A Tahara How-to Story

Long before I became a rabbi, a young social work colleague and mother of three was dying of a particularly virulent form of breast cancer. She called me one day to ask if we could meet privately because she had something to share and a favor to ask.

We met on the king-sized bed in her bedroom. She looked skeletal. Strewn upon the bed were all of her volunteer projects, tasks she kept up with until virtually her last breath. She wanted to share some of the wisdom and methods she’d gathered in her years as a social worker. What a profound honor; her ideas were very deep, and I use her methods to this day. Then came the “favor.”

Susan: “When I die, would you do me the honor of serving on the hevra kaddisha, the team of women who will prepare my body for burial?”

Reb Goldie: “I thought funeral homes did all that!”

I was mistaken; in fact, they only arrange to bring in a local non-profit taharah organization for those who request it be done. Susan wanted someone who knew her and who wouldn’t be as traumatized as a family member might be, to help prepare her body for burial. The idea gave her comfort. Fearful, but wanting to do her honor, I promised to show up when that final call came.

On the sad day that Susan died, our hevra kaddisha team, all women to protect her modesty, met in a room at a Jewish funeral home specially designed for this purpose. There her body lay completely covered in a soft white sheet. I felt scared to be this close to death, and for a while no degree of trying to exercise mind over matter got me to stop trembling.

Guided by an experienced member of the hevra kaddisha, we drew the traditionally prescribed amounts of lukewarm water for the washing. It is customary, out of respect, to pull the sheet away one small area at a time, wash, and restore the covering to that area before moving on. I was amazed at how clear it was that Susan’s soul was no longer in her body. She seemed as empty and light as the shell of a cicada I’d found on a tree as a child. We did as instructed, gently cleaning her nails and any other areas needing attention.

Next, the team leader hydraulically tilted the table several degrees, and twenty-four quarts of warm water were washed over her. Some funeral homes have a mikvah, a ritual bath, specifically for this purpose. Water symbolizes flowing lovingkindness, hessed. Our chanting flowed with the water.

As is traditional, while working, we softly sang psalms, surrendering to the awesomeness of what we were doing. In Hebrew the term for awe, yirah, combines the senses of fear and amazement. Jews are taught to experience awe of G*d; we are yirei Ha-Shem. This feeling soon replaced the pahad, pure fear, I’d felt earlier.

I had thought the shroud would be made of coarse monk’s cloth, and shaped like a body bag. Not so. Tahrihim are rather ethereal, soft, hand-sewn, white gauze-like garments: mitznefet - hood, mihnasayim - pants; ketonet - chemise, kittel – robe, and avnet, a belt, followed by