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 post is part 1 of a week-long series by contemporary Jews involved in local chevras.
“I couldn’t possibly do that mitzva. But I am very glad other people are able to do it.”
“I’m not comfortable with death. Please find someone else to help out.”
“Me, get involved with that!? But I have young kids!”
These are the most common responses I have gotten when asking fellow shul members whether they’d consider getting involved with the Chevra Kaddisha, (or: Jewish Funeral Practices Committee; literally: Holy Society in Aramaic). That “someone else doing the mitzva”? It’s me. I need help. And so does your Chevra Kaddisha.
The Chevra Kaddisha handles Jewish rituals around death and dying. As such, it is a bedrock of the Jewish community, and has been for a very long time. The Chevra Kaddisha serves the 99%: all Jews are treated equally, none are turned away, and the work is done in the background, without expectation of recognition or reward. Its tasks are considered chesed shel emet, true kindness (Rashi on Bereishit 47:29), since the beneficiary of the actions cannot thank or reward those who carry them out.
Today, most people are not involved in the operations of the Chevra Kaddisha. In the western world, we have become more distant from death, and that has resulted in, among other things, people being less involved in the rituals surrounding death. In the past, sources seem to indicate that everyone had to belong to a Chevra Kaddisha: Chevras (the Aramaic plural would be chevraya kaddishaya, so I’ll stick with Chevras) only served their own members, and since every Jew would inevitably require a burial and non-religious options weren’t available, this simply meant that every Jew was to be a member of a Chevra. Equal service based on equal participation.
The fact that this has changed is a shame on various levels. It has meant that a small group of people is now responsible for the operation of the Chevra Kaddisha, rendering it more of a service-provider than being at the heart of the community. Moreover, by and large, Jews are less aware of the beautiful and meaningful Jewish funeral practices. From personal experience, I can tell you that helping prepare a met, a deceased person, for burial, or helping their family get ready for this act of closure and love, is a deeply touching, and thoroughly humbling experience. From the responses of the families we serve, it is clear that being on the receiving end of this communal effort is also touching and comforting – in fact, it often is a death in the family that spurs people on to become active in the Chevra.
Though the tasks of the Chevra Kaddisha are many and varied, the combined effort of fellow congregants, or fellow community members, brings people together. The circumstances vary, but whether you are participating in a loving farewell for a community member who passed away after a long and productive life, or providing solace and support in a tragic situation, you are helping your community to live Jewishly. For the bereaved family, there is some measure of comfort in knowing that the community comes together to support them in their hour of need; and if there is no surviving family, the community becomes that family, extending their family bonds to those most in need, ensuring that their last needs are met. The Chevra Kaddisha, through its work, strengthens the congregational fabric.
Joining your local Chevra Kaddisha, then, can serve many goals: you will help strengthen your community; you will support the survival of local Jewish customs; you will feel proud of having some tremendously humbling experiences; and most importantly: you will serve your fellow community members in a way they can never repay – but you know that by sustaining your community, you’re paying it forward.
Since almost all of the practices surrounding Jewish funerals are a matter of minhag, or custom, each community has its own unique and particular habits. These customs reflect local circumstances or simply “the way this has been done” in any given place. That said, since most of these tasks date back to Talmudic times or earlier, there are some over-arching tasks that most Chevras carry out in one way or another:
– Shmira: Guarding the met (deceased) until the burial, which used to ensure that no vermin or other animals would attack the dead body, but today serves to honor the person who passed away.
– Tahara: The task of cleaning the met, while less universal than it used to be, is a long-standing part of the work of the Chevra Kaddisha. The deceased is then dressed in shrouds and readied for burial.
– Shiv’a: The Chevra Kaddisha may help with ensuring a minyan in the house of mourning, so that the immediate relatives sitting shiv’a can say kaddish.
– Other support: The Chevra Kaddisha might prepare a meal of consolation for the mourners as they return from the burial; or it might sew the tachrichin, the shrouds; or it could help provide meals for the mourners throughout the shiv’a, for instance.
Some people will be better-suited to some of these tasks, due to your family situation, job flexibility, birth (e.g. kohanim) etc. But among the many tasks, there is sure to be one that is suitable for you.