearing of a death. The blessing acknowledges God as the true Judge. This blessing is also recited when hearing bad news of any kind.

Ein Sof                                   Kabbalistic term, the infinity of God

Etrog                                       Citron. One of the four species used to celebrate Sukkot.

Gemarah                               ‘Completion’. Record of the debates on Mishnah from the 3rd to the 7th centuries. With the Mishnah, the Gemarah forms the text of the Talmud.

Gemilut hasadim                  Acts of loving-kindness

Gerblakh                                Pronged stick placed in the hands of the deceased

Gesher                                   Bridge

Gimel                                   Third letter in the Hebrew aleph-bet

Habad                                  Lubavitch Jews, Hasidic

Haftarah                                 Reading chanted from the Prophets, usually after the reading of the Torah

Halakhah                               ‘The way, or the going’. Jewish law originating in Torah, and elaborated on in the oral law, codes, decisions, and rulings until today

Halbashah                             Dressing of the deceased in the takhrikhim

Hay                                       Fifth letter in the Hebrew aleph-bet

Hekhsher                               Symbol on packaged food indicating standards of kashrut

Hesed                                   Loving-kindness

Hesed shel emet                  Compassionate concern and kindness of the living for the deceased.

Hevra Kadisha                      Holy society of men and women who wash and clothe a deceased in keeping with Jewish tradition

Hevrot                                  Societies in traditional Jewish communities

Hiddur mitzvah                     Enhancing, beautifying a mitzvah

Humash                                 Jewish printed bible

Huppah                                  Wedding canopy

K’lal Israel                              The entire community of Israel

K’tonet                                    Shirt in the takhrikhim

K’vod harav                           Honor accorded to the rabbi

Kabbalah                               Esoteric mystical tradition, literature and thought

Kaddish                                 ‘Sanctification’. Prayer in praise of God, recited by mourners

Kadosh                                  Holiness

Kasher                                   The act of making kosher

Kashrut                                  Jewish dietary laws

Kedusha                                Holiness

Kittel                                     Overshirt, part of takhrikhim, also traditional white garment worn on Yom Kippur

Kohelet                                  Author of Ecclesiastes, usually attributed to King Solomon

Kohen (Kohanim)                 Of the priestly class. One of three categories to designate a Jew based on patrilineal lineage

Kohen Gadol                         High Priest in Temple

Kosher                                   Permissible to be eaten according to the dietary laws of kashrut;  an act performed in accordance with Jewish law

Mara d’atra                            Spiritual leader, teacher, title for the rabbi

Mashgiah                               Person who supervises the laws of kashrut in a facility

Mashiah                                 The Savior, Messiah, whose arrival will indicate the world’s readiness to recognize the sovereignty of God

Matzevah                               Headstone

Mayim hayim                         Waters of life – often in reference to Torah

Me’ah                                     Literally, 100; also name of study group members who are committed to 100 hours of Jewish study

Met/metah                             The dead, masc./ feminine

Mikhnasayim                        Trousers, part of the takhrikhim

Mikvah                                   Ritual bath for immersion 

Minhag                                   A Jewish custom, often becomes normative practice

Minyan                                   Quorum of ten Jews required for public prayer

Mishnah                                 Third century CE compilation of Jewish Law

Mitznefet                                Hood or bonnet, part of takhrikhim

Mitzvah                                  Divine or Rabbinic commandment to be fulfilled by Jews

Neshama                               Soul

Niggun                                   ‘Melody’, wordless tune, Hasidic,

Olam                                      ‘World/ eternity’; implies space and time

Olam ha’ba                            The world to come, afterlife

Parnassa                               Ability to earn a living

Paskin                                    To give a legal opinion

Pasul                                      To render non-fit for kosher usage

Pesah                                     Passover, Feast of Freedom, eight day holiday

Rabbi                                     Literally a teacher, a spiritual leader in a Jewish community

Ramban                                 Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman

Rav                                       Honorary title given to a rabbi

Rehitsah                               Initial washing of the body during taharah

Responsum                          Rabbinical written legal opinions

Rosh Hashanah                   Jewish New Year, celebrates the birthday of the world

Sefer Torah                          ‘Book’ of Torah

Sefirot                                     The emanations, the Sefirot, are emanations of God in this world, the manifestation of God. God is perceived to have two aspects – to be both hidden and limitless, Ein Sof and made manifest through the Ten Sefirot.

Sephardic                              Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and their descendants; Sephardic Judaism dominated Jewish culture from 600 CE until the expulsion in 1492

Shabbat                                 Weekly day of rest, sundown Friday night to Saturday night

Shaddai                                 A name of God, connotes power of the Almighty

Shalom                                  Peace, completeness; hello or goodbye

Shammas                              ‘Servant’, the caretaker of the synagogue; in the shtetl the shammas would also call people to prayer, announce times of Sabbath and sunsets, and collect dues

Shaatnez                               Mixture of wool and linen in clothing, prohibited except for burial garments

Shavuot                                 Two-day holiday, seven weeks after Pesah, marks the giving of Torah by God to the Jewish people

She’elot                                  ‘Questions’ to rabbi or rabbinical committee about religious practice. The answers are called t’eshuvot.

Shekhinah                             The Presence of God on earth

Shema                                   ‘Hear’, a statement of faith, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Deut. 6:4

Sherblach                              Broken shards of pottery placed over eyes and mouth

Shin                                        Letter in Hebrew aleph-bet; knots are tied to resemble the shape of this letter

Shivah                                    ‘Seven’ day mourning period begins after burial

Shoah                                    Hebrew for Holocaust

Shomer                                  Person who attends to the body, to honor the deceased

Shomer Shabbat                  Observant of the laws of Shabbat

Shtetls                                    Pre-Holocaust small European villages and towns

Shul                                        Yiddish: synagogue

Shulhan Arukh                      ‘The Ready Table’, The authoritative code of present-day law, composed by Joseph Caro; Caro was born in Spain just before the expulsion of 1492, and he eventually settled in Safed in northern Palestine where he taught and wrote

Sovev                                     Sheet paced in coffin and draped over body

Sukkat shalom                      ‘Shelter of peace’, found in the Evening Prayers in the second b’rakhah after the Shema

Sukkah                                   Temporary shelter built for the holiday of Sukkot

Sukkot                                    Jewish Harvest festival of the tabernacles for eight days, follows Yom Kippur, traditionally Jews build small shelters to sleep and eat in during the eight days of Sukkot

Taharat ha’mishpahah        Laws of family purity, these laws govern the sexual relations of married couples

Taharah                                 Ritual washing of the deceased by the Hevra Kadisha

Takhlis                                   ‘Purpose, end’, the nub of the matter, practical details

Takhrikhim                            Shrouds to dress the deceased

Tallit                                       Prayer shawl with tzitzit, fringes

Tallitot                                    Plural for tallit

Talmud                                  Volumes of law, Mishnah and Gemarah

Tanna’im                                ‘Teachers’, The jurists whose decisions are recorded in the Mishnah, 200 CE

Tefillin                                    ‘Phylacteries’ worn during Morning Prayer

Tehillim                                  ‘Psalms’, (recited while attending to the deceased)

Teshuvah                              ‘Return’, repentance, also answer to a religious question

Tkhines                                  Early liturgical poems, often written by and for women

Torah                                      Usually the Five Books of Moses, can refer to all of Jewish traditional teachings

Tzedakah                               Act of righteousness, donation in memory of deceased to a worthy organization

Tzitzit                                     A four cornered garment with ritual fringes

Yahrzeit                                  Yiddish. Anniversary of a death when Kaddish is recited

Yihud                                      Unification, Oneness

Yiddishkeit                            ‘Jewishness’, traditional culture of observant Europe Jewry

Yom Kippur                           Day of Atonement. Twenty five hour period of reflection, prayer, repentance; non-eating or drinking

Yom Tov                                Festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot) and Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur

Zohar                                      Kabbalistic text        

Z’l                                            z’l refers to the phrase zikrona li-veraha (May her memory be a blessing), and zikrono li-veraha (May his memory be a blessing)



Stating the problem

Congregation Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Victoria has a Hevra Kadisha   (burial society), which was started eighteen years ago by our former rabbi.[1] The Conservative movement is often considered the centrist denomination in Judaism. The principles of the Conservative Movement have been outlined in a relatively recent publication, Emet ve – Emunah (1988). The Movement is committed to balancing the findings of modern historical scholarship with the Jewish legal tradition, halakhah. Halakhah is from a root meaning ‘to go’, the way a Jew should walk in life. Halakhah is based on biblical and rabbinical laws detailed in Talmud. The very wording Hevra Kadisha implies the holiness of the work of this society. Hevra means society and Kadisha is related to the word for holiness, kadosh. Taharah, ritual washing and purification of body before burial is a mitzvah, a ritual commandment. Halakhah is comprised of the mitzvot (plural) and is the law by which Jews are commanded by God. Included within this corpus of law are the ritual laws the members of the Hevra Kadisha perform. At present, Congregation Emanu-El does not have a formalized training program to train new members or a program to provide supplemental training for existing members regarding death and burial rituals.  We rely primarily on the expertise of individual lay members of the Hevra Kadisha to provide support if we encounter difficulties during a taharah.

My question is how can rabbis, lay leaders, and other members of the Hevra Kadisha best be supported to learn about and improve their practice of taharah? What training programs and resource materials are the most effective vehicles to provide information that is sound according to halakhah yet are also understandable and reasonably accessible to laity? How can the resources of the Conservative Movement be used to help meet the needs of Hevra Kadisha members, particularly those in small communities? 

My hope is that this project/journey will begin to reflect the profound wisdom of these rituals. As I describe the origins of these customs, the pathway, the halakhah, will emerge. Today many Jews have stepped off this pathway. However, my sense is that the rituals of birth and death, of brit milah (ritual circumcision) and taharah, continue to hold highly significant value for many Jews, their role almost an access road, an invitation to return to the comfort of ritual. Through these rituals tradition is shared, community is created.

My introduction to the Hevra Kadisha

Over the past ten years, I have sat at the bedside of several very dear elderly friends on their journey to death. I have needed to be present with them, to be as I called it, a “midwife” to their dying. In particular, after my dear friend Goldie, z’l, died, I needed to continue that midwifery even after her death. Thus, I was given my first practical introduction to our Hevra Kadisha.  Washing Goldie’s limbs, brushing her hair, tying the linen cap around the face I loved so dearly, and then finally lifting her into her coffin gave me a visceral understanding of the necessity of this mitzvah. I felt the power of the taharah in my bones. As we sat shomer (“guarding” the body) [2], as we carried her to her grave, as I continue to visit and place a stone on her matzevah (headstone), I became, and continue to be profoundly aware of the need to preserve Jewish burial traditions.

The richness of Jewish ritual practice and traditions are now central to who I am. In my observance, I return to these rituals daily, weekly, annually. These death rituals in particular have become my tzur, my rock, and a foundation upon which I continue to build this observance. The stone I may place on a matzevah is a symbol of this foundation. These rituals, this rock are memory, permanence and fortitude.

I began to sense that working with the Hevra Kadisha might also be the foundation of my life’s work. However, as a lay person I knew I needed to increase my learning about these mitzvot to provide leadership that was more solidly grounded in Jewish tradition. I knew I wanted to keep learning about the rituals of death, dying and mourning, and thereby support their continuation. I knew I wanted to work within Jewish community, both local and beyond, to address our communal obligation to learn more about these rituals.

The mitzvah of taharah is often called hesed shel emet, a phrase that speaks to the loving-kindness that the living bring to the care of the dead. Ideally all the mitzvot are to be observed with sincerity and thoughtfulness, as is demonstrated by the following story.

Unlike other distinguished rabbis, Rabbi Israel Salanter would often pour a very small quantity of water over his hands for the ritual washing before meals, even though the Talmud advises that as much water as possible should be used. Those who witnessed Rabbi Israel’s conduct were astonished that he should be content with the minimum requirement of the law. ‘Yes’, said Rabbi Israel, ‘I know that it is a mitzvah to use a good deal of water, but have you noticed that the poor servant girl has to bring in the water from the well outside in the bitter cold? I am not anxious to perform special acts of piety at the expense of the poor girl’s toil'” (Jacobs, 1984, p.32).

The participants in this study have not just performed a mitzvah, but have also understood the concept of hesed, of loving-kindness, that Rabbi Salanter demonstrates in this story. The focus of this thesis is how they, and how other Jews are keeping these traditions alive.  I hope this project will shed some light on some of the difficulties and some of the joys they have encountered. I think there is need for further surveys of Hevra Kadisha practices and needs in these communities. Such surveys will lead to better understanding of the problems encountered and hopefully lead to the actual development of practical resources.  We require resources that speak specifically to those needs. We need concrete information, explanations, diagrams, translations, and transliterations. We need training, we need access to texts, and we need access to rabbis. It is my hope that this thesis will, in a small way, create a template for individuals and communities to work together to share information and resources.

When we are advised to “think globally and act locally”, many of us may feel our perception of reality shift (Wheatley, 1994, p.24). What does it mean to think globally? Not only do we act within the local system we know and that knows us, but the changes we effect have import within the larger whole. The local and the global “share in the unbroken wholeness that has united them all along” (Wheatley, 1994, p.42). Jews committed to the rituals and beliefs of Judaism are also seeking such a balance between the particular and the universal. I believe one of the functions of these death rituals is to highlight this balance. Perhaps this work will make a small contribution towards individual Jews and their communities realigning their beliefs with their practices regarding the primacy and holistic necessity of these Jewish death rituals.

Potential causes of the problem

As a member of my Hevra Kadisha, my attempts at fully understanding the details of taharah have been frustrated for years. I could not find the information I wanted. Even after buying many books, consistently searching the Internet, and writing to the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, I still felt significantly uninformed, and thus unable to provide the quality of leadership I wanted to provide. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is now composed of 25 rabbis, 15 appointed by the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, 5 by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and 5 by the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism of America. Since 1989 lay leaders from the United Synagogue have held a non-voting place on the committee.

The Rabbinical Assembly publishes the Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. The publication discusses various she’elot (questions) and teshuvot (responses) that have been submitted for consideration by the committee. Only rabbis may submit questions. There are limitations to the usefulness of this publication. In his introduction to the Proceedings, Rabbi Joel Roth (former Chairman of the Committee) states,

However, this volume, for all its value, is not comprehensive in its scope and should not be regarded, except where stipulated, as the final arbiter of matters of Jewish law. Congregations should look to their rabbis as their authority on all matters of Jewish law and practice, and as their interpreters of all the decisions rendered and principles established by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly” (Rabbinical Assembly, 1988, p.ii).

The Proceedings therefore provide a very minimal level of guidance to lay congregational members. I became convinced that if I was feeling this lack of resources, so too might individuals in other small communities.

There are a number of historical and sociological reasons, which are well beyond the scope of this research project, that have all contributed towards the development of this problem. Materially, the bottom line comes down to insufficient resources. There are no books and there are no manuals that provide the requisite detail about taharah.

