Angel Songs: A Daughter’s Journey to Jewish Death Rituals

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 March 3rd, 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.  In the days leading up to Zayin Adar, chevra members from across the country will be sharing their stories.  You can read past entries from this year and years past by clicking here.

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in angels. And yet a song about them has so tightly woven itself into the most poignant and heartbreaking moments of my adult life. The song, B’shem Hashem (In the Name of the Divine) is meant to be recited before bed. The Jewish tradition views sleep as a dangerous time, reminding us that 1/60 of sleep is death. As we give ourselves over to sleep, we ask angels for their protection. The words in English go something like this:

In the name of the Divine, the God of Israel

Michael on my right, Gavriel on my left

Uriel before me, behind me Rafael

And above my head, the Divine presence of God

In high school, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia. My mom tirelessly cared for him, despite his hallucinations that she was stealing everything from him, despite his regular attempts to run away (during which I could sometimes lure him home with the promise of a blueberry muffin). When my dad became less mobile he would spend his days and nights in the living room, and when I was home from college in the summers I would find him awake, no matter how late I returned at night. Our brief midnight chats were the closest I got to knowing my dad as an adult and often ended in me kissing him goodnight, something we would never have done when he was healthy. He died when I was twenty. 

Within a year, my mom was diagnosed with dementia. Neither my sister nor I were living with her so we hired Edna to care for her 24/7. Edna loved my mom and offered her just the right amount of gentleness and sternness my mom would have appreciated. Soon after, following a break-up, I returned home to live with them. At home, Edna and I found our rhythm. Edna bore the brunt of the work but I would regularly help with showers and getting my mom ready for bed. When Edna took time off I would stay home from work and fill-in for her. As my mom’s health declined, her needs increased and her daily care more frequently required the two of us to help. 

When my mom’s dementia turned violent, I began to sing to her in the evenings. After exhausting days of trying to keep her from throwing things or hurting herself, either Edna or I would help her change into her blue cotton nightgown, get her into bed and tuck in the edges of her down comforter around her. We hoped that somehow this cocoon would transform her agitated state into sleep.

One night she cried as we tried to leave the room. By then she couldn’t articulate what made her so sad, so I simply hugged her, told her I saw her sadness, and that I loved her. Then I started singing. Not being particularly musical, I could remember only a few songs and B’shem Hashem was one of them. My mom relaxed as my usually self-conscious singing found its strength in her bedroom. I pictured the angels surrounding her, soothing her ragged edges, loving the parts of her I could no longer reach. That melody became a regular part of our bedtime ritual.  

Years earlier, on the night my dad died, I stayed up late into the evening. His nurse and I each held one of his hands while we waited for his last breath. I was struck by the significance of his leaving this world, and the presence and sacredness it demanded. I craved more ritual to honor his death. While Judaism bursts at the seams with rituals for mourning, years passed before I discovered  chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) and the practice of taharah. Taharah is the loving act of ritually washing a deceased person, clothing them in white garments, and enclosing them in a simple pine casket. As they perform taharah, the members of the chevra kadisha chant prayers that ask forgiveness for any mistakes they might make, as well as lines from The Song of Songs that attest to the deceased’s beauty, even in their present state. Difficulties can arise if the person is still bleeding, if bandages need to be removed, or if they require other interventions. In these moments, the members of the chevra kadisha will often sing niggunim, moving melodies that create a sacred container around the challenges of caring for the body.  

Because of my experience with my dad’s death I was eager to join a chevra kadisha, and in the fall of my first year of rabbinical school I found myself participating in my first tahara. In the tahara room we unzipped the white body bag, tended to the deceased woman’s wounds, including various openings and protrusions for medical equipment. I held her foot and gently but thoroughly rubbed away at her pink toenail polish. Only half-painted, her nails were evidence of a time when painting toenails was possible and a more recent time when it was not. 

The deceased was just a few years younger than my mom, and the two also shared similar facial features. When the work became difficult, the women of the chevra kadisha spontaneously began to hum the melody of B’shem Hashem, and at the end of the evening we sang the words together. The song created a loving container to hold us and the deceased in our work. I recalled the nights when I would sit in my mom’s dark bedroom, singing the same words to her before bed. I couldn’t help but imagine my mom on that cold table, the breath of life caught in her throat. 

That night, I had trouble sleeping. I lay in bed picturing the deceased, her face so similar to my mom’s. I imagined my mother’s body, a naked body deeply familiar to me after years of showering and dressing her. As I drifted to sleep, I saw her body on the table and imagined how I would care for her in her death. 

As I continued to assist in performing taharot, I learned that when I was unsure how to be useful, I could simply lay my hand on the deceased, perhaps on an ankle or arm, and send her some love. I began to understand as a “young” person who had spent limited time with the dead and dying, how intimacy, not only with the process of death, but with its physicality—our cold, lonely bodies—opens the heart. It matures something undeveloped in me, points to places where I still need to grow.

A year after my first taharah, my mom died. She had lived with dementia for the previous ten years, although she remained essentially herself. On the day she died, I managed to arrive home just a few hours later. That afternoon, Edna, another friend and I performed a modified taharah on my mom as she began to transition out of this world. Despite my limited training with the chevra kadisha I was able to act as a wholly capable leader for mom’s taharah, gifting her and myself a final chance to be there for each other. As I tied the sash of her orange dress in a traditional knot whose shape spells the name of God, I sang B’shem Hashem to her for the last time. 

In the name of the Divine, the God of Israel

Michael on my right, Gavriel on my left

Uriel before me, behind me Rafael

And above my head, the Divine presence of God

Sometimes when I lie in bed waiting for sleep, I feel the weight of my loneliness. I feel the emptiness where I wish my dad existed, the hole that my mom fell into. These voids inside me press against my chest, seeking release. I remember the last time I had the chance to care for my mom during her taharah. I recall the nights when I tucked my mom in at bedtime, and also the nights when I did the same for my dad. Now, in the still darkness of the present, I tuck them in, first my dad and then my mom. I sing to each of them the protective spell of B’shem Hashem. Then I allow them to do the same for me, letting myself forget for just a moment that I don’t believe in angels.

Giulia Fleishman is a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew College.  She serves as an active member of the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, a soferet and lover of the natural world

2 thoughts on “Angel Songs: A Daughter’s Journey to Jewish Death Rituals

  1. Im a end of life doula, a nurse since 1980 and was with many,many people that passed including my own mom. I alwas and still do see and feel it as an honor. I married a Jewish man in 2012 and try to learn about the jewish faith. I read your piece with tearing eye’s. Thank you for sharing.

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