One of the pillars of a traditional Jewish community is the caring for the dead. It’s considered the highest mitzvah one can perform – chesed shel emet, a true act of kindness, since the beneficiary cannot express thanks.
A Chevra Kadisha – Sacred Society – is formed by a group of specially trained volunteers whose task is to ritually prepare the body before the “K’vura” – burial.
The “Tahara” is the purification process by which the body of the deceased is prepared through a specific ritual cleansing. The members of the Chevrah Kadisha carefully wash the body while reciting certain prayers, wrap the body in “tachrichim” – white shrouds – and organize a “sh’mira,” – a group of volunteers who sit by the body while reciting Psalms until the “k’vura” – burial.
One of the pillars of a traditional Jewish community is the caring for the dead. It’s considered the highest mitzvah one can perform – Chesed shel emet, a true act of kindness, since the beneficiary cannot express thanks.
About 24 years ago, my husband, my one year old daughter and I, relocated from Argentina to the Dominican Republic. He was 30 years old and I was 28. My husband was then hired as the rabbi of its Jewish community. My role as a young rabbi’s wife was the usual: teach Hebrew, host Shabbat meals, help with Jewish holiday programming… you get the picture. Until one day, my husband got a call informing him of the death of an older member of the community. Her non-Jewish daughter-in-law wanted to give her a proper Jewish burial.
Having grown up in a large Jewish community in Buenos Aires, I never thought too much about Jewish burial procedures. The Jewish community of Santo Domingo was far from being a large one at the time. It lacked a formal protocol regarding burial, although it had a Jewish cemetery and always had two or three sets of tachrichim in storage.
After careful thinking and consideration, my husband and I began the reading and research necessary to prepare the body according to Jewish law. While I was washing and dressing the body with the help of two other women, my husband was outside guiding me. It goes without saying that the entire experience took me by surprise, because, among other things, it was the first time in my life that I was in such close contact with a dead person. Despite my initial reticence, my involvement with this special mitzvah was one of the most spiritually rewarding moments in my life.
It goes without saying that the entire experience took me by surprise, because, among other things, it was the first time in my life that I was in such close contact with a dead person. Despite my initial reticence, my involvement with this special mitzvah was one of the most spiritually rewarding moments in my life.
Two years later, when we moved to Roanoke, VA, which was also home to a relatively small Jewish Community, I took it upon myself to reorganize the Chevra Kadisha in our shul. We were a group of sensitive and devoted volunteers who dedicated time to learn and perform this important mitzvah to the best of our abilities.
We read in the book of Genesis “G-d created Man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him, male and female He created them” (1:27). According to the Torah, G-d blows air into the man, thus giving him the soul of life. G-d is compared to a glassblower forming a vessel. The body is that vessel that hosts a soul, and as such, is to be treated with respect and dignity, even after the soul has departed.
According to Jewish beliefs, when the body dies, the neshama – the soul – still feels a connection to the body and hovers over it until the moment of the burial, when it returns to G-d. Through the soul, the deceased is still aware of how the body is being treated. Lack of consideration to the body causes the deceased spiritual pain; respectful treatment brings the deceased a sense of completion. Before the tahara procedure begins, the chevra kadisha recites:
“We ask your forgiveness for any distress we may cause you. We will do everything possible not to cause you any discomfort by an act of disrespect or by omitting any element of the Tahara. Everything we do is for the sake of your honor.”
Care and respect for both the soul and body of the deceased is one of the most important pieces of this ritual.
As we go through these troubled times of COVID-19, let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the Chevra Kadisha volunteers and all funeral home workers who, despite the risks involved, continue performing their sacred work with compassion and care. These “last responders” are doing a true act of kindness, midwifing the souls of our loved ones into their new eternal life.
Silvia Kogan is a Jewish educator. She currently lives in Queens, NY , with her husband and her three children.
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