Photo: Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, author of the second part of this double-post.
The chevra kadisha (“Holy Community”) is a geographically-organized group responsible for all Jewish matters pertaining to death, including arranging people to sit with and guard the body (shemira), and preparation of the body for burial (tahara). The 7th of Adar, which falls this year on February 22, is the date the Rabbis assigned to Moshe’s death (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 38a). Because God prepared Moshe’s body for burial personally, the chevra honors this date as a day of reflection on the work they do. Different chevras and members have various approaches to balancing modesty with a desire to spread knowledge regarding death rituals to make them less obscure. This double-post, by Elissa Felder and Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, on performing tahara for loved ones, is part 4 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras. Click here for Parts 1, by Gidon Von Emden, 2, by Nina Rubin, and 3, by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips.
Tahara for a Friend
by Elissa Felder.
Elissa is a member of the Providence, RI, Chevra Kadisha. She is interested in opportunities to speak with folks in the area and farther away about the work of the Chevra. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Several times a week the services of our chevra kadisha are called upon by the local funeral home. According to Jewish belief our body must be buried in the ground as soon as possible. In preparation for this our body must be ritually washed (tahara) and dressed in plain, white cotton shrouds. This tahara is performed in the same way for everyone. Death is a great equalizer.
Sometimes I am called upon to wash someone whom I have known in life.
In these cases it takes a huge amount of emotional effort to step into the funeral home and into the room where my friend awaits us.
It takes courage to starkly face her death.
The form of the relationship I once had with her has changed. We can no longer talk to each other in the way we used to. A new and unfamiliar way of interacting has begun. I am so sad.
The world has lost a wonderful woman
Our job, as members of the chevra, is to help her transition from life in this world to her life in the next world. She is entering into a new existence.
Death begins the process of the soul separating from and hovering over its body until burial.
In the morgue our souls become intertwined in a new way. I ‘feel’ her soul in that room
She is very much there, aware of and watching over us.
The reality of losing her is amplified by being so intimate with her body. We treat every woman in our care with incredible respect and love. Yet whilst washing my friend this need to treat her in a dignified way becomes amplified. We are engaged in an act that she would want us to do for her yet she can’t thank or interact with us in any physical way. It feels strange and foreign.
Against our will we are born and against our will we die. Our soul is who we are. It is our essence. It is holy, coming from the “Breath of God.” Our body, in contrast, is the vessel which houses our soul and which acquires holiness after a lifetime of togetherness.
I am overwhelmed by the enormity of what I am doing!
It is hard to comprehend that I am actually preparing my friend for the next step in her journey
She can not thank, speak to, hug or cry with us
We don’t need thanks; we give with no expectation of reward.
I wash her with a broken heart.
Having known her in life the experience of being with her in death is truly beyond words.
I feel so honored to be there to wash, clothe, and finally embrace her as we wrap the final belt around her waist
I see, feel and love her.
The washing and the dressing is done silently and reverently with tears streaming down my face.
One more act of helping and loving her.
My dear friend resisted receiving help in life and is now forced to receive it.
Her death feels tragic
Whilst preparing her I am acutely aware of how grateful I am to be alive.
I am so grateful and honored to be the one to help gently lower her into her plain pine box and to be the last to see her.
Goodbye my sweet friend
Please forgive me for anything I have done to embarrass, harm or hurt you
Everything we did was to help you get you ready for the next phase of your journey
Pray for us
Advocate for us on high
Come greet us when it’s our turn to be born into the next world
Taharah for My Aunt
by Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein
Malkah Binah is a member of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia. If you would like to learn about this Chevra, contact Rabbi Linda Holtzman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been blessed to participate in hevrei kadisha in three different Jewish communities, and through the process of performing taharot, the ritual purification and preparation of a body for burial, I have learned about kindness and gentleness and experienced the deep calm that accompanies being present to the truth of our mortality.
I’d like to share about a particularly special experience I had two years ago with tahara. This was the experience of my first time performing a tahara for a family member. When I heard that my Aunt Dina died, I drove to Upstate New York where she had lived to help prepare for her funeral. Family members had not been present with Aunt Dina during her final days, and I noticed the desire within me to participate in her tahara. In our hevra kadisha in Philadelphia, family occasionally ask to participate, so I knew that this was a possibility. I contacted the organizer of the local hevra, who told me that I was welcome to participate and gave me directions for how to enter the funeral home. She then added, “I just need to ask you one thing. Are you shomer mitzvot (one who keeps the commandments)?” I had never been asked that question and it took me a moment to sort out how to respond. The organizer was an Orthodox woman who was serving as a gatekeeper for communal ritual, and my response would affect my ability to participate. I answered, “yes”, knowing that she might not share my definition of shomer mitzvot– I’m a female rabbi married to a woman who turns on lights on Shabbat; yet, on the other hand, serving the Divine Beloved through Jewish practice is core to how my life is structured. Thus, I felt that I was answering with integrity by saying “yes”. This was one of those “better not to give too many details” moments.
The three women who were members of the local hevra were warmly welcoming and grateful for my presence. They found out that I read Hebrew and assigned me the role of reading the ritual texts as the tahara progressed. Aunt Dina had behaved in cruel and manipulative ways towards close family members (not towards me), and it was profoundly healing for me to witness the love and gentleness with which these women washed my aunt’s body. One of the challenges in supporting Aunt Dina when she was alive, particularly for my father who was her little brother, is that she would turn against him when he tried to help her. In this moment, the giving and receiving was pure.
When performing a tahara, I have often noticed how the person’s face relaxes and she becomes more accepting of her death as we prepare her body. This was true with Aunt Dina. These women taught me that even a person who has been cruel deserves love and honor. We are all equal in death.
Following the washing and pouring of water, we dressed her and wrapped her in the white linen sheet and left her on the table for the funeral home staff to transfer her to her casket. I realized that I had forgotten the jewelry that we had taken off of her in the room, so I went back. I am grateful for that moment– the opportunity to lean down and give her a kiss.
Below is a poem I wrote following Aunt Dina’s death.
My father tells me about his sister
I did not know
she kept their Mama on a respirator
ignored Mama’s let me die
she scolded you failed to return for Mama’s funeral
I did not know
of his inheritance
while shouting you want to steal my money
She is dead. He is sad.
I wash and prepare her for burial
wrap her in white
lean down and kiss her, then kiss her again
July 6, 2016
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein is a community leader, ritual facilitator, and beloved teacher of spiritual practices based in Philadelphia. She has a gift for holding the space for individuals and groups to discover their resilience, courage, and deep knowing. She is the author of a chapter on “Jewish Rituals across the Life Cycle” in A Guide to Jewish Practice (RRC Press). She keeps a blog at thrivingspirit.org.