In particular a book is needed that will detail the origins of customs, provide an historical framework for burial and mourning customs, describe and provide halakhically acceptable solutions to problems that may be encountered, as well as give a fully descriptive accounting of taharah procedures. There are books that describe Jewish law as it applies to death and mourning but these books do not give sufficient detail about taharah to be useful to a member of a Hevra Kadisha.

The other resource that is in insufficient supply is professional support in small communities. In many communities in Canada both large and small, there is a perception of being marooned, an attitude that may stem from an experience of scarcity of rabbis willing to work in these communities. Such paucity takes many shapes. I discussed this matter with Rabbi David Blumenfeld, Director of Services to Affiliated Congregations for United Synagogue.  Rabbi Blumenfeld has a particular interest in developing resources for small communities. As such he has developed the IMUN program [3] for developing greater religious leadership skills among laypeople. Rabbi Blumenfeld expressed his opinion on how and why the present situation has evolved. Many rabbis and/or rabbinical candidates are from the United States. Their families are American and there is personal reluctance to move to another country. Canada is seen as ‘foreign’ and therefore less desirable for placement. Many have expressed concern about qualifying for medical coverage upon return to the United States after an extended period away. As older rabbis with the possibility of medical complications they might have pre-existing conditions that would make medical coverage more difficult to obtain in the United States. Financial packages are also a factor. The value of the Canadian dollar against U.S. dollars has been significantly lower for years which affects housing values, pensions and salary.

There also appears to be a bias about what constitutes professional rabbinical success, which may discourage many rabbis from serving in a small community, especially when the community is distant from larger Jewish populations. It is not within the scope of this study to speculate about all the origins of this situation. The result is that there are not enough rabbis available to fill all vacancies in the Conservative Movement and there are often not enough dollars in small communities to make a permanent rabbinical placement possible. As a result of these conditions, the laity in these congregations play a large role as religious lay leaders. Unlike rabbis who have years of text study to support them in their decision-making within a community, lay leaders may find that it is their experiential learning and/or personal studies which inform their leadership. As they search for texts about Hevra Kadisha and taharah to supplement their hands-on learning they too will be disappointed.

The Conservative Movement is expending its resources on training programs for lay leadership and for small communities more than ever before. The IMUN program for example, started in 1990, has offered Conservative lay leaders an opportunity to train with rabbis and cantors during a weekly intensive retreat. The Jewish Theological Seminary offers distance education programs, which provide opportunities for individuals outside of New York to have access to Jewish educational professionals. These programs are of very real benefit to lay people and to their communities but there are specific areas, including that of Hevra Kadisha, where the necessary information and resources have been unavailable or hard to obtain.

Another significant factor is the notion of rabbinical authority – if not the authority of God, with regard to the observing of the mitzvot. In an Orthodox community the Rav, the rabbi, is consulted about a tremendous variety of personal and communal issues. The Rav is available to paskin (give a legal opinion) based on his [4] extensive learning. Certainly the existing literature about death and mourning attest to the role of such rabbinical authority. Orthodox individuals, in private conversations, have expressed real bewilderment about my living in a community without a rabbi to provide such halakhic leadership. It is literally beyond their realm of possibility. However, I suggest the average lay person in the Conservative Movement has shifted significantly from such belief and such practice (Gillman, 1990, Gillman, 1993, and Dorff, 1977).

For example, Gillman’s discussion of Rosenzweig emphasizes this particular transition. Rosenzweig’s understanding of the mitzvot is as an internal personal sense of “commandedness”. Gillman states that, “many of us do feel that we have the right as individuals to determine how to express our Jewish commitment, to choose those forms of expression that are ‘meaningful’ to us” (Gillman, 1990, p.51). Such an existentialist position was revolutionary in Rozsenzweig’s day (1886 -1929).

Yet today, anything outside the boundaries of such autonomous thinking seems remarkable. Whether this shift was cause or effect is irrelevant. I would suggest that, far from seeking their rabbi to paskin on their personal decisions, the average Conservative Jew would probably not consider consulting anyone but themselves and their family members. They see themselves as living in community, perhaps, but primarily as autonomous beings. The question then becomes one of how this modern, individually personalized Judaism affects the ritual decisions and quality of the work of the Hevra Kadisha?  As well, we must ultimately ask ourselves if these rituals continue to have significant meaning for us as Jews in our communities, large or small, in the 21st century.

The organization

The sponsor for my research project is Congregation Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Victoria, British Columbia. The synagogue is not only a small congregation within the Conservative Movement, it is geographically isolated when viewed within the context of the Jewish world. Congregation Emanu-El is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism which now has a membership of over 800 Conservative congregations. Congregation Emanu-El has adopted in principle the standards of Conservative congregational practice (see Appendix A -1). Originally established in 1913, the constitution of the United Synagogue of America (now The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) provided norms for the retaining of traditional Jewish customs and values and observances. These parameters then as now are the defining element of a Judaism that is both historically sound and halakhically coherent.  United Synagogue executive vice-president Rabbi Jerome Epstein states,

What is it about the synagogue’s mission that makes it so important, so vital? In my mind, for the Conservative Jew, the synagogue’s importance rests in its potential to change lives and to help Jews grow. The Conservative synagogue’s mission is to help individuals realize the power that Judaism has to enrich their lives and to help us as Jews to harness that power.

In order to achieve its goal, the synagogue must begin by teaching the richness of Judaism. Most Conservative Jews have not been blessed with sufficient knowledge to appreciate how Judaism can improve their lives. It is the synagogue’s task to teach Jewish texts so that Jews will know their heritage” (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2000, p.8).

The United Synagogue encourages congregational growth in many ways: through a web-site that lists resources; by sponsoring meetings, conferences and conventions; through the President’s ListServ; through a variety of publications and a book service; and many other resources. However, even as the United Synagogue advocates each synagogue to create a Hevra Kadisha, the pathway is lacking significantly clear signposts. The United Synagogue Directory and Resource Guide also offers suggested guidelines for the Hevra Kadisha (See Appendix A-2).

The leadership and membership of a Hevra Kadisha are also integral to this project. Congregation Emanu-El has by-laws, which guide local Hevra Kadisha practices (See Appendix B-1). There are approximately twenty members of the Hevra Kadisha in Victoria, with both men’s and women’s groups.

The Hevra Kadisha in Victoria is responsible for all aspects of burial, not just the preparation of the body. From the moment of death when the Hevra is first contacted, until the end of shiva (seven days of mourning following burial) members participate in planning, performing required ritual and overseeing all details.  Gravediggers are contacted, a gravesite is decided upon, if not previously arranged; the person conducting the funeral meets with the family; the funeral home is contacted and release papers from the hospital are arranged and signed. These duties are typical of Hevra Kadisha groups in small communities, whereas urban groups (certainly those members whom I have interviewed in Manhattan) were only responsible for the actual taharah and shomrim. Many factors bring about this greatly expanded role. Usually there is lack of other professional Jewish resources, especially a Jewish funeral home. There is also usually a greater physical proximity of the cemetery to the towns, which enables the Hevra Kadisha to be more actively involved in the details of burial. Although the responsibilities of the Hevra Kadisha are many and varied, in this study I will be focusing only on one primary responsibility, that of the actual preparation of the body for burial.

Members of a Hevra Kadisha bring their personal stories and journeys to this task. Just as the many small shtetls (small pre-Holocaust European villages) in Europe all had a Hevra Kadisha, just as language and dialects shifted from area to area, so too these rituals today bear a similar stamp of variance. Our challenge is to find ways in our contemporary communities to continue to pour from this vessel of tradition, enhanced as it is with our differing local customs. Time and time again, during my interviews with Hevra Kadisha members, two words kept surfacing: communication and education. It is with these words in mind that I proceed.



In this chapter I will review texts that address the historical role of the Hevra Kadisha and its role in contemporary communities. Although the primary focus of the methodological study is the ritual of taharah, it is necessary to examine the role of the Hevra Kadisha as ritual provider. I will be discussing the Talmudic origins and medieval reincarnation of these societies, as well as the development of early mortuary manuals. Technological advances in printing provided a significant impetus for the sharing of this information. This can certainly be seen as historical precedent for the technological revolution that has led to the new opportunities for Jewish learning that computers and the Internet have wrought.

The second section of the review will address the significance of ritual in general and more specifically the function of Jewish ritual. How do symbol and myth interplay with ritual to create meaning in our lives? The Hevra Kadisha as a society provides certain rituals that are considered to benefit individuals and communities alike. I will outline these psychological, emotional and social benefits, and attempt to explain their transformative potential as the ritual is enacted. I will also attempt to address questions about the continuing validity of these traditions and rituals in communities where a significant proportion of affiliated members may be non-observant.

Jewish individuals, as do Jewish communities, have very different perspectives about authority, autonomy and choice. Where are the lines of authority between individual and rabbi, between rabbi and Hevra Kadisha? These issues are very complex. It is not possible to adequately explore their full complexity within this study.  I do suggest that these traditional rituals may become re-entry points for increased personal observance for some Jews. The Hevra Kadisha may provide an opportunity that enables those Jews who consider themselves to be disenfranchised to consider reentering into a covenental connection with God, and with the entire community of Israel, k’lal Israel. [5]

Finally, I will address issues and theories of leadership and adult learning as they apply practically within Jewish communities. The Hevra Kadisha has historically held a place of esteem and leadership within communities. It could be argued that while providing traditional burial rites within a community the Hevra Kadisha also offers opportunities for leadership. What are the options for Jewish learning that enhance this form of leadership in our communities? What are the styles of learning that best apply to the connection of heart and hands that so exemplify this work?

Learning and ritual, leadership and personal authority, finally all connect into an intrinsic whole within the system of mitzvot. Study and action interweave. In Franz Rosenzweig’s words, “A new learning is about to be born – rather it has been born. It is learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life…back to Torah, from the periphery back to the center, from the outside in” (Rosenzweig, 1955, p.98).  Akin to this conceptual framework of Rosenzweig, systems thinking provides a new metaphor with which to envision Judaism. Systems thinking endeavors to find the inter-relationships between seemingly unrelated aspects. It assumes that any system can be understood only as a whole, not by only examining part of the whole. It is a conceptual framework, and is increasingly used in organizational theory. We are able to see within each seemingly fractured part, a reflection of the whole entity.

The contemporary body of Jewish ritual is, I will argue, altered, but intact. I believe that the mitzvah of taharah is a powerful entry point for us to consider and re-consider our connection to this whole sense of self and community. The Hevra Kadisha is our bayit, a home, in which this wholeness can be developed and nurtured.  Death has the potential to shatter us, to destroy our connections, physical and spiritual. Taharah and other death rituals bind and re-bind our brokenness, and encourage what may seem to be, at first, a barely audible healing. But as we return again and again to these rituals, we become aware of all the words of our history, all the words of our mothers and fathers shared within this silence. In those quiet moments we become aware of the shattering potential of the silence in the aleph.[6]  We know in the corporeality of our hands, the ends that come with all beginnings even as we know in our hearts that there is no end.

Origins of Jewish burial practices

While Torah usually refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses that comprise the Humash (often referred to as the Sefer Torah, or Book of Torah), Torah also refers to the entire body of writings that comprise Jewish scholarship. This corpus of Jewish teachings includes the rabbinical teachings in texts such as Talmud. The Humash clearly states that a dead human body must be returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your brow, Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground – For dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19, Tanakh, 1985, p. 7). Prior to that burial the corpse is a source of ritual impurity. Kohelet teaches that “He must depart just as he came. As he came out of his mother’s womb, so must he depart at last, naked as he came” (Ecclesiastes 5:14, Tanakh, 1985, p.1447). Extensive detail is provided about the laws of purification when one comes in contact with death, “He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:11, Tanakh, 1985, p.240).

References to correct procedures for handling the dead are found in both biblical and rabbinical writings. Jewish scholars and rabbis would attempt to respond to the biblical necessity for purification and burial by writing legal codes which required community members to visit the sick, and engage in communal burial and mourning rituals.

The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E and the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The Temples were the center of all Jewish ritual life; their destruction precipitated a major shift in these activities and led to the Rabbinic period and the development of synagogues. During the second century of the Common Era, after the destruction of the Second Temple, a small group of rabbis and scholars produced a document called the Mishnah. Mishnah is primarily a compendium of law, an edited recording of halakhic decisions which interpret biblical law and addresses in great detail the laws and practices of Judaism.

Although Mishnah addressed many aspects of Jewish life, including lengthy descriptions of the structure and sacrifices of a rebuilt Temple, it did not address in any comprehensive way the laws and customs concerning death and burial. There is mention of various practices but these practices are not presented as a coherent whole. Even so, these practices seem to have existed as early as the time of the Tanna’im (first and second centuries CE, the six generations from Hillel and Shammai to Judah haNasi).

The hever ir (members of the town) mentioned in Semahot (a minor tractate which discusses laws of mourning) “gives a glimpse of one organizational aspect of ancient Jerusalem, the ‘societies’ (havurot), [which] are considered by certain historians to be the source for the Jewish burial societies that later appeared in Europe” (Goldberg, 1996, p.18 -19). Semahot also discusses the duties of those who care for the dead. In medieval and post-medieval Europe mortuary rituals and manuals would perpetuate the essential features of the duties of these societies.

The “Chasam Sofer” says, “Now for several hundred years the generations have been worthy and in every Jewish town they established a society to do kindness, removing the yoke of burden from the entire community and placing it on the members of the Chevra Kadisha alone” (Jewish Sacred Society, Meisels, n.d., p. 6).

The Tosefta (additional collections of oral law based on the academy of R. Nehemiah, one of R. Akiva’s disciples) including Semahot 12 and Megilla 3, 8, refers to the existence of societies in Jerusalem which helped the mourner, probably from the beginning to the end.

The duty to bury the dead in earth is a positive commandment of the Torah, which rests on all the people in the community in the absence of relatives who can do it. When there is a deceased person in town, no person is allowed to work. It is forbidden for anyone in town to eat a regular meal before the deceased is buried. If the town has a Chevra Kadisha the duty of burial falls on its members, and it is permissible for others to work and to eat regular meals when there is a deceased person in town (Moed Katan 27b, Yoreh De’ah, 343, 361; Jewish Sacred Society, Meisels, n.d., p. 6).

Between the fifth and seventh centuries CE the Babylonian Talmud was edited. Talmud generally is understood to mean Mishnah and Gemarah (commentary on Mishnah) printed as a unified text. Talmud is comprised of Halakhah, debates on law, and Aggadah, nonlegal stories, history, legends and folklore. Yet even Talmud, a massive set of texts with extensive commentaries, provides few organized details about the practical aspects of death rituals. Like the Mishnah, commentaries are often more oblique, suggestive of practice rather than descriptive. We find in Talmud the requirement for Jews respond as a community to the demands of burial.

