Throughout the long history of the Jewish exile, wherever they were dispersed, Jews exerted their utmost physical and spiritual energies in keeping the laws and customs of the Torah. With holy spiritual awe, coupled with warm love, Jewish parents implanted our ancestral legacy, the sacred traditions and heritage of Israel, into the hearts of their children. This spiritual heritage of numerous generations also included various unwritten customs, which became integrated into the pure and G-dly treasury of the Jewish national character, and were handed down orally from generation to generation. Unfortunately, during the most recent years many customs, whose sources lie in the loftiest heights of holiness, have been neglected, or else their sacred significance went unappreciated.
The attitude of modem America toward the laws and customs of Tahara and burial is especially sad and painful. This particular sacred, ''act of genuine benevolence'', which Jews always approached with the deepest respect, awe, and dignity, this last and most sacred "preparation" of the Jewish body, has been left to irresponsible and inappropriate persons. It was entirely fitting that those who attended to the Tahara and burial were identified by the name Chevra Kadisha (holy society). Such people are, in fact, holy, because of their duties, which involve so much law and custom in connection with the awesome moment when a Jew takes leave of his body and returns to his Maker.
Every custom connected with the Tahara, the dressing, the shroud, and the burial, is tied up and bound together with our deep and pure belief in the eternity of the Jewish soul, as well as the eternity of the Jewish body. The eternity of the Jewish body will come to fulfillment at the awaited time, about which is said, 'May death disappear forever, and may Eternal G-d wipe the tears from every face!"
It is a great privilege to join, or to organize, a Chevra Kadisha which will conduct itself in accordance with Jewish law. By participating in this holy work, or by supervising it, one may acquire the great mitzvoh of Chesed Shel Emes, ''acts of true kindness''. The members of the Chevra Kadisha are obligated to discharge their duties with diligence. Full responsibility rests upon them to preserve the dignity of the deceased according to our traditions and customs. For this reason, it is imperative that the members be familiar with the laws and customs, which are to be carried out in actual deed.
May the great mitzvoh of Chesed Shel Emes protect all those who lend assistance wherever possible. In the merit of this may Hashem bless them with long life of good years, and all good things eternally, in both the physical and spiritual realms.
Preparation for The Tahara
- The Chevra Kadisha must prepare everything that is needed before they perform the Tahara; this includes the utensils, the tachrichim, washcloths, and the casket. The casket should be inspected in advance, to be sure that there are no metal parts or decorations. Only when everything is ready may the Tahara commence.
- It is the policy of the Chevra Kadisha that several of the more experienced members are appointed leaders of the Chevra Kadisha. The group leader or Rosh at every Tahara is responsible to see to it that everything is prepared in advance, and that the Tahara proceed in an orderly fashion. The group leader should assign the various duties to the individual participants, taking into account each woman's experience and abilities. The assignments made by the group leader, and the instructions which she issues, should not be questioned during the Tahara, for arguments and discussion are not in keeping with the dignity of the deceased or the solemnity of the occasion
- No close relative may be present during the Tahara; e.g., the deceased's children, mother, sister, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, or other close relatives.
The Tahara Washing Procedure
- Prior to the Tahara, the participants of the Chevra Kadisha are to wash their hands with water poured from a vessel, three times for each hand, using the same procedure as for negel vasser in the morning. The vessel is taken in the right hand and transferred to the left. The water is poured on each hand three times, alternately: right, left, right, left, right, left.
- It is an affront to the deceased when there is an interruption in the middle of the Tahara, while the participants are waiting for something that should have been attended to in advance.
- Before beginning the Tahara, the group leader should check that the door is closed, and that only members of the Chevra Kadisha are present.
- When beginning the undressing, recite the appropriate verses. During the undressing, clothing should be inspected for bloody areas; these should be cut out and placed into the casket near the feet. Note should be taken of any places where there may be bleeding or other special problems. If, G-d forbid, blood Is running from some part of the body, the Rosh should direct the group on how to deal with each issue as is appropriate. When it is necessary to seal wounds with bandages or glue, or to pack body openings with cotton, every attempt should be made to keep to a minimum the area were there will be an obstruction to the penetration of water. Great care should be taken when removing needles, intravenous tubes, etc. Respirator tubes and other medical apparatus that were surgically implanted usually cannot be removed without damaging the body; no attempt should be made to do so. When special problems arise, a competent Rabbi must be consulted.
