Around the world, hundreds of small groups in Jewish communities gather to care for their dead in a way that reflects the ritual and practice handed down through generations. These traditional groups called a Chevra Kadisha (in the singular) or “holy society,” support and assist families at the end of life and after. One of their primary roles is to perform the taharah, or ritual washing of the dead.
Chevra Kadisha and the Ritual Washing of the Dead
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, North American Jewish communities began to move from the full death practices that include the full body preparation historically performed by friends and family, perhaps influenced by the general death denial and avoidance with the dead that was prominent in American culture, and relegate them to the funeral homes. However, since the 1960s, there has been a resurgence of interest and participation in all Jewish denominations, particularly the liberal ones.
Both men and women members of the Chevra Kadisha serve the family from the time of death through, in some cases, the year anniversary of the death (yahrtzeit). And while there are several roles that can be within a chevras purview, two of the more central ones that its members perform are Taharah (purification) and Sh’mirah (Watching/Guarding).
Performing the Taharah (purification) and Sh’mirah (Watching/Guarding)
Kavod hameit (“honor, respect for the dead”) is the primary value underlying both Taharah and Sh’mirah. According to Jewish law, the deceased should be buried as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24-48 hours. Chevra Kadisha members must be ready to respond quickly in the event of a death so they can begin preparing for Taharah, or “purification,” which is the ritual washing of the deceased in both physically and spiritually.
This rite is done by three to five people of the same gender as the deceased (although in some cases women may perform Taharah on a deceased man). As understanding about gender identity has developed, more recent conversation among Jewish communities has been how to provide taharah for transgender and non-binary Jews. As a result, new guides and training are being developed.
The Taharah ritual itself is about 45-90 minutes long. It includes pre-briefing, preparation, washing the deceased, taharah, dressing the deceased, placing the body into the casket, cleaning up, and de-briefing. Each step of the act is accompanied by liturgy and intentionality. The work of the Taharah can be deeply moving, mentally, physically, and spiritually, for the Chevra. Many groups emphasize the importance of the pre-briefing and debriefing to allow for any emotions to be expressed and to discuss what will happen and, afterward, what did happen.
In preparation for the washing, an important note is that the members of the Chevra do not hand things over the body, walk around the head of the deceased, or turn their back on the body as a sign of respect, returning to their grounding value, which is to show honor for the dead (kavod hameit).
The Chevra first cleanses the body physically (rechitzah) before the taharah. The term taharah applies to both the name of the entire ritual and to the process of pouring water over the deceased in a ritual way to cleanse it spiritually. The deceased is then dressed in tachrichim, or burial clothes, and placed into the aron (casket). The sovev (burial sheet) and Tallit (prayer shawl)(where appropriate) are then laid on top. Typically Chevras will sprinkle earth from Israel into the casket before closing it. Along with each of these actual actions, there is powerful spiritual liturgy that assists the soul on its journey to the next world.
A liturgy we find particularly moving is the introductory prayer that is recited by the Chevra in the presence of the body of the deceased before performing Tahara. The Chevra asks for forgiveness from the decedent if they make any mistakes or dishonor them in any way.
““so and so [addressing the deceased by name]”, we ask your forgiveness for any distress we may cause you during this taharah. We will do everything possible to ensure that you are treated with respect, and that all the elements of taharah are properly completed. Everything we are about to do is for the sake of your honor. Source of Kindness and Compassion. Whose ways are ways of mercy and truth, You have commanded us to act with loving-kindness and compassion towards the dead; and to engage in their proper burial. Grant us the courage and strength to perform this sacred work properly – washing and cleansing the met/metah (body of the deceased), dressing her in shrouds, and burying her. Guide our hands and hearts as we do this work, and enable us to complete it with love. Help us to see You in the face of the deceased, even as we see You in the faces of those who share this mitzvah. Source of Life and Death, be with us now and forever.”
With the Taharah complete, the work of the Chevra Kadisha continues. According to Jewish law, the body of the deceased should not be left alone after death. The Chevra Kadisha observe this by having a shomer, or guardian, be with the deceased at all times until burial.
Increasing Interest and Participation
Although Jewish people have been practicing taharah and burial rites throughout their long history, the Chevra Kadisha movement has been gaining steam in small and large Jewish communities for the past 20-30 years. Now there are many groups, both affiliated and unaffiliated with synagogues, that are springing up all over North America.
This is in part due to the efforts of Kavod v’Nichum, an organization that offers education and support to communities that aim to create their own Chevra Kadisha. The resurgence also comes alongside a larger movement away from larger and corporatized funeral homes that have been directing Jewish funeral practices.
The Chevra Kadisha performs an invaluable service to their Jewish communities, facilitating the transition of body and soul to the next stage. In this role, members of the Chevra Kadisha are performing the greatest act of kindness in Jewish tradition because the dead can never repay them.