An organization that looks after the needs of the dead is called a Hevra Kadisha – a holy society, even as the handling of dead bodies makes society members ritually impure. The holiness is understood to come from their willingness to look after the needs of the “holy ones” who were buried in the earth, referred to in Psalms 16:3. “As to the holy and mighty ones that are in the land” (Tanakh, 1985, p.1121; cited by Schlingenbaum, 1991, p.1). The level of kedusha, of holiness of the human body is compared to that of a Sefer Torah. Moed Katan 25a teaches that when a person dies, it is as if a Sefer Torah was burnt. “The Gesher HaChayim (volume 1, page 65) tells us that when we are alive we are called a Sefer Torah chai – a living Sefer Torah” (Schlingenbaum, 1991, p.1).

Simplicity and human dignity are the two concepts basic to Hevrei Kadisha. In Gemarah, in Masechet Sukah 49, Micah 6: 8 is explicated. “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God, Then will your name achieve wisdom” (Tanakh, 1985, p.1051). The Gemarah finds in this verse reference to the services of the burial societies (Jewish Sacred Society, Soloveichik, n.d., p. 3). Talmud has other references to Hevra Kadisha, mourning, and burial.

Rabbi Hama, the son of Rabbi Hanina asked: what is the meaning of the verse: “you shall walk after the Lord your God?”…[it means that] you should follow [God by emulating] His virtues…The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick…so too shall you visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners…so too shall you comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead…so too shall you bury the dead. (Talmud, Sotah 14a).


Once, when Rabbi Hamnuna [a fourth-century Babylonian sage] came to Daru-Mata, he heard the sound of the funerary bugle, and, seeing some people carrying on with their work, he said: “Let these people be under the shametta [ban]. Is there not a person dead in the town? How dare they go about their regular business affairs?” They told him there was a Hevra Kadisha in the town. “If so,” he replied, “you are permitted to work (Talmud, Moed Katan 27b).

Simplicity of Ritual

Rabban Gamaliel lived in the first century CE. He was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel and it was his oft-cited words that established the Jewish principles of simplicity and modesty of burial.

Formerly, they used to bring food to the house of mourning, rich people in baskets of silver and gold, poor people in baskets of willow twigs; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was passed that everybody should use baskets of willow twigs, in deference to the poor…

Formerly, they used to serve drinks in the house of mourning, the rich serving in white glasses and the poor in colored glasses [which were less expensive]; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was passed that everyone should serve drinks in colored glasses, in deference to the poor…

Formerly, they used to bring out the deceased for burial, the rich on a tall bed ornamented with rich covers, the poor in a plain box; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was passed that all should be brought out in a plain box, in deference to the poor…

Formerly, the expense of burying the dead was harder for a family to bear than the death itself, so that sometimes family members fled to escape the expense. This was so until Rabban Gamliel ordered that he be buried in a plain linen shroud instead of expensive garments. Since then, people have buried their dead in simple shrouds (Talmud, Moed Katan 27 a-b).

With the import of Rabban Gamliel’s words and example burial rituals of subsequent centuries were established. By the 4th century, Rabbi Papa stated that the garments of the dead were worth only one zuz (a small coin of the era) (Rabinowicz, 1989, p. 30). 

The care of the physical body was not the only concern of the Rabbis. The Rabbis in the Mishnaic period perceived death as a transition from earthly life to olam ha’ba, the world to come. “Death is seen not as an outlet from this life as much as it is a portal into the next” (Weiner, 1999, p.5). As details of how Jews were to visit the sick and comfort the mourner evolved, they were guided by halakhah and were influenced, generation after generation, by local cultures and customs. It is in Talmud that one of the fundamental precepts of Rabbinic Judaism is explicated, that of olam ha’ba, the afterlife. Such suppositions, if not beliefs, permeate Jewish tradition regarding death and burial.

While the Rabbis of the Talmudic period acknowledged the primary obligations of the living to the living, they also expressed a depth of understanding that the customs and practices of mourning must ensure the comfort of the deceased as well as that of the mourner. The dead were understood to continue to be sentient. All death-rituals reflected such awareness of the sensitivity of the soul of the dead. For example, while in life Jews can perform the mitzvot, in death they are exempt.

Like the living, the dead know and feel. …their knowledge may be superior to the living. But they are deficient in their ability to wear tefillin,[7] to recite the Shema,[8] to light the candles of the Sabbath. The soul, as it lives on independent of the flesh – indeed, long after the flesh has deteriorated – is unable to fulfill the physical commands of God’s Torah  (Kraemer, 2000,

One custom in particular, which I will discuss later, the re-burial of the bones at the end of twelve months most definitely reflects an understanding of the transitionary nature of death. The process of dying and of death was considered incomplete until all flesh had decomposed, and the bones had been reinterred.

Earliest reference to taharah, per se, is found in Rashi’s Talmud commentary. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), was a French scholar and rabbi who authored the classic commentary on Torah and Talmud. Rashi addressed the purpose of taharah in words similar to those of Kohelet. Rashi stated that the purpose of taharah was to make the body clean,k’mo she’hayah leileich b’chol shabbat l’veit ha’knesset” [as the person would go to synagogue on Shabbat] ( Ansche Chesed, 1990, n.p.). In his commentary [on Moed Katan 27b] Rashi mentioned numerous burial societies and the concern of these societies to properly bury their members (Goldberg, 1996, p.83).

In the post Talmudic period, Maimonides (1135 -1204) profoundly shifted the theological underpinnings of Jewish eschatology. Maimonides was a doctor, a judge, and a distinguished scholar. In 1180 he published the Mishneh Torah, a massive fourteen volume codification of Talmudic law, and in 1190 he published the Guide of the Perplexed in which he stressed a critical, rational approach to Jewish doctrine.

His commitment throughout was to integrate the theological truth of Torah with the philosophical truths of Greek philosophy which led him to value “reason as the distinguishing crown of the human being, and to rationality as the ultimate source of truth” (Gillman, 1997, p. 144). The tensions in his writing about the afterlife thus stem from Maimonides’ attempts to reconcile these two teachings. Torah accepts bodily resurrection whereas eternal life for the Greeks is the domain only of the soul (Gillman, 1997, p. 148).

The Amidah [9] (the prayer service recited three times each day by observant Jews) emphatically and repeatedly mentions resurrection of the dead. Embedded in the Amidah are prayers acknowledging God’s power to resurrect the dead (t’hiyat hametim), which became a central part of the liturgical canon. While bodily resurrection would seem to be implied in the Amidah, Maimonides emphasized the immortality of the soul over bodily resurrection. “In contrast to the Talmud which combines the two doctrines [resurrection of soul and body] while preserving the integrity of each, Maimonides seems to fold one into the other; resurrection means spiritual immortality” (Gillman, 1997, p. 155). In 1191 he continued to press his point and published Ma’amar Tehiyyat na-Metim (Essay on the Resurrection of the Dead), in which he reiterated his belief that olam ha’ba was the domain of the soul and not of the body.

The portrait of a disembodied soul that Maimonides drew was profoundly disturbing to many Jews of his time, and caused bitter theological debates for centuries (Weiner, 2000, pp.74-76). While the debate may be less bitter today, the ideas proposed by Maimonides may certainly be seen as a watershed moment in Jewish belief.

“Finally, Maimonides may have been a lonely voice in his own time, but centuries later, when Jews entered the modern age and began to question bodily resurrection, they turned to Maimonides’ affirmation of spiritual immortality as a “purer,” by which they meant more rational, yet still authentically Jewish alternative. While controversial in his time, his views would eventually have a far greater impact in the modern age than those of his more traditional contemporaries” (Gillman, 1997, p.168).

One thousand years later Maimonides’ rationalism and his speculations about resurrection continue to contribute towards modern-day eschatological skepticism.

Nahmanides, the Ramban, (1194 -1270) was born in Spain. He was not only a physician but also a rabbi, philosopher and biblical commentator. Nahmanides wrote Torat ha-Adam, the first compilation of laws about death and mourning. The text notes changes in burial and funeral customs. Torat ha-Adam is based on Talmudic writings but also incorporated contemporary customs (Goldberg, 1996, p.101). In particular, his text reveals that the financial hardships of burial that had led families of the dead (in ancient times) to abandon corpses was no longer evident (Goldberg, 1996, p.82). This legal guide to burial and mourning was influential in the further development of these customs.

Rabbi Jacob b. Asher (1270 -1340), was also an influential legal commentator. In Arba’ah Turim (“The Four Pillars”) he documented further deviations from known rabbinical custom. R. Asher described the then-present-day customs of burial which emphasized the prerogative of each community to establish specific burial practices (Kraemer, 2000, p.134). Custom had replaced codification, community standards had became the norm. Customs continued to reflect community norms in succeeding centuries, as communities reflected changes in demographic and economic patterns.

Hevrot, Jewish communal societies, among them the society for caring for the dead, flourished in Spain until the Expulsion in 1492, but it was not until the late medieval period that a Hevra Kadisha was documented in Northern Europe. The commingling of Sephardic Jews (generally from Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa) and Ashkenazi Jews (generally from Northern Europe, Poland and Russia) led to a blending of custom and ritual that highly influenced the formation of Hevrot Kadisha and the further development of death rituals.

Many of these death-customs were later reconfigured by kabbalistic mystical teachings. Even though Torat ha- Adam was written prior to the Zohar, it already showed the influences of early kabbalistic mysticism (Raphael, 1996, pp.273-278). Originating in France during the tenth and eleventh centuries, Kabbalah further evolved during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While Kabbalah was an oral tradition and was usually limited to an intellectual elite, eventually these esoteric teachings were written down. The Zohar, a text central to Kabbalistic thought, appeared in the late twelfth century, and is assumed to have been written by Moshe ben Shem Tov de Leon in Guadalajara, Spain. The Zohar was particularly influential in developing ideas about the afterlife in Jewish thought.

Jews in medieval Europe

 A Midrash published in 1522 stated, “The highest act of gemilut hesed (acts of loving kindness) is that which is done for the dead, for there can never be any thought of repayment” (Tanhuma Vayehi 107a, as cited by Kelman, 2000, xiii). However, it would appear that the political, social and economic instability of Jewish life in Europe during the medieval period led to the functional diminishment, if not loss, of such previously well-known communal groups. Between Talmudic times and medieval days, when burial societies in Europe were noted and documented again, there was a long period of mandated exiles and dispersion for Jews. Attacks on Jews and Jewish communities and forced conversions necessitated frequent searches for refuge in new communities. Jews fleeing from one country to another, from one city to another, would have brought their customs and rituals with them. Ironically, the mass expulsion of Sephardi Jews and their dispersion throughout Northern Europe may have led to the re-development of these communal societies.

In 1564 one of the first Hevra Kadisha societies to be documented in medieval Europe was established in Prague. Various factors influenced both the re-institution of these societies, and their written documentation. The institution of Hevra Kadisha was re-created in part to counter the lack of communal structures to attend to the necessities of burials in the community at the time. Various anti-Jewish influences, including repressive edicts from the Catholic Church and acts of violence and destruction, were also influences on the creation of burial societies. The formation of Christian guilds and their subsequent economic power have also been acknowledged as a possible influencing factor in their creation. The guilds controlled most of the demands of trade and production in Europe until the eighteenth century (they were abolished in France in 1791) as commercial and economic life developed. They were highly specialized, and represented all aspects of the trades (Braudel, 1982, p. 496). Whether the Jewish communal aid societies were imitative of the power of guilds or were developed in reaction to the control the guilds held over economic activity is debatable. Probably both factors played somewhat of a role.

Another possible influence towards the initiation of these societies was the still-growing awareness of Kabbalah, which influenced beliefs about death and the subsequent journey of the soul. Scholem suggested that Kabbalah began to influence Jewish customs and prayers, particularly in the area of liturgy associated with ‘specific ritual occasions’ (Goldberg 1996, p.88). Exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had resettled in northern Ashkenaz lands, Holland, Germany and Poland, brought with them knowledge about Kabbalistic beliefs and practices as well as experience with communal societies. Goldberg suggests these exiled Sephardi Jews assisted the Ashkenazi Jews in establishing similar community structures.

Such Sephardi societies are described as highly structured and were apparently unknown at that time among Ashkenazi Jews. The earlier Sephardic societies flourished in well-established communities that had the stability and continuity to take root.

It is only here (13th century Spain) that for the first time we find evidence of Jewish brotherhoods in the fully developed pattern which exists today. Rabbi Solomon ben Adreth of Barcelona (1225 -1310) mentions these societies in his responsa. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries throughout the country there appeared a series of societies, hevrot, confradias, confratias, confrarias, which busied themselves with the burial of the dead, education of the poor, dowering of orphan brides, support of the poor and visiting and providing for the sick (Marcus, cited by Goldman, 1975, p.174).

The arrival of these exiled Sephardi Jews and their well-established customs and rituals were considered to be very influential in institutionalizing the less than rigorous practices of Ashkenazi Jews (Goldberg, 1996, p.85 -86; Marcus, cited by Goldman, 1975, p.174; Rabinowicz, 1919, p.38).

Texts about burial customs were emerging in other communities during these times. For example, Joseph Yuspa Hahn wrote a book of customs that identifies him “as one of the founding members of the Hevra Kadisha of Frankfurt, established in 1517″ (Goldberg, 1996, p.84). It is not clear whether this society was also influenced by the arrival of Sephardi Jews, although the date, twenty years after the expulsion, would seem to allow for the possibility.  Hahn justified the creation of the Frankfurt burial society by the circumstances in which the Jews of his community then lived, “there were many dead, groaning like abandoned corpses, who had no one to bury them… And those who performed the task did not know the required ritual procedure” (Goldberg, 1996, p.84).

European anti-Semitism included many charges against Jews. The Crusades, the Black Death, and the spread of blood libels continued throughout the centuries and unleashed waves of anti-Jewish edicts and massacres, which caused wholesale destruction of Jewish communities. The charge most guaranteed to incite anti-Jewish sentiment was that of a blood libel. In terrifying escalation Christians circulated the myth that Jews required the blood of Christian children, sometimes young girls, other times boys, as a ritual ingredient to bake matzot, unleavened bread, for Passover.  “It is impossible to gauge the moral damage which was done by the ritual murder lie…The regions in which the agitators had roosted were poisoned with the bane of hatred…Every such trial was accompanied by violence against the Jews and destruction of their property (Elbogen, 1946, p.155-159). Such violence and unrest made it very difficult for these communities to become as well established and settled as had Jews in Spain. Burial societies were re-introduced in the sixteenth century in a pattern of reclaiming and restoring historical traditions. They were formed out of tragic necessity, out of memory and connection with historical tradition, and out of an awareness of the potential for social and economic power within community.

Development of mortuary manuals

There were also positive factors which influenced the proliferation and standardization of Hevra Kadisha practices. The new printing and publishing industries had revolutionized access to literary texts. Printing presses in Europe became established between 1440-50, and quickly replaced woodcut printing. Until the eighteenth century the craft was very labor intensive, and involved composing lines of moveable type. But by 1787 a printing press was designed that could print an entire folio.