- False teeth that were normally worn during life are not removed unless they interfere with the performance of the Tahara. Artificial limbs that are permanently attached and were always worn during life are not removed. If false teeth have become loosened and prevent the mouth from closing, they should be carefully removed. Jewelry, watches, and other adornments should be removed and returned to the family.
- The body is placed face-up upon the Tahara board; it is forbidden to place the body facedown.
- Warm (not hot) water is brought in buckets. One member of the Chevra Kadisha draws water from a bucket into a smaller container, and pours it onto the body. A second member washes that place with a piece of cloth, in the following order:
- First, the head is washed. While doing so, the appropriate verses are recited.
- Next, the neck is washed, the right arm and hand, Then the right side of the body, followed in procession with the left arm and hand, and the left side of the body.
- When washing the head, the ears, the nostrils, and behind the ears are also cleansed. Care should be taken not to pour water into the mouth.
- When washing the arms and hands, the spaces under the armpits and between the fingers are also washed. The fingernails are cleaned with a blunt toothpick.
- While washing the body, the private parts must be covered for the sake of modesty; only when those parts are actually being washed may they be uncovered.
- When washing the legs and feet, the spaces between the thighs and between the toes should be cleaned. The toenails can be cleaned with a blunt toothpick.
- The back is now washed, care must be taken that the rectum is clean. Pouring water into the rectum for cleaning is contrary to our custom, and should be avoided if possible.
- After the cleansing process is completed, the hand washing is repeated using the same procedure as for negel vasser in the morning. The vessel is taken in the right hand and transferred to the left. The water is poured on each hand three times, alternately: right, left, right, left, right, left.
Immersion in the Mikvoh
We have the custom of immersing the deceased in a mikvoh instead of pouring nine kavin, however in some problematic situations, or in the absence of a mikvoh the nine kavin is totally acceptable.
When the nine kavin are poured:
The water must be poured from two or from three vessels (but no more than three). It is poured over the head and the body of the deceased. Those pouring the water must take care to begin pouring the water from the second vessel before the water has been completely poured out of the first vessel, and the same applies to the third vessel, which is begun before the second is finished. If this procedure was not followed correctly, the entire nine kavin must be poured once again.
While pouring the nine kavin, all participants should declare three times, (She is purified)
Tacharim - Burial Garments
(1) Mitznephet: a covering of the head to the neck, for women an additional face veil is used.
(2) Ktonet: a shirt with a drawstring around the neck, and sleeves that cover the upper body and arms.
(3) Michnasayim: pants with a draw string at the waist and usually closed at the feet. For women there may be an additional skirt or apron garment.
(4) Kittel: an outer garment that has sleeves and reaches to the knees.
(5) Chagura, (Gartil): a belt, used over the kittel.
(6) Sovev: the outer linen sheet used to cover the clothed body.
Order of Dressing
(1) The Mitznephet is placed over the head.
For Women: Place loose uncombed but unknotted hair into the cap. A veil is attached to cover the face. The attached ribbons are twisted around the by passing them 3 times to each side while counting: Aleph, Bet, Gimel, Daled and making a sling bow shaped to resemble the letter Shin.
(2) The Michnasayim (pants)
Two members of the Chevra Kadisha pull the michnasayim (pants) starting with the right leg, up to the waist. The michnasayim are fastened at the waist by a draw string, twisted 3 times and fastened with three sling bows resembling the shape of the letter Shin .
(3) The Ktonet (shirt) is put on as follows:
Two members of the Chevra Kadisha take one sleeve each and, beginning with the right side, draw the sleeves onto the shoulder of the deceased and then pull the head opening over the covered head. The sleeves are then pulled into place and straightened.
The drawstring at the neck is twisted 3 times and used to make three sling bows resembling the shape of the letter Shin.
(4) The Kittel is put on with care; not to disturb previously placed garments.
Sleeves are pulled up as with the ktonet, and the head opening is pulled gently over the covered head and the garment is drawn under the entire back. The drawstring at the neck is twisted 3 times and used to make three sling bows resembling the shape of the letter Shin.
(5) The legs of the Michnasayim are sewn closed beneath the foot. A string is placed around the top of each ankle for a man and higher up on mid-calf for women, as a demarcation for the end of the michnasayim part and the beginning of the shoe or sock part.
The demarcation strings neck is twisted 3 times and used to make three sling bows resembling the shape of the letter Shin.
(6) The Chagura is twisted thirteen (13) times. The ends are fastened at the waist with three sling bows in the shape of the letter Shin.