In Guarding the Mitzvah, a digital story that is part of the Mizel Museum’s Community Narratives Project, Arel Mishory, a Denver-based artist, takes us on her very personal journey as a member of the Chevra Kadisha. She generously shared her story so that, through its permanent exhibit, the Museum can expand visitors’ knowledge of the ancient and meaningful Jewish practice of preparing a body for burial.
To watch Guarding the Mitzvah and read more about the Community Narratives Project CLICK HERE.
A Chevra Kadisha (Aramaic for holy society) is an organization composed of observant Jewish men and women who ensure that deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. At the heart of the society’s function is the ritual of tahara, or purification. The body is thoroughly cleansed, and then ritually purified by immersion or by pouring a continuous flow of water from the head over the entire body. Following the laws of modesty, men prepare males and women prepare females. In accordance with tradition, the tahara is performed while reciting special prayers and relevant scriptural verses. Those engaged in the tahara are careful to maintain the dignity of the deceased, covering parts of the body as soon as they have been washed. Additionally, at all times the face of the deceased remains facing upward. In some communities it is customary to wash the deceased under a sheet without uncovering any part of the body. No objects are passed or handed over the deceased and all unrelated activities or unnecessary talking is prohibited. Once purified, the body is dressed in a plain white cotton garment and placed in a casket.
For more information about traditional observance of Jewish death and dying, see The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm.
The following essay was written by Lynn Greenhough for Sh’ma in 2001:
The Washer and the Washed: Bound in Sacred Duty
I am a member of a Chevra Kadisha because I believe we are with God in life and in death; that we are with God in this life, Olam HaZeh and in the next, Olam HaBa. While our very existence is testament to God’s generous intention, it is hard for most of us to acknowledge such generosity in the face of death. The mitzvah of kavod hamet, honoring the dead, grounds this intention by binding us to our community through shared ritual. In doing so, we not only bind our faith through that ritual, we recreate a stance of renewed optimism and trust.
As we begin the rechitza, the physical washing, we acknowledge God’s dwelling amongst us, even as the metah, the dead person, has begun her journey from this world. We feel God’s presence as we wash her hair, rinse, and then gently comb it free of knots. We hold her in transition between two worlds.
Judaism constantly challenges dualistic theology, emphasizing the profound connectedness of the spiritual with the material, the emotional with the physical. As we witness the changes in the body of the metah, her limbs now leaden, so too do we sense her diminishing yet still sacred presence. Even as death brings tumah, this ritual of taharah brings about purification, through poured water, prayer, and our collective attentiveness to death.
We proceed, first along her right side, and then her left, washing the body from head to toes. We enter into a scripted liturgy and ritual that acknowledges the sacredness of each life. These tangible rituals alert us to our sacred interdependence. Together, the dead and the living fuse in a cleansing ritual that is at once mundane and utterly holy.
The mitzvah of taharah purifies not only the person who has died, but also us, the washers. As we pour water, as we gently wash fingers and toes, we too are wet with the mayim chayim, the living waters of cleansing. Into this room we bring the elements of life: candle, water, shards of clay to be placed over the eyes and mouth, and our own breath. We sense the holiness of our actions, the sacredness of each fingernail, stretch mark, and stitched incision. We approach each person as if he or she were a Sefer Torah inscribed by the Divine. Each time we touch death we are renewed. These ritual gestures intimately bind us to each other.
Death demands. There is no argument, no procrastination. Death demands our presence and death demands this ritual of physical and spiritual purification. Death demands we remember we are a tribe dedicated to gemilut hasidim, acts of lovingkindnesses – attending the dead but once. Each time I participate in a taharah I am reminded, yet again, to show such kindnesses to the living, to not wait for their death to open my heart.
One of the texts that teaches our ritual relationship to the dead is called Tractate Semachot. In a telling textual conundrum, death and simcha, joyfulness, are blurred. Through these rituals, we encounter life and death, joy and grief. In facing death we find the spark of holiness that binds us to each other and to God and, in the sharing of that spark, we know that what was shattered can be healed.
Lynn Greenhough lives in Victoria British Columbia and has been working with Chevra Kadisha since 1996. “Preparing the dead for their next journey makes me so aware of the blessing of breath and of every-day life. Draw water, wash our dead, dress them gently. Each taharah renews my gratefulness as I witness our transformation through the gift of chesed. The work of our hands becomes very simply, our collective wisdom. L’dor va’dor.”
Sh’ma is an independent think tank of diverse ideas and conversations published online and in print to incubate issues of significance to Jewish community conversations. http://www.shma.com/shmadigital/