As with other religious and literary texts, the guides and liturgical texts that members of the society consulted became much more widely available with the advances in printing and publishing. The Ma’avar Yabbok, (literally, crossing or across the Jabbok) published in 1624 by Aaron Berekhiah of Modena, became the standardized manual of the Bikkur Holim/Hevra Kadisha (Visiting the Sick and Burial Societies) (Buxbaum, 1991, p.9). The river Jabbok is mentioned in the Bible. Jacob had to cross over the Jabbok to reunite with Esau, his brother, after many years’ absence. Before crossing the river, Jacob wrestled all night with an angel, at the end of which he was given the name Israel. Berekhiah made an analogue with Jacob’s crossing and the crossing of Jewish people from this world to the next. The combination of three words Yihud (unification), B’rakhah (blessing), and Kedushah (holiness) indicated the means by which Jews would cross the river of light into the next world. These words also form an acronym for the word Yabbok. Kabbalah suggests that once the Jewish people are across the river Yabbok they too will wrestle with God until dawn, a symbol of when the Mashiah (the Messiah) will come and all Jews will be resurrected (Weiner, 1999, p.12).

The Ma’avar Yabbok incorporated extensive Kabbalistic imagery and became the template for other manuals, particularly the Sefer HaHayim, The Book of Life, written by Simeon Frankfurter in 1703. But even as the Ma’avar Yabbok, written in Aramaic and Hebrew, was profoundly influential on the development of mortuary customs, the text had a constituency often limited by gender.  Jewish women could generally read neither Hebrew nor Aramaic. Eventual publications of burial guides in Yiddish were instrumental to the wider practice of these rituals.

Ellus bas Mordechai of Slutsk translated sections of the Ma’avar Yabbok into Yiddish, to act as an explanatory guide for the care of the dead and the dying (Weissler, 1998, p.12). Given its extensive influence on other mortuary manuals and the subsequent passing of those manuals from generation to generation throughout successive centuries, the Ma’avar Yabbok in both languages played a significant role in the transmission of these customs and beliefs. To this day it remains a significant source text regarding Jewish burial customs.

Other sources for funeral customs, particularly for women, were special liturgical poems called tkhines which were written in Yiddish for a primarily female audience. The tkhines of Sarah bas Tovim were exceedingly popular for generations (Weissler, 1998, p.127). Of special interest to this study is the tkhine she wrote about kneytlakh legn (laying wicks) – making candles of the wicks used to measure graves in the cemetery, a practice that may go back a thousand years. The popularity of her writing might have served to preserve and promote an ancient custom, a custom that continued to be documented into the twentieth century (Weissler, 1998, p.134). The theme of laying wicks, was found in Shloyshe Sheorim, The Three Gates, published in 1731-32, and was known and mentioned by Frankfurter in Sefer HaHayim, published thirty years earlier (Weissler, 1998, pp.130-143).

If a young woman “could sign her name in Russian, do a little figuring, and write a letter in Yiddish to the parents of her betrothed, she was called wohl-gelehrnt – well educated” (Stahl Weinberg, 1988, p.44). Yet women became avid consumers of liturgies and religious guides. When the Sefer HaHayim, The Book of Life, was published it was written in two sections, the first in Hebrew and the second translated and simplified into Yiddish. Yiddish editions continued to be published. Women and uneducated men were the primary readership of these Yiddish editions of the Sefer HaHayim and other religious guides (Weissler, 1998, pp. 40-41).

Publication of such manuals prior to this time was significantly limited because of costs and production difficulties incurred by the technological limitations of the day. However, further sophistication of technologies led to wider availability of books, an availability that burgeoned from the sixteenth century on. Books became even more commonly available as they circulated along trade routes and at book fairs (Braudel, 1981, p. 401). Between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, virtually every community in Europe published its own version of a mortuary manual (Goldberg, 1996, p.102). Many of these manuals were also reissued during this period, which would seem to indicate their well-handled and continued usage.

Transition of customs

The Hevra Kadisha then, as now, held a range of responsibilities from conducting the taharah, to providing comfort to mourners, to over-seeing grave digging and attending funerals. The Hevra was a society with tremendous influence and power, an influence that it maintained for centuries (Panitz, 1989, p.64). The elite nature of the membership extended to sometimes having their own minyan (quorum of ten Jewish men) as well as their own rabbi. Hevrei members were often also buried in particularly favorable locations in the cemetery (Panitz, 1989, p.84). However by the late eighteenth century the powers of European Hevra Kadisha and rituals of Jewish burial were beginning to be affected by government edicts issued to delay burials. These edicts acted to disrupt the traditional immediacy of Jewish burials.

Prior to the 1730’s such delays were never an issue (Panitz, 1989, p.180). However, new edicts were enforced to keep dead bodies above ground until decomposition began to take place. In 1772 Duke Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin prohibited all his Jewish subjects from burying their dead immediately. A three-day waiting period was enforced to ensure the person was dead. This decree was endorsed by no other than Moses Mendelssohn who had read a text on mourning, ‘Abel Rabati’, which told the story of a man who had been buried and thirty days later was discovered to be alive (Novak, 1976, p.106). [10] Because of these edicts taharah was delayed for days. A body in the meantime would become increasingly putrescent. Particularly during the summer, decomposition of bodies was an acute problem. One rabbinical response to these laws included delaying the time of the taharah from hours before the funeral to days. Another response to delayed burial was suggested by Rabbi Schreiber in 1829.The Hevra would prepare the body in the traditional manner and then spread an apron over the shrouded body, only to be removed immediately prior to burial (Panitz, 1989, p.182). Traditional halakhic rulings were thus altered by civil political exigencies as rabbis were forced to work within state law.

The Hevra Kadisha, between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, performed a significant civic service within most European Jewish communities. It held a monopoly over all aspects of burial and as such contributed to a certain continuity over the centuries. The power that members of the Hevra Kadisha wielded cannot, I think, be underestimated. Particularly when traditional community structures of Jewish life began to unravel in the grip of the twin incisors of the secularizing influences of modernity on one hand and rising anti-Jewish sentiments on the other, the ballebatim (while today ordinary Jews may join the Hevra Kadisha, in this historical period members were persons of high standing in the community) of the Hevra provided a stabilizing and reinforcing presence in Jewish communities (Michael Steinlauf, personal communication, November 26, 2000, Lost Worlds: Jewish Life from Germany to the Russian Pale: 1830’3 – 1930s, conference, University of Victoria. B.C.).

However, this continuity began to destabilize when millions of Jews emigrated from the Old to the New World. There was a long period of transition as immigrants to the New World attempted to replant their traditional communal structures in foreign soil. Just as the Sephardi Jews had brought their communal societies with them as they moved into Northern Europe, so too European Jews brought their hevrot to the United States and Canada.

Hevra Kadisha in North America

Congregation Shearith Israel established the first documented burial society in the United States prior to 1785 in New York City. During the 1800’s, as many congregations were established, Hevra Kadisha groups were also formed. These societies were similar to their historical counterparts, however there were structural differences. The new hevrot were usually subordinate to a congregation, and not an autonomous society (Goren, 1987, p.69). Some groups expanded their charitable services, others existed more to meet members’ social needs, some were affiliated with congregations, and others were non-affiliated. Many groups merged with cemetery committees and assumed joint responsibility for maintaining the cemeteries as well as providing other services (Goren, 1987, p.69). Issues that we may think of as contemporary issues also surfaced many years ago. For example, in the nineteenth century the question of non-Jewish spouses being buried in Jewish cemeteries was raised (Goren, 1987, p.70).

There were also other notable differences in these New World societies. In this new society, Old World Jews encountered a number of complications. The Hevra Kadisha no longer held the political and economic powers it had once enjoyed, and now often answered to an undertaker, or a funeral director. Transportation difficulties, in part created by the much greater distances between homes, synagogue and cemeteries, were often beyond the scope of the local Hevra. Various municipal codes, factory-made coffins, and dressing of bodies being moved from home to funeral home, were all factors in squeezing out more traditional aspects of burial societies. The 19th century was a time of peak immigration from Europe to the United States and Canada and a time when “discontinuity seems to outweigh the continuities” (Goren, 1987, p.57). Some efforts were made to preserve the more traditional nature of these societies, in particular by the Orthodox Adath Israel in New York, an organization whose stated “purpose was to bring unity to Jewish life” (Goren, 1987, p.73). Even within the turbulence and disorders of the day, then, there continued to be a certain sustained loyalty to these customs. But the traditional power of the Hevra Kadisha became vastly diminished, and, over the years, so too attachment to traditional forms of preparation for Jewish burial.

The challenge of modernity and secularization

Unlike the Hevra Kadisha which espoused communal traditions and simplicity of ritual, the American funeral industry with its attendant expensive embellishments came to dominate all aspects of burial including the preparation of bodies. The industry promoted sentimental attachments to tradition but these were, by and large, opportunistic and flimsy. The continued pressure on Jews to modernize and become more and more secular exacerbated the shifts in custom precipitated by immigration. As death moved from home to hospital, the general population, not just Jews became distanced from death, and social norms began to shift. Not only was the practice of embalming  introduced but also other changes soon became standard. [11] Machine-made shrouds became customary rather than traditional hand-sewn garments, cheaper materials than linen were used for the shrouds, services in funeral homes began to replace attendance at grave-sites, and burials were often delayed beyond the twenty-four hour standard (Schneider, 1991, p.170-171). However, even in the wake of such considerable change, there remained an attachment to Jewish identity and Jewish funeral tradition, even as the shape and style of that tradition had visibly altered.[12]

There have been considerable criticisms of the funerary industry but none as critical or, I believe, as influential as that of Jessica Mitford. Her description of coffins as “the revolutionary ‘Perfect-Posture’ bed” and of  “grave-wear couturiers” point out that they are the antithesis of traditional Jewish custom (Mitford, 1963, p.16). Such status-symbol coffins and other elaborate paraphernalia led to over- priced funerals, which often have been beyond the financial reach of many mourners. In 1962, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism of America issued a report addressing this situation and advocated a return to traditional burial customs, with an emphasis on the values of modesty and simplicity. In the same year, in response to this publication, a funeral industry magazine Casket and Sunnyside reported on the dangers confronting the Jewish Funeral Directors of America (Mitford, 1963, p.257). The economics of the industry precluded any loyalty to traditional ritual. Nearly forty years later I interviewed several Jewish funeral directors in New York City and similar tensions, however amicably phrased, were still evident. A plain inexpensive wood coffin was still out of view, tucked into a corner, while fancier much more expensive coffins were glamorously and extensively displayed in front.

Mitford’s critique preceded that of Rabbi Arnold Goodman by nearly twenty years. But it was Goodman, in his role as rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis, who carried both these initial critiques forward. He acknowledged the importance of Mitford’s role in the revival of Jewish burial societies as part of a larger consumer response against some of the abuses she addressed (Goodman, 1981, p. xv). The very title of his book, A Plain Pine Box, indicated both advocacy and challenge. He challenged Jews to not only confront the commercialization of the funeral industry but to rediscover their own voluntary responsibility for burying their dead. Goodman well described the mystique, if not dread, that pervaded American cultures regarding death, and the subsequent diminishment of rituals that had attended and sustained mourners throughout the generations. Such detachment from personal experience with death combined with the professionalization of the funeral industry, acted to virtually extinguish Hevra Kadisha societies in large urban centers. Even Orthodox Jews suffered from this malady of modernity. In 1971 only 2 percent of Jews in Queens received a taharah. Concerted attention has been paid to restoring these burial traditions and figures today (close to forty percent) are testament to such efforts (Shema Yisroel, 1999, n.p.).

Many Jewish traditions were seriously disrupted throughout the socio-demographic shifts of twentieth century North America. In large urban centers, Jewish funeral homes took over the business of preparing the dead. Another factor was an understanding on the part of many Jews that such traditions were outdated and not within the purview of Conservative congregations. Denominational Judaism had increased to the point where traditional observances were seen to be the domain of the Orthodox. Some smaller communities managed to hang on to their traditions, but even in these communities membership in the Hevra Kadisha often dwindled to one or two dedicated and persevering individuals.

Some communities are now attempting to revive this mitzvah and are offering to help others establish a community Hevra Kadisha. For example, David Zinner described Kavod v’Nichum, an on-line organization established to provide technical and educational assistance. Kavod v’Nichum (literally, honor and compassion) was organized by Zinner, Rabbi Goodman and other Jews committed to education about Hevra Kadisha. (For further information see URL: (https://www.jewish-funerals.org/ accessed January 29, 2000). The oral transmission of ritual from generation to generation that so marked these societies has survived, if only by a thread. The guides and manuals in use by Hevra Kadisha groups today are familiar counterpart to manuals that have been published for centuries, even as their emphasis is more procedural and less mystical. In communities where the tradition of maintaining a Hevra Kadisha has survived, several factors have ensured a certain continuity of practice. It seems that an informal, oral transmission of knowledge has been critical to its survival, as has the transmission of tradition through generations of family members. But this tradition, even with its endowment of oral and familial training is challenged today by a lack of adequate educational materials.

Texts about contemporary Hevra Kadisha and Taharah practices

To date I have been unable to find a single book in English devoted exclusively to Hevra Kadisha and the rituals of taharah. There are standard texts on death and mourning that are available to the public but these are generally inadequate for those members of Hevra Kadisha groups who want information beyond the basic order of washing and dressing. There is a crucial need to provide greater depths of understanding about the details of taharah, particularly for Jews who do not have the classical literacy to read the Hebrew, Aramaic or Yiddish source texts. Perhaps these texts do not exist in English for good reason. Until recently these traditions have been handed down orally, often through family lines. Customs were explained, practices shaped and developed through experience and necessity. Oral teachings have an immediacy and contextual validity, not always found when the teachings have been written down. There are significant differences in affect between these modes of teaching.

The passage of a literary work from exclusively oral to written/oral transmission is profoundly transformative. What was once present as direct address and shaped inevitably to suit the needs of the moment as these took shape in the interaction of speaker and audience is now deprived of the fluid form which constitutes its social reality. A tradition, once reformulated and changed with each performance, is now stabilized and objectified in a form which exerts a powerful control over future performances or readings. What was formerly “authored” at each recitation must now be reproduced “as it is written” (Jaffee, as cited in Kraemer, 2000, p. 7).

However today, in many communities those generational links, which enabled such oral transmission of ritual, have been lost. As the publication of innumerable versions of mortuary manuals would seem to suggest, there has been a long-standing need for some degree of written guidance in these matters to supplement and reinforce existing oral transmission. I believe Jaffee’s concerns about standardized reproduction of ritual will be tempered by loyal adherence to unwritten local community mores. The desire for consistency must always be weighed against potential for ossification; the tendencies to local anarchy must be weighed against a pre-determined legal requirement.

There could be other broader historical factors at play that have led to a dearth of written resources. Particularly relevant to modern Jews is the psychological impact of the enormity of death suffered during the Holocaust. It has been suggested that issues of death and dying are particularly problematic for post-Holocaust Jews and may preclude any conception of after-life (Raphael, 1996, pp.28 -29). Ironically, it is the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that instigated much of the present-day research in the area of thanatology. It was while she was working as a relief worker at the Maidanek concentration camp in 1945 that she first became fascinated by human response to death. On the walls of the barracks she found drawings of butterflies – innumerable butterflies – their wings a static testament to life within the stench of death (Raphael, 1996, p.38-39). Such juxtaposition of life and death moved Kubler-Ross towards the work that would become synonymous with her name. However in counterpoint, it has also been suggested that it was not so much the fact of the Holocaust that created theological despair, but the loss of belief in life after death.

The Holocaust did not precipitate a crisis of faith. A prior crisis of faith made the Holocaust the theological watershed it has become…most modern Jews could make no sense of the Holocaust in theological terms. They therefore found themselves frozen without faith-options (Kraemer, 2000, pp.148-149).

Participation in traditional death rituals may not entirely thaw such a state of being. But it is my belief and my experience that such participation helps to reinforce, if not create a more “theological” discernment of the meaning and meaningless of death.

Regardless of which of these factors singly or collectively have colluded to ensure a virtual erasure of this topic, the fact is that such a literary silence exists. On the one hand, there is ritual, but on the other, little understanding about what that same ritual signifies. The need for such literature is well acknowledged. 

Above all, we need to create a contemporary Jewish death manual that integrates recent psychological perspectives on dying and bereavement with the vast legacy of Jewish tradition on death and the afterlife. Designed for healing the bereaved and Jewish death-awareness education, such a manual, “A Jewish Book of Life”, can be used in hospice, and hospitals, at funerals, in shivah houses, for memorial services, and in other ritual moments that deal with dying and death (Raphael, 1996, p. 402).

There are a variety of texts where some far from complete information is available, but these texts range widely in readability and in accessibility. I was able to find a number of dissertations in the stacks of the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Goldberg, 1985,  Panitz, 1989,  Buxbaum, 1991,  Oiwa, 1988,  Schneider, 1991, and Weisfogel, 1988). However these dissertations, valuable and fascinating as they were, are usually not accessible for the average Hevra member to find, however resourceful they may be. To my knowledge, only one of these theses has been published in book form (Goldberg,  Crossing the Jabbok, Illness and Death in Ashkenazi Judaism in Sixteenth – through Nineteenth – Century Prague, 1996).

Later in this thesis, I recount how interviewees described both their commitment to these rituals and their thirst for greater understanding about these same rituals. The suggestive but frozen flight of butterflies carved into the walls offered a symbol of hope to Jews trapped in the death-camps. Images of sailing ships were once carved into the walls of ancient Jewish burial tombs possibly to indicate the journey from life to death. So too might the words of these Hevra Kadisha members precipitate a journey towards greater learning about Jewish death rituals.

Magazine articles

Magazine articles give a brief but valuable glimpse into the practical and symbolic structure and meaning of the Hevra Kadisha. Someone picking up Hadassah, Lilith or the United Synagogue Review might read these articles and be inspired to seek out more information, if not become actually involved in a Hevra Kadisha. The value of these articles cannot be underestimated. Over the past few years there have been several articles in Jewish magazines about Hevra Kadisha and the mitzvah of taharah. These articles tend to be very personal and thus enable the reader to vicariously experience the profoundly moving nature of this mitzvah. One woman described her transition from fear and hesitation to pride and love as she discussed her first taharah experience. She found that participating in taharah transformed her nervousness into an awareness of “a deep sense of privilege that would recur each time I would prepare a Jewish woman for her final journey” (Sommerstein, 1997, p.36).

Some of the differences that geography plays in preserving this tradition have also been addressed, “the fact that almost every Conservative congregation in the south west region of the United States has a society which fulfills all the traditional functions, except grave digging, may well be attributable to the fact that the areas in question have no Jewish funeral homes. In more populous Jewish areas – for example, in northern New Jersey – it would appear that there are no Hevra Kadisha societies in any of the area’s Conservative congregations” (Kuper Jaffe, 1997, p.38). Confirming her findings, in September 2000 I contacted all Conservative affiliated congregations in Manhattan to inquire about their Hevra Kadisha. On three occasions the person I spoke with expressed complete ignorance of what I was talking about. One woman insisted only the Orthodox still did this. Not a single Conservative affiliated congregation had an in-house Hevra Kadisha. However, two unaffiliated Conservative congregations, Ansche Hesed and B’nei Jeshurun, had active Hevra Kadisha groups.

Ironically, it would appear that Jews living in smaller communities, outside the large urban centers that have much larger Jewish populations, are the communities more actively maintaining a Hevra Kadisha. The option of turning to a Jewish funeral home is usually not available in smaller communities. People in smaller centers have been forced to realize that to keep a sense of Yiddishkeit (traditional Jewish culture of observant European Jewry) alive in their communities they need to actively provide for themselves. This aspect of life, which could be perceived of as disadvantageous lack of Jewish resources, has, in fact, actually contributed towards sustaining at least this aspect of Jewish tradition.

Taharah links practical and spiritual elements – a connection valued by many Hevra Kadisha members – and recalls the unity of sentiment and function found in tkhines. As one magazine writer put it, “My motivations for becoming involved were a combination of the practical, personal and philosophical…when death comes, what remains is a sense of incompleteness – a need for spiritual closure. It is uplifting to know that at this venerable moment I was able to perform the final act of love” (Berman, 1996, p.41). These sentiments were also echoed in another article where the author described the respect and dignity accorded the met(m)/metah(f), the body, during taharah: “This body once housed a living spirit and our ritual honors that sanctity” (Friedmann, 2000, p.48).

Articles like these, despite being short and infrequently published, had an anecdotal style that enabled them to emotionally reach their readership. The wide circulation of these popular magazines in which they were published also ensured a distribution that more scholarly papers would never have. These articles provided stories about individuals who, through their actions, demonstrated a devotion and commitment to the concept and the practical reality of Hevra Kadisha.

Books: Halakhic and popular

Books about Jewish death and funeral customs are generally unavailable to those who do not have access to Judaica bookstores, although they may be special ordered. These books fall into two primary categories. First, there are thick halakhic tomes with considerable erudition, often written with extensive detail and footnotes. Second, there are a growing number of popular, reader-friendly books. All of these resource texts should have a place on the bookshelf of a Hevra Kadisha. Some books may be more useful in developing the more scholarly and halakhic expertise of Hevra Kadisha members, while others address taharah in only a more peripheral manner. However, there are very few books that are useful for developing a general practical expertise about all aspects of taharah.

Several of the scholarly texts presume a commitment to traditional observance and an understanding of halakhic terms and Hebrew literacy that is probably not the case for the average non-Orthodox Jew. The Ma’avar Yabbok in print  for three centuries is still being used. Another text by Rabbi Goldberg, with 470 pages of extensive and footnoted erudition, limits comments about taharah to one sentence: “After the body has been purified and clothed in burial garments, if the funeral is not to begin immediately, the body should not be left where the purification took place” (Goldberg, 1991, p.121). Those of us who have a particular fascination about the details of mourning customs may find Goldberg’s book an invaluable resource, but the average lay person will find such extensive detail overwhelming, and difficult to use. Goldberg’s text is useful, even as the actual section on taharah is so limited, in that in his commentaries he provides some explanation of the more mystical customs.

One of the challenges that definitely confronts any contemporary Hevra Kadisha, particularly in smaller, more isolated communities, is the lack of Jewish ritual literacy among laity. Today, few non-Orthodox Jews are familiar with burial rituals and often do not care to even discuss them except perhaps when immediately necessary. Many Jews may entertain a desire for traditional rituals at such times, but most have no awareness of what it is they are asking for. They may also be unwilling and/or unable to enter into study of such rituals at the time of a death. However, “if thinking on the subject is to be deferred, if there is to be no education before the crisis, what chance is there that we shall know how to handle the crisis when it arrives” (Lamm, 1969, p.xii). Such a dilemma is very evident in many communities today.

However even Lamm’s book, which was widely acknowledged by many of the interviewees as their only source of information, is limited as a resource for Hevra Kadisha members. The initial section on taharah is only several paragraphs, which are descriptive in only the most general of ways. The specific details of the actual order of prayer, washing, and dressing are found in an appendix. However even in an erstwhile accessible and educational book such as Lamm, there are problematic assumptions: “Each member of the Hevra Kadisha should come provided with a copy of the Ma’avar Yabbok, which contains the prayers that should be recited at this time as well as during the entire taharah” (Lamm, 1969, p. 241). This statement presumes a level of literacy that the average Conservative Jew does not have. Most members of my Hevra Kadisha would probably not be able to identify that the Ma’avar Yabbok is a book, never mind read and understand the text.

Rabbi Arnold Goodman, who was central in reviving the concept of Hevra Kadisha in North American congregations, also gives only the briefest of descriptions of taharah (Goodman, 1981, p. 72-77). He does, however, explain very clearly the multiple responsibilities of the Hevra Kadisha. The taharah is only one aspect of the responsibilities of the Hevra Kadisha, but as such, it is a ritual that seems to most carry an aura of mysteriousness, a mysteriousness I would suggest that is only reinforced by a lack of relevant and accessible learning materials.

Rabbi Abner Weiss attempted to address many of these problems in Death and Bereavement. The section on taharah in his book is clear, practical, and contains the level of detail that will be useful for any Hevra Kadisha. In his preface he states that “most works in the field do not cover some very practical aspects of the subject” (Weiss, 1991, p.1). Different typefaces and layout are used throughout the book to make the information more readily accessible. Unlike Goldberg, Weiss has deliberately avoided extensive footnotes and citations, “for the sake of simplicity and readability” (Weiss, 1991, p.2). Rabbi Weiss also addressed some circumstances that might be problematic, from burial of stillborns to the great distances between funeral chapels and gravesites in many cities. However even in this text there are few explanations about the origins and practice of customs and rituals.

There are also a number of Jewish books on death and mourning primarily intended for a lay audience. They complement the more rigorous halakhic texts and are useful as a general introduction to these laws and customs (Brener, 1993, Diament, 1998, Isaacs, 1999, Kolatch, 1993, Press, 1990, Rabinowicz, 1989,  Reimer. ed., 1995 and  Wolfson, 1996). Kolatch, for example, notes that his book will be useful for individuals wanting to know more about these rituals “unencumbered by excessive verbiage” (Kolatch, 1993, p.4). His book, which contains clearly articulated questions and answers about Jewish mourning traditions reflect the practices of traditional Judaism. The adage of “no question is a stupid question” is aptly demonstrated in this text. Other books address the customs and rituals of death and mourning in a more perfunctory but still useful manner (Cutter 1992, Edelstein n. d., Goldberger, 1986, Gordon, 1949, Klein, 1988, Tendler, 2000, and Weiner, 1999).

A Hevra Kadisha might also find it useful to have some educational materials about the medical/ethical aspects of death – suicide, euthanasia, hospice care, cremation, and autopsies. Typically,  “Jewish tradition places great trust in resolving moral dilemmas through legal methods” (Dorff, 1998, p.7). Dorff applies clear parameters of Jewish law to such medical and legal matters. By doing so he deftly integrates Jewish philosophy and practical medical challenges. Hevra Kadisha members, particularly in smaller communities without a rabbi, may have to take on more intermediary responsibilities, for example, addressing the need for autopsy with families and hospitals or explaining Jewish law regarding cremation. Dorff’s text provides valuable background to understanding a traditional approach to these matters.

A small number of books also address Jewish views of afterlife (Dubov, 1995, Gillman, 1997 and Raphael, 1996). Some Hevra Kadisha members might wonder why such seemingly esoteric reading might be important, preferring to focus on a more pragmatic level of involvement. Certainly the work of the Hevra Kadisha reflects the physical care and attention with which members complete this mitzvah. Historically, however, as Talmud, mystical texts, mortuary manuals, and tkhines all emphasized, observing the mitzvot was not at the expense of belief in an afterlife. For many Jews in modern times, however, an emphasis on performing mitzvot has come to be exclusive to belief in olam ha’ba.

Death brings up many questions. Questions about personal suffering, about the existence of a just and caring God, and about the very meaning of our beliefs are challenged by death. While observant Jews recite the Amidah three times daily, stating God gives “life to the dead”, that God keeps “faith with those who sleep in dust”, these words reflect a fundamental faith and belief in resurrection. The prophet Hosea spoke of such a return to God:

Come, let us turn back to the Lord: He attacked, and He can heal us; He wounded, and He can bind us up. In two days He will make us whole again; On the third day he will raise us up (Hosea 6:1-2, JPS edition Tanakh, 1988, p. 989).

These sentiments may seem anachronistic, at odds with modern rational sensibilities. What does resurrection mean to Jews in the twenty-first century?

Beliefs about afterlife, olam ha’ba, and the destiny of soul and body after death, are not commonly discussed in private, in our synagogues, or even in our Hevra Kadisha groups. As a result, many modern Jews have sought clues to the destinies of their souls and bodies in the corners of other cultures. However, as we have seen, there is a deep vein of commitment to the concept of the presence of the soul after death, to the concept of resurrection and after-life. Today, even as these ideas are often given short shrift, they enable us to look into the crevices of our own Jewish tradition to learn, to ponder, and to reflect upon such concepts. As Gillman notes,

The richness of Jewish eschatology lies in the fact that it deals with the three dimensions of our identity in which these laws are apparent. We are simultaneously individual human beings, members of the Jewish people, and part of humanity. Jewish eschatology imagines an age when the flaws that pervade all these dimensions of our being will be banished. The details of this tripartite cosmos-to-come may have evolved in the course of Jewish history, but there was never a time when Judaism did not have some vision of an ideal end for humanity as a whole, for the Jewish people, and for each individual human (Gillman, 1997, pp. 24-25).

These texts make a serious and significant contribution towards reclaiming this conceptual heritage and make important contributions towards developing a more complete understanding of the work of the Hevra Kadisha.

Taharah manuals

The Ma’avar Yabbok (1624) and Sefer HaHayim (1703) paved the way for other manuals to be published in later centuries. Virtually all present-day mortuary manuals provide the order of preparation of the met/metah with the appropriate prayers. Some include diagrams for the halbashah, the dressing of the met/metah, some do not. Some include transliterated Hebrew, some do not. I have copies of manuals in my collection that were used in several communities (Jewish Sacred Society, n.d., Rubenstein, 1977, Schlingenbaum, 1991, Stavsky, 1965, and Ushpol, 1974).

During the course of my research an excellent manual was published.  Rabbi Stuart Kelman has written a manual that provides clear guidelines, Hebrew and English text as well as transliterated Hebrew (for both men and women) as well as including optional prayers and rituals. As Kelman notes, “This booklet …is one link in the great chain of our Jewish tradition” (Kelman, 2000, p. v). Even this booklet though is largely procedural and gives minimal explanation about customs.

Unlike those of earlier centuries most contemporary manuals have little, if any level of explanation about the “why” behind various customs. The earliest English -language manual which I was able to find (Vidavar, 1884) was written as a translation of the Sefer HaHayim. It is fascinating from a sociological perspective. One section that was particularly fascinating, if not disquieting, was Vidavar’s description of a “bone-house,” which resonated with Moller’s descriptor of the “house of bones” in European Christian ritual.

 The most striking characteristic of the traditional cemetery was the digging up of the dead, the removal of their bones, and the reusing of the grave for new burials. As the European population began to multiply, space in churchyard cemeteries became increasingly limited. In order to deal with the problem of scarce burial space, graves were “turned over” and the bones removed and placed in a charnal. A charnal is literally a “house of bones”, and was designed specifically as a storage gallery – a final resting place – for bones that had been exhumed. Initially, the charnals were no more than storage bins for bones and skulls, but as they became more widespread, they began to take on their own aesthetic meaning. In fact, they became places where bones and skulls were arranged with artistic flair in order to create a sensual museum of the dead that the living would regularly visit (Moller, 1996, p.6).

In an eerie and disquieting foretelling of the Shoah, mass graves became the “suburban shopping mall of the times”. Socializing took place not only in the presence of these mass graves, but also in “full view of the charnels” (Moller, 1996, p.6). Consider, by contrast, the rules for disinterment specified in Vidavar’s Jewish mortuary manual. “If the remains of several dead bodies are disinterred, care should be taken to gather the ashes of every corpse separately and not to mix them so as to re-inter the remains of every one as they were found” (Vidaver, 1884, p.19). A “bonehouse” is referred to in Section VI article 4 of the same manual, “The mourning of persons who live in a besieged town, commences from the time when the corpse is put in a coffin, shut up or fastened with screw, and placed in a bone-house, appointed to keep the dead until the raising of the siege” (Vidaver, 1884, p.18).

The circumstances described in the Jewish manual, unlike the air of conviviality referred to by Moller, reflect persecution and hardship, conditions with which Jews in Europe were all too familiar. Detailed particulars about disinterment refers seemingly to the whims and dictates of government:

In case the interred bodies can no longer remain in the place where they were interred; for instance, if government do not suffice the place to be a burial ground (no difference from whatever reason), then we may disinter the remains and carry them to some other place of rest (Vidaver, 1884, p.19).

But is this comment a reflection of 19th century political whim or is it possibly a still-relevant link to ancient practices, when bones were disinterred after twelve months and re-buried? Jews commonly practiced secondary burial in the years prior to the Talmudic period. Bones were reinterred, often in small stone boxes. These boxes (ossuaries) were often carved with a variety of motifs – geometric designs, menorahs, and columns. The actual meaning of such disinterment and display of ossuaries is not clearly understood; whether the boxes displayed in charnals were merely decorative or representative of deeper eschatological meaning (Kraemer, 2000, p.22). The very careful disinterment that Kraemer describes is in striking contrast to the European charnal houses.

This nineteenth century manual also provides Halakhic guidelines for those condemned to the gallows. Also of interest is a pronoun change when discussing accidental death – at this point in the manual “he” becomes “she”, reflecting perhaps a greater prevalence of accidental morbidity for women. There are extensive descriptions for how to prepare women who died “in confinement.” Other than these somewhat anachronistic phrases and inclusions the manual instructions are very similar to what we use today.

Later, in the early twentieth century other manuals were published, reflecting, as did earlier manuals, changing social mores (Elzas, 1915, Rabinowicz, 1919, Sperka, 1939). Instructions given are again very similar to present -day manuals but other than some mildly archaic language (women tend not to wear “frocks” these days), these guides could still provide clear instruction for a Hevra today. The Hebrew print, unlike some guides today, is remarkably clear and readable. Various “rational” ethos for particular customs are given, perhaps as necessary counterpoint to the desired rationality of the day. Such opinions permeate these guides. For example, Rabinowicz discusses why all drawn water is poured away, decrying  “the crude suggestion that the Angel of Death cleans his knife in water” and espousing “more rational interpretations” (Rabinowicz, 1919, p.33). Older explanations were seemingly considered by Rabinowicz and then also dismissed as examples of bobbe-myseh, or old wives’ tale. Perhaps this was a continuance of English anti-Semitism, bespeaking the need for Jews of the day to present such an apologetic countenance to British society, or perhaps it was more a reflection of a Jewish response to modernity and scientific rationalism. As with most political and social developments the meaning is probably somewhere in the middle.

While present-day manuals tend to not bend over backwards with such apologetic elaborations, neither do they offer much, if any, insight into the background of our many taharah customs, background that could give color and texture to our practices. Customs shift and change. What has become “traditional” in present-day communities may be quite different from what was traditional in the shtetl, but such is the strength and tensile capacity of Judaism. Jewish law has the capacity to stretch, to expand its girth, to accommodate certain changes, if the basic structures and precepts are also accommodated (Schneider, 1991, p.224). The challenge for present-day Hevra Kadisha groups will be collectively and individually to find their own balance between tradition and change.

The tension of stepping back into our past in order to find the momentum to spring into the future, “reculer pour mieux sauter” is the dynamic defining such a challenge today (Stark as cited by Schneider, 1991, p.227). The proliferation and distribution of taharah manuals throughout the past four hundred years has bespoke an awareness and interest in the function of death rituals. Many individuals whom I interviewed spoke about altering text (“tweaking” manuals borrowed from other Hevrot) to refine and perfect their practices and to better suit their own membership. Hundreds of years ago, Jewish communities were similarly engaged. Further research is needed to establish the breadth of practices in both historical and contemporary communities. By carefully evaluating the function and impact of such rituals on both individuals and community, other studies will act to “underscore the urgency of establishing new models to satisfy these still pressing needs” (Buxbaum, 1991, abstract).

Ritual: a time and a place for everything

Ritual is expressed throughout our lives in many ways. Many of us seek the comfort we associate with familiar ritual. I will first look at the field of thanatology, the study of death, and examine the cultural aspects of death rituals. I will then address the function of symbol and myth as it applies to ritual, and look more closely at how Jewish ritual provides substantive form and emotional succor to those in mourning. There are profound psychological and communal benefits to these rituals. Ritual may enable individuals to grieve within traditional structures even if they have been severed from community and tradition. One of the significant questions all Jewish communities are addressing is how our communities can provide more entry points for unaffiliated Jews to benefit from communal rituals. Even affiliated Jews often have a minimal grasp of many rituals, so education within all of our communities has become an imperative.

Today, many Jews have very little association or affiliation with a formal Jewish community or synagogue and thus have little to no idea about traditional standards with regard to death and burial. Many will be buried using rites other than traditional Jewish ones. Yet even those people who have not been formally Jewishly affiliated for many years may choose to return to Jewish tradition for burial rites. Certainly, as I spoke with a broad range of people who are committed to their Hevra Kadisha they often spoke of their work as an act of hesed shel emet. This phrase is mentioned in Talmud and refers to the accompanying of the dead to their burial as an act of ultimate kindness. In doing this act one can expect no reward, unlike performing acts of kindness for the living. I found myself thinking that the work of the Hevra Kadisha could provide very real leadership in all of our communities. Several individuals discussed how their involvement with the Hevra Kadisha was a turning point for them. Their hands-on participation with burial traditions often precipitated a return to a more traditional practice, and thus enabled a move towards an expanded and more integrated sense of what it means to be a Jew. 

Thanatology: the cultural absence and presence of death

There is a burgeoning interest in the area of thanatology. However, even as the literature expands exponentially with an aging population, and even as academe embraces death as a topic eminently worthy of research, actual discussion of death remains by-and-large still taboo (Mellor, 1993, p.11). In examining the contradiction between an assumed presence but actual absence of comfortable discussion about death in our culture, Mellor refers to Gidden’s theory of “ontological security.” Ontological security refers to the sense of order and continuity, and therefore meaning, that individuals expect to have in their day-to-day lives.

We all individually face the prospect of death. Collectively, as societies we must also address death as a fundamental aspect of life. Any ontological security we may be searching for is ultimately threatened by our projected portending if not imagined imminence of death. Death then, is an inherently de-stabilizing force within our own consciousness and as a result, within our societies. Death threatens not only our personal security but also the mortar of our social groups. What are the structures that help shore up these potentially crumbling walls of meaning? If we are forced to confront the meaninglessness of life alone, outside of community, this singularity may contribute towards the destabilization of the connection and order we ostensibly so value (Berger, 1967, pp.50 -51). Berger suggests that modernity, and more particularly the assumption of relativity within the post-modern sensibility, may accelerate such destabilization.  Berger not only links religion and “social solidarity”, he claims that a central function of religion is to help humans confront the most disorganizing aspect of human society, death.  “The power of religion depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men (sic) as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it” (Berger, 1967, p.51).

What does this statement mean for Jews? For centuries, socially understood rituals provided Jews with such mortar and tools to withstand the tides of change. Today, we have a social and historical responsibility to ensure that these counter-balancing rituals continue to be available. Meanwhile, many Jews are searching for personal meaning outside the boundaries and limits of religious or familial culture. As such they are often confronted with making their individual sense and meaning out of death. What rituals are available, if any, to such individuals? Are there paths of return to Jewish ritual available?

The experiences of those who live outside a system of religious solidarity, particularly during life-cycle changes, is significantly challenged by a need to create individualized meaning out of what is essentially a communal experience. Private funerals are often organized by professionals who are probably unknown to family members; individuals attending the funerals who are often unfamiliar with funeral rites may be unsure of what to do or say. The responsibility for finding the right word or the appropriate gesture then falls to individual inclination (Mellor, 1993, p.20). Mourners may find themselves in the equivalent of emotional solitary confinement. Certainly urban Jewish communities are witnesses to such professionalization of burial rites. Hired staff are often paid to perform the function of community volunteers, that of the Hevra Kadisha. The role is thus transformed from those who act with hesed shel emet to those who need parnassa (paid employment, a living). The experiences of all those involved, mourner and provider, have become profoundly detached, individualized, and professionalized. Individuals are left to their own devices to make meaning out of a profound life/death transition. Such individuation has been described as the “privatization of meaning” (Mellor, 1993, p.22). In counterpoint to such radical individualization, communal rituals and their consequent shared meanings provide a rampart of comfort to mourners and community members alike.

 “The way one dies is a reflection of the way one lives” (Moller, 1996, p. 4). Certainly, social and cultural contexts color the rituals of death, as they do life. These days, few people have seen another person die. Hospitals and extended care homes for the elderly have removed us from the sights and sounds and smells of illness and death. What was (and continues to be) perceived as medically and emotionally beneficial has instead largely contributed to a repression of significant social and emotional expression. Protected from the realities of death we succumb to a social taboo which may be likened to a “pornography of death” (Elkins, 1976, p.236). Just as sexual pornography is dependent on a systematic detachment of persons from each other, so too then have most people become similarly detached from death.

In a cross-cultural survey, Hockey explores what are considered appropriate emotions in the responses and guidance of clergy during death rituals. Hockey quotes one minister who would appear to uphold the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip, “…continental weeping and wailing which is the thing to do over there is very, very difficult to deal with…we have people try and act with quiet dignity…they often don’t manage it and then feel embarrassed because they haven’t managed it” (Hockey, 1993, p.144). The clergyman in question is Christian but many such attitudes have permeated our entire Western culture. I would venture that the Conservative rabbi who disallowed shoveling of earth on the coffin to protect his congregants from subsequent emotional trauma had been affected by such prevailing attitudes (interview, Shlomo). Ritual can provide an antidote to fear, and can provide a means of defense against the inexplicable. If we live within a context of meaning, ritual offers the hope that even in death we may be able to extract meaning.

Function of ritual

Ritual has a distinctive role within our lives. Some rituals offer individuals particular and interior private meaning, whereas other rituals may be a source of shared, collective meaning. Recognition of meaning acts as the fulcrum for the public role of ritual. Hoffman discusses how cultures have “official commentaries” about rites and rituals, but adds that these expert, official meanings are often not necessarily the understandings of those who actually practice the ritual (Hoffman, 1996, p.18). Many Jews who are no longer religiously observant may continue to cling to certain vestiges of communal ritual. The rites of burial and mourning may be personally significant even as the historical and/or cultural meanings may have been mislaid and lost. However, exposure to a community that is still actively engaged in ritual practice may be a re-entry point for some Jews. Ritual thus may carry an invocatory function that invites personal disconnection to be transformed into communal participation.

Recently, for example, a man I know stepped into services for the first time in thirty years. Why had he returned? His father had died, and he came to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for the proscribed eleven months. [13] He came to perform a ritual, a ritual laced with meaning both public and private. The challenge is not only to attempt to interpret such rites and rituals, but to find the underlying, and perhaps more unofficial meanings that are crucial in developing a broader understanding of their function (Hoffman, 1996, p.19). We must develop our understanding of the function of ritual within our communities as well, so that those individuals who approach a community can be welcomed, heard and understood.

Many individuals draw their own personal meaning from participating in rituals that may or may not be congruent with meaning considered to be culturally authoritative. Judaism has a voluminous literary tradition that both establishes and explains, that is both authoritative and interpretative. Might there also be some unofficial private meanings to these rituals, in which Jews engage? Individuals returning to Judaism may have their own sense about both the degree of ritual which they invite into their lives, and about what that ritual means. A study examining ba’alei teshuvah (persons who choose to become traditionally observant Jews, as opposed to those who grew up in a traditionally observant home) found that people, even as they were choosing to live within Orthodox Judaism often limited their religious observance. They often chose which particular rituals they were going to observe and also often did so without consulting any rabbinical authority. They spoke about finding various Jewish rituals personally helpful, the very structure and rhythms of ritual providing them with a degree of connection and comfort they found beneficial (DeFant, 1989, p.170-172). Commitment to ritual, without equal commitment to belief or halakhic authority, “orthopraxy”, is certainly not particular to only those Jews returning to a more observant life.

Myth, symbol, and ritual

Gillman addresses myth as significant in all areas of our lives. “It is the myth as the ‘beam’ of our individual and collective ‘houses’ that determines which facts must be accounted for and how they are held together” (Gillman, 1997, p.27).  He suggests that myth is a primary factor in introducing and maintaining order in our lives – that we need myth to make sense of our lives and the world around us. If a myth works, we feel its presence give shape to our communality (Gillman, 1997, pp.27-28). Yet, even as myth functions, we may personally feel outside it.

The Little Match Girl is a fairy tale written in 1846 by Hans Christian Anderson. A little girl, poor and dressed in tattered rags, is entranced by a scene of merriment and festivity while trying to sell matches for her living. As she watches the dazzling party and bright lights through a window she endeavors to stay warm by lighting her matches one by one. Delighting and longing to join the warmth and dancing, she burns all the matches. Eventually she is found in a snowbank, dead, burnt matchsticks at her feet.  Like the little match girl we too may watch longingly through a window bright with candlelight, but be unable to enter. Bringing ourselves into the myth, becoming part of the candlelit evening, is, I believe, part of the function of ritual. Thus the ritual of taharah achieves a significance beyond the gentle washing and touching and prayer. Ba’ olam, we are linked, washer and washed, for eternity even within this world.[14]

Myth has become codified within Jewish law as praxis, as ritual. Many Jews participate in these rituals and in so doing, experience themselves to be connected to Judaism through understood and shared myth. Yet, how can those Jews who are no longer intimately aware of the halakhah still actively participate as players and not only be observers (if that) in the myriad of rituals that have sustained communities over the centuries. As previously noted, many Jews have left strict observance of

Jewish law behind them, but when a family member dies they may still seek out traditional forms of burial and mourning. Such reconnection may stem from a sense of  “doing the right thing” even if the niceties of Jewish law are far from appreciated. Such search for and compliance with tradition may be an indicator of the inherent tug of mythology to which Gillman refers. The primal nature of death must be met. The rigor and strength of halakhah provides mourners much needed ritualized solace. Even a mourner whose observance may be “more in the breach than the compliance” (Weisfogel, 1988, p.70), may still reap the benefits if they are able to enter into a community that understands and demonstrates the efficacy of these rituals. Symbols are remembered, feelings are guided, and order is gradually re-created.

Shared ritual then becomes the glue, the reinforcing agent, between action and belief. The aspects that contribute towards the success of ritual – “precision, accuracy, predictability, formality and repetition” (Myrehoff, 1979, p.86) – create an environment where symbol becomes understood as personally significant. Ritual functions not only on a personal level but provides a transformational template whereby we may place ourselves within the larger community. It is both vessel of containment and liquid within, to be poured, shared and thus sanctified. It is  “an order-endowing device, it gives shape to its contents…this ordering function is furthered by the morphological characteristics of a ritual” (Myrehoff, 1979, p.86).

Ritual in many ways gives voice to the voiceless and actions to those who may feel immobilized. It brings the past into the present and acts to draw us into an imagined future. Timeless, yet very present within the moment, ritual allows us to transcend ourselves. We speak in symbols and myth. We need ritual to give shape and name to our experiences, which then allow us the deepest forms of connection. As humans, our life stories expand through ritual and symbol into the larger myths of our cultures.

Hevra Kadisha – ritual as transformative  

The work of religion can be seen to be concerned with conceptualizing the general “order of existence” (Geertz, cited by Gillman, 1997, p.19). Certainly religious ritual helps to establish and maintain such order. I think this concept of “order of existence” becomes particularly crucial when we are confronting death. The rituals that Judaism has constructed can be seen to guide us through potential feelings of loss of order and meaninglessness. Taharah, by its physical demands, requires a collective participation in a ritual of purification, a rite of communal comfort and closure. There is a profound connection between the physical and spiritual in taharah, that allows a sense of re-ordering to emerge among participants, and vicariously through them to also emerge in the mourning community.

As particular rituals become embedded through repetition, levels of comfort are derived from both participating in the moment of ritual and from its very familiarity. The ritual act and its repetition become interlinked and develop a transformative potential, the tension inherent in their function and meaning becoming one. Ritual “comes to seem less like a pathway and more like a shelter. These two images – pathway and shelter – reflect the tension in ritualization between the verb and the noun” (Driver, 1998, p.16). These images underscore the enduring comfort yet enigmatic nature of the rituals particular to mourning in Judaism.

Psychological and emotional benefits of ritual

The emotional impact of death is profound. Waves of grief surface and resurface in an uncontained and often uncontrollable manner during the first days of mourning. The ritualized structures of burial and mourning may provide solid psychological benefit as they assist in a mourning individual’s journey from pain and grief to comfort. These structures imply and demand communal support. The Hevra Kadisha is at the center of these comforting rituals. By attending to their physical needs and managing the funeral rites, the Hevra encourages mourners “to re-establish meaningful relationships with others and participate in the life of the community, thereby resuming a wholesome pattern of living” (Spiro, 1967, pp.132-133). The love and support for the mourner from others in their community allows the mourner to slowly disengage from their overwhelming grief, to slowly reconnect with their community.

The Hevra Kadisha participates in what is described as a transference process by enabling the mourner to share their grief with its members. The mourner can live within a suspended system of support. They become ego-less, all obligations are set aside, their physical and emotional need to grieve becomes their primary and sole focus. The process is structured and in many ways entirely practical, as family and friends attend to the needs of the mourner (Spiro, 1967, p.131). Ritual enables the mourner to enter into a pact of trust as they surrender to the embrace of ritual and community. Many participants discussed how the act of taharah has made the fundamental presence of death very real for them. As witnesses and participants, members of a Hevra Kadisha often found transference not only applying to mourners, but also contributing towards their own personal transformation and spiritual development.

Observance and personal choice

Throughout the centuries Torah and revelation have been posited against personal and communal sense of commandedness through the mitzvot. This is an on-going and multi-faceted discussion. This study is dedicated to examining one small aspect of ritual observance, albeit an aspect that has significant historical, communal, and personal significance.

Conservative Jews walk a fine line between preserving the recognizability of traditions and adjusting them so that they continue to be ritually useful. For many Jews, the idea of Jewish observance is to stand back and watch. Others are learning through even tentative participation in ritual that the mitzvot can be vibrant and personally sustaining. It may seem at times that “the most innovative thing you can do in suburbia is the tradition – because no one has ever heard of it” (Wolf cited by Reimer, 1995, p.81). However, even with a generally minimalist attitude towards general Jewish observance these particular death rituals continue to be claimed and cherished. Even those who have never heard of these traditions by name seem to know them in their bones.

Being traditionally observant would not seem to be critical for most Conservative Jews. The National Jewish Population survey in 1990 found that only 15% of those polled kept kosher, only about 25% usually lit Shabbat candles and between 1985 and 1990 almost half of those polled had married a non-Jew (Goldstein and Goldstein, 1998, p.60). Ritual observance would thus appear to be minimally important for most Conservative Jews. Religious observance has to a great degree entered the realm of personal choice, thereby scuttling any sense of communal obligation. In light of such statistics, and in light of traditional expectations for the observance of mitzvot, the word “choice” becomes fraught with conflicting meaning. Much as the Conservative movement continues to advocate halakhic observance, most Conservative Jews would appear to be doing otherwise.

Conservative rabbinical understanding of Jewish law is by and large, however, quite other than this. Even as Jews live within the larger social fabric, a fabric that has been rent consistently by challenges to all authority systems, the official goal for Conservative Jews is to enhance and observe tradition, not abandon it. “Put another way, we do not believe that every person should choose on his or her own whether to observe” (Dorff, 1989, p.277). The community structure maintaining traditional rabbinical authority within the Conservative Movement is the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This is the committee that considers any potential alteration to established tradition. Despite all the work of the Committee, despite all the stated objectives of the Movement, the actual statistics reflect a very real tension and distance between expectation and practice.[15]

There are several options open to individual Jews as they consider this issue. They may accept the authority of their rabbi, denying the validity of personal interpretation of halakhah. They may decide that they are their own best authority when it comes to matters of observance, or not. Or they may find some position of compromise, recognizing that for some situations they may need to consult a halakhic expert (Sokol, 1992, pp.xii-xiii).

While these options are certainly available in most communities (even small communities without a rabbi usually have a consulting relationship with a rabbi in the nearest city), many Jews will choose particular mitzvot that have particular personal and/or symbolic meaning. They may be drawn to a particular observance or level of observance for many reasons. For the Jews in this study, their perception of the sanctity and necessity of taharah initially drew them to participate in their local Hevra Kadisha. Their initial experience usually immediately superseded any thought of not participating further, and thus, for them, the mitzvah of taharah entered the realm of personal and communal commandedness. This mitzvah with all of its traditions and all of its changes, not only brought each person towards their own confrontation with life and death, it has also led some participants to greater levels of religious observance in other aspects of their lives.

These rituals have had a profound emotional and spiritual impact on participants. Thus the particular authority of this specific mitzvah might be said to override any sense of internal or external authority. As levels of meaning are literally incorporated within the individual, they gradually function to create a sense of ‘halakhah-for-me’. It becomes the authenticity of living within covenant. It is “demand, decision and judgment. But it is also joy” (Herberg, 1977, p.169). As individuals participate in the mitzvah of taharah they wrap themselves in the fabric of Jewish tradition, just as they carefully wrap the body of the met/metah in takhrikhim.

Leadership and learning

In section I will examine the role of leadership in Jewish communities and how such leadership can provide support and opportunity for learning. As I have briefly indicated, there is a broad spectrum of opinion about what constitutes authority within Jewish law. While many Jews neither jaywalk nor steal from the grocery, many have no compunctions about eating oysters or shopping on Shabbat. However, rabbinical leaders are expected to observe the precepts of halakhah, even as many other Jews may exempt themselves. While rabbinical leadership may be expected to model exemplary adherence to halakhah, their authority may be tested or challenged by congregants unwilling to acknowledge their authority and leadership.

Many smaller communities do not have a rabbi and therefore rely heavily on religious lay leaders. Most authors generally assume that lay leadership is executive in nature. In what ways do individuals and communities accept leadership from professional and lay individuals? Vernon suggests that the critical issue of leadership is the sharing of a vision (Vernon, 1999, p.1). Is there such a shared  “vision” about leadership in our Jewish communities? Is this important? Often juxtaposed with issues of leadership are questions of authoritative learning. For thousands of years Judaism has demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning. What are the traditional forms of learning and what are the possibilities for learning today in Jewish communities? Where have individual leaders learned, what have they learned, and how are they transmitting their learning? These questions also reflect the need for education about the value of Jewish ritual and, specifically the particular value of the Hevra Kadisha and the mitzvah of taharah.

Lay leadership

Who is a lay-leader? Kurshan prefers the term “volunteer” leader to describe individuals who volunteer their expertise and resources in a leadership capacity. She found four factors to be critical to the leadership successes of both volunteers and professionals. These include communication skills, clearly established and understood roles, congruency of vision, and a shared commitment to the institution (Kurshan, 1999, p.12). She notes that the phrase “lay-leader” carries, by definition, a negative connotation, as one who is not a cleric (Kurshan, 1999, p.12). However there are many positive aspects of such leadership that are not diminished by such a definition. Kurshan’s suggestions are supported by Flexner, who suggests that new models of communication between lay leadership and professional staff might be required if a shared vision is to succeed. Key suggestions include: keeping personality differences from interfering with the process of resolving problems, establishing mutual regard and trust, developing a collaborative and co-operative working style, and reflecting shared values (Flexner, 1999, p.7).

Leadership, both volunteer and professional, is irrevocably bound up with the issue of Jewish identity. Congregants and congregations may suffer if there is a gap between leader’s stated commitment to Jewish identity and a demonstrated lack of understanding about what that identity entails. This gap, if it exists, must be addressed. Jewish leadership must develop leadership skills and a Jewish knowledge base if they are to achieve success within their communities. Fundamentally, Jewish leadership must actively demonstrate a commitment to learning. Lay leaders are cautioned against developing a false security about the ease with which a measure of Jewish values and history, behaviors, and traditions may be transmitted and assumed to be understood. To this end, the establishment of formal adult education programs is encouraged (Flexner, 1999, pp.7-11). The potential for the blind leading the blind may be somewhat alleviated if such programs are established. But formal programs are not the only setting for active learning.

There are many informal settings for learning, where leadership is also vital. Learning and leadership are ideally a collaborative process. Text study and discussion, activism and teamwork provide creative and powerful learning opportunities. Katz describes the present -day generation of adult Jews as a “learning generation” (Katz, 1999b, p.16-18). The concept of shared leadership, shifting the emphasis from the mara d’atra (the rabbi) towards partnerships between lay leaders and professionals could be a significant step towards creating “congregations of learners and learning congregations” who are actively engaged in a variety of learning activities (Samuels & Aron, 1999, p.28). A learning congregation is one that routinely reflects on its mission and vision, considers the needs of its members, acknowledges the challenges it faces, and evaluates the effectiveness of the programs it offers. It experiments with new programs and structures as it searches for mechanisms to better fulfill its members. The success of shared leadership is clearly contingent on all members, the rabbi and lay leaders alike, sharing a vision – a process of articulation that challenges and builds necessary leadership (Samuels & Aron, 1999, pp.28-35).

History of Jewish learning for adults

Communal social groups dominated early Jewish societies, the most common being the Hevra Shas, the society for study of Talmud (Goldman, 1975, p.197). Even one of the terms for synagogue accurately reflects this commitment to learning – Bet HaMidrash, house of study. Learning is a distinctive and crucial aspect of Jewish adult life. Maimonides stated:

…every Israelite is under an obligation to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, in sound health or ailing, in vigor of youth or very old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, as also a man with wife and children to support, is under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and at night for the study of Torah. (Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, 1:8)

Continuous learning throughout one’s life was seen as necessary because as we age and grow, the learning we have engaged in takes on new meaning. Learning is a life-long process: “from most trees one plucks the fruit all at once, but from the fig tree, the fruits are plucked slowly, over a period of time. So, also, with the learning of the Torah, one studies a little today, some more the next day, for the Torah cannot be learned all at one time – either in one year or two years” (Yalkut Eliezer, cited by Epstein, 1980, p.51). In itself, learning is a mitzvah, as a passage from Gemarah notes: “but the study of the Torah is equal to them all” (Shabbat 127a). Learning is so valued that many Sages teach that it takes priority over all other mitzvot, including honoring one’s parents, doing acts of loving-kindness, visiting the sick and attending the dead. Why such emphasis on learning? If the will of God is understood to be embodied and revealed in text, (both the written and oral law, Torah and Talmud) then it naturally follows that studying those texts will be the portal to understanding all of God’s will.

Primary among the characteristics of the traditional Jewish student was a willingness to learn and to re-learn, a willingness to incorporate repetition into the learning modality. Jewish tradition also encourages learners to study in groups. Individuals studying on their own had only their own experiences to apply to what they were learning. However when students studied with each other their individual backgrounds and experience informed each other’s learning (Epstein, 1980, p.90). This heritage is a real advantage for all those involved in adult Jewish education. Modern theories of learning and traditional Jewish approaches to learning share many similarities. However there are distinct differences, one of the primary differences being the relationship between learner and teacher.

Judaism historically has had a commitment to lifelong leaning. Many traditional Jews, usually men, commit many of their adult years towards learning Talmud. This system of learning, involving solitary learning, learning in hevruta, in partnerships, and learning with a rabbi, a teacher, has been honed for several thousand years. It is a system that seeks to develop both breadth and depth of learning. The term “andragogy” first used by Kapp in 1883, was coined to emphasize that adult education is a fusion of art and science (Epstein, 1980, p.14). Andragogy, as Epstein notes, finds teacher and student in an equitable and horizontal relationship to each other, while traditional Jewish sources place teacher and learner vertically in relation to each other (Epstein, 1980, p.141). However, I suggest the tradition of Jews learning together in hevruta creates an andragogical relationship. Thus, there are opportunities to not only connect these systems of learning, it is possible to connect these systems to modes of learning that take place today within Jewish communities.

Each Jewish adult is obligated by tradition to study. However, in 1991 only one in six Jewish adults engaged in any form of adult learning (Zachary, 1992, p.35). This statistic was presented at the 1991 General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations based on the Jewish Education Service of North America Adult Jewish Learning Task Force report. Most of the adults surveyed had left any formal Jewish learning behind after their bar or bat Mitzvah [16] and expressed little interest in pursuing further learning as adults. In the early 1990’s programming for adults was generally not very innovative and Jewish educators were challenged to develop new paradigms that would create new opportunities for learners. They were challenged to think of adult Jewish learning as a system. Systems thinking endeavors to find the inter-relationships between seemingly unrelated aspects. It assumes that any system can be understood only as a whole, not by only examining part of the whole. At the same time each part, however small, will demonstrate patterns reflective of the whole entity. It is a conceptual framework, and is increasingly used in organizational theory. Wheatley, in her comparison of organizational systems to ecosystems suggests that a paradox inherently exists between a whole and its parts in all structures,

When we speak of the stability of mature self-organizing systems, we are referring only to a quality of the whole system. In fact, this global stability is maintained by another paradoxical situation, the presence of many fluctuations and instabilities occurring at local levels throughout the system. …the system allows for many levels of autonomy within itself, and for small fluctuations and changes. By tolerating these, it is able to preserve it global stability and integrity in the environment (Wheatley, 1994, pp.94-95).

Could systems thinking, with its emphasis on integration and internal stability, be applied to adult learning? Zachary suggests these images and metaphors could be applied to reflect back to Jews a traditional lifelong active commitment to learning (Zachary, 1992, p.38). Such a commitment to lifetime learning had informed the ethics and rituals of Jewish communities for centuries and had actively contributed to the sustained integrity of these communities. Systems thinking also reflects a framework of conceptual thinking that both enable patterns to be perceived and the potential for change of those same patterns to also be understood (Senge, 1990, p.7).  If such conceptual thinking were applied to learning, what opportunities and understandings might evolve? The reality of adult learning might not be as dismal as initially perceived in the population surveys.

Opportunities for adult learning

Opportunities for adult Jewish learners are probably more available today than ever before. The Internet provides many on-line opportunities for people to study and learn. There are also programs for face-to-face learning in all major cities. With intermarriage on the rise and many Jews expressing concerns about Jewish continuity, a typical Jewish response has been to engage in Jewish self-education. Many individuals are choosing to assume some responsibility to ensure the survival of Jewish knowledge and tradition. A number of populations within Jewish communities have initiated new programs for learning by demanding relevant programming. Women, older adults, baby boomers and intermarrieds form strong learning constituencies. Motivation may vary from seeking spiritual connection to wanting access to authentic Jewish classical texts (Katz, 1999a, p.11). Baby boomers, “unlike other generations before them who have tolerated a certain amount of inaccessible knowledge… want to know it all” (Katz, 1999a, p.10). This generation is highly educated and generally financially comfortable. As they have in every previous decade, they want their imprint felt. Also, by now, many baby-boomers have buried their parents, while many more anticipate such loss. This constituency could have a major impact on the revival of learning about death and burial traditions.

Education is often perceived as a precursor to involvement in Jewish community life. We educate our young people in preparation for bar and bat Mitzvah and through such education hope to encourage their eventual commitment to Jewish communal life. The above statistics notwithstanding, there is also a cycle where communal work may provide an impetus for further learning, a situation that I think more correctly describes the situation in many Hevra Kadisha groups today. Adult education can become a “lens”, a tool that can help foster and develop religious commitment within a constituency. If one of the functions of religion is to provide opportunities for “theological reflection that guides concrete action” (Saul, 1997, p.171), then the Hevra Kadisha may also provide an ideal environment for concrete action to guide theological reflection. The Hevra Kadisha can not be underestimated in this role. The ritual of taharah is a balance of function and form that perfectly reflects the role not only of ritual, but of the mitzvot in general. Learning guides actions which, in turn, guide further learning. Opportunities for learning about Jewish tradition regarding death and mourning might activate real interest in supporting if not starting a Hevra Kadisha.

Many adult Jewish learners now define themselves as self-directed learners, and may describe that learning as transformative, as both an active and reflective process. Again such learning reflects the transformative potential that an active commitment to Jewish observance, including study, provides. Many Jews are now engaging in on-line systems of self-directed learning. For example the Jewish Theological Seminary now provides a number of courses for distance learners. Advances in technology and the Internet have made a myriad of opportunities for study available to Jews. Geographical isolation is not a factor when learning Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud) on the Net.[17] The Me’ah program (100 hours of Jewish learning)[18] has created another opportunity for Jewish lay people in large urban centers to engage in traditional text study with Jewish scholars, an opportunity unavailable in previous decades.

Jewish identity has always been closely linked with a commitment to Jewish family. Jewish adult learning should reflect this commitment, as well as reinforce a commitment to Jewish communal organizations. Such a conflation of commitment will eventually create and sustain an ‘active cultural literacy’ which could then undergird all Jewish educational developments (London, 1992, p. 8). Supporting and extending London’s views, is the contention that the mutuality and interdependence of individual Jewish identity and Jewish group identity is a key factor when considering educational goals (Schiff, 1997, pp.37-43).

Learning styles

There are a number of different learning styles: formal and informal, experiential and textual. There are many questions about what the most effective learning styles might be for adults. While most programs for Jewish adults have been and continue to be oriented to textual studies there are other opportunities for learning. Some adults want to learn specific information, some want to gain specific skills. How can these learning styles separately and interactively support these various demands?

Opportunities for Jewish adult learning usually take place in formal environments such as classroom instruction or workshops. However, for many adults profound learning takes place on a more incidental basis in informal settings. Certainly in this study, virtually all participants spoke of learning about the taharah by watching, observing, asking questions afterwards, and by doing, even, if not especially, by making mistakes. Informal learning is learning within the context of experience and making personal meaning out of those experiences.

Informal learning is distinctive: it is voluntary, and involves systems of evaluation and feedback rather than grading and degrees. Informal education is also learning that is oriented to intrinsic goals. Further to these qualities, the types of activities in these settings are “highly interactive and participatory…aimed at affecting Jewish attitudes and experiences of persons in the present, with the hope that these patterns will continue in the future” (Chazan, 1993, p.6).

Bringing it all together

In his book Renewing the Covenant, Borowitz cites the thinkers who inspired him -Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Mordechai Kaplan, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel – as  “thinking as part of a movement or in the context of its ideology” (Borowitz, 1997, p.62). This kind of thinking generally preceded the denominationalism of present-day North America, and is indicative of the holistic approach that systems thinking advocates. If we imagine Judaism as a whole entity, as a self-referencing system, we see a system whereby change and adaptation to an environment occur even as the system remains consistent with itself. Borowitz addresses some of the local disturbances within Judaism, as it were, while arguing for the continued stability of the whole.

He proposes that Conservative Judaism fundamentally holds to the same principles of human autonomy that identify the Reform tradition. However autonomy is not the same as individuation. Borowitz argues against what he calls “radical individualism”, a state of not being committed to the communal values of Judaism. In a positive reflection he adds that modernity ” by teaching us this new sense of self, has made a major, lasting, spiritual contribution to Judaism…contemporary revelation, a new insight into God’s will and thus a present indication of our ongoing Covenantal responsibility” (Borowitz, 1997, p.64). The founders of the Conservative Movement, he argues, highly valued their authority as modern scholars. (As, I would suggest, do many present -day Conservative Movement scholars value their authority as rabbis). These founding scholars accepted and acted “on the authority of their autonomy, literally, their right to be self-legislating” (Borowitz, 1997, p.65).

How are these ideas connected to adult learning? Repeatedly, theorists have stated that we must have a sense of who we are as Jews before we make choices about where and whom we will learn with, and whose leadership we will acknowledge. We must claim individual commitment to be learning Jews and to help create learning communities. The Hevra Kadisha members with whom I spoke certainly reflected the values spoken by these leadership and learning theorists. Participants described how their commitment to meeting the demands of this mitzvah often led to other levels of observance becoming important – keeping kosher, and observing Shabbat.

Their commitment to the Hevra was sincere and voluntary; their participation was valued within their community; they were often called upon to reflect on their commitment and its meaning in the many ways large and small that impacted upon their lives. They were self-legislating and autonomous, bound by obligating themselves to tradition. Several communities cited the Hevra as being the leading organization in their communities that crossed denominational borders. Many spoke about the profound connection with Judaism they experienced during each taharah. Through this one mitzvah they became part of the larger system of Judaism, a system both changing and stable.

The mitzvot provide Jews with an opportunity to concretize action and belief in their daily lives. In my opening to this chapter I cited the words of Franz Rosenzweig. “A new learning is about to be born – rather it has been born. It is learning in reverse order. A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round: from life…back to Torah…From the periphery back to the center, from the outside in” (Rosenzweig, 1955, p.98). The mitzvot thus enable us to create congruency between our learning and our leadership, and between our personal authority and the larger authority of commandment. These rituals create a necessary sense of olam, of timeless continuity and location within tradition. These rituals become our connection with each other and our pathway to God. Taharah and the Hevra Kadisha epitomize the potential for connection between the functional and scholarly learning to which Rosenzweig alludes. Rosenzweig describes that moment “between the past and the future”; the gap or tension in learning which exists between the developing and the achieved. He suggests that the function of books is to transmit knowledge across this gap (Rosenzweig, 1955, p.58). So, too, we need to develop more “books”, about this ritual. Books for those who have lost touch with the loving hands of previous generations; books for those who do the work but don’t understand what it is about or why they do it; books for those who have been asked to teach new generations of Jews who want to participate in this act of hesed shel emet. These books, symbols of Jewish learning, may help to bring us forward as individuals and as communities to stand together, one, under the huppah of Covenant. [19]  Such a commitment to Covenant speaks with radical hope and enduring love for this tradition.


[1] Transliteration is fraught with problems. I have attempted to seek consistency but my choice of spelling may vary from other authors. I have used an “h” for the Hebrew letter chet, and a “kh” for the letter kaf. Please note that the h in Hevra (and in other words) is sounded as a guttural as in Bach. All italicized words appear in the glossary.

[2] Ideally, after death a body is never left alone. It is considered a sign of disrespect to abandon the soul of the one who has died. People will traditionally sit with the body from the point of death to burial, often reciting Psalms as they sit.

[3] For a more complete description about the IMUN one-week intensive training see URL: http://www.uscj.org/scripts/uscj/paper/Index1.asp?ColumnID=50, accessed March 4, 2001.

[4] Women may be ordained as rabbi in all denominations of Judaism except Orthodox. There are several Orthodox women at present, Haviva Ner-David being one, who are pursuing private ordination, but this is counter to traditional Orthodox practice (Ner-David, 2000).

[5] “Israel” has multiple resonance for Jews: It is Eretz Israel, the biblical Land of Israel; it is the name of the Jewish people as given by God to Jacob, which denotes the special covenant between God and Jews; and it is also the State of Israel.

[6] The aleph is the first letter in the Jewish aleph-bet, alphabet. In the Hasidic tradition Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow tells the story of the Israelites receiving of Torah at Sinai as a moment when all present heard, in the silence of the aleph, all of Torah.

[7] Observant Jews wear tefillin daily. Otherwise known as phylacteries, they are comprised of two black leather boxes, which tie with leather thongs around the arm, and on the forehead. The boxes enclose small pieces of parchment that contain the prayer, the Shema and verses from Torah.

[8] The Shema literally means ‘Hear’. It is the central creed of Judaism, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

[9] The Amidah, literally the standing prayer, is also known as HaTe’fillah, the prayer or Shemoneh Esray, Eighteen Benedictions. It is the core of the morning, afternoon and evening prayers

[10] The old custom of attaching a string to the interior of the coffin which was then attached to a bell above ground, to enable the presumed corpse to indicate they were actually still alive, indicates such burials were not uncommon in days before medical certainty of death.

[11] While discussing this project with a family member in Manhattan, she absolutely dismissed my suggestion that embalming was not custom for Jews, stating categorically that she had never been to a Jewish funeral where the body had not been embalmed, implying of course that the casket had also been open. She also had never heard of burial shrouds being used.

[12] There continues to be the sentiment that these burial customs clearly distinguish Judaism from other faiths. One individual I interviewed remarked that this ritual was a clear way to tell the Jews from the non-Jews. Years ago on Frasier, (a television sitcom) Frasier was depicted attending a Shiva. One of the mourners, a woman, was seated and was weeping. Frasier was clearly discomfited by her emotionality and proffering his handkerchief said, “there, there now, you can’t keep crying, you’ve got to get on with your life.” The woman looked at him, and then wryly said, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”

[13] The Mourner’s Kaddish is recited in the presence of a minyan (ten adult Jews, or in an Orthodox community, ten adult male Jews). It is recited for eleven months for parents, for thirty days for all other relatives. Death is not mentioned in the Kaddish, instead it emphasizes the glory of God. The Kaddish was originally a prayer recited at the conclusion of study of Torah, and only came into common usage as a mourner’s prayer in the eleventh century.

[14] Ba’olam can be understood as a temporal concept, as in eternity. It can also describe the physical reality of this world.

[15] K’vod harav, honor and respect for the rabbi, is well acknowledged in the Orthodox movement, but I suggest that both its meaning and intent have been lost in more liberal congregations. For example, I attended a Hevra Kadisha conference in Queens, New York, in May 2000. As each rabbi came up to the podium to speak, conference participants, (all Orthodox, except for me) rose from their seats, in an acknowledgment of k’vod harav. This was an etiquette with which I, a Conservative Jew, was quite unfamiliar.

[16] This is a rite of passage for Jews as they transition from childhood to adulthood thereby becoming personally responsible for observing the mitzvot. Today Bar and Bat Mitzvah (literally son and daughter of the mitzvot) generally refers to the day of the public ceremony in the synagogue. Boys become Bar Mitzvah at 13 plus one day, girls become Bat Mitzvah at 12, or 13, depending on the congregation.

[17] Daf Yomi is a program available on numerous sites; it involves learning a page of Talmud daily. At http://www.Dafyomi.org  there is a collection of resources for learning the Daf Yomi, the daily page of Talmud studied as part of a monumental program initiated by Rav Meir Shapiro in 1923 at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna. With 2711 pages in the Talmud, it takes about seven and a half years to complete (accessed January 9, 2001).

[18] Me’ah is a two-year program designed to give adults from any Jewish background an in-depth look at the world of Jewish knowledge and ideas. Me’ah classes meet for two-and-a-half hours, 22 times a year. The total meeting time is 100 (me’ah) hours.  Begun in 1994 with two classes, this year over 500 students will study throughout the Boston area, in addition to classes in five other cities across the United States. Each class meeting aims to engage participants in both the study of texts and historical/philosophical discussions. See (http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/meah.html accessed January 9, 2001).

[19] The marriage canopy, symbolizing union, is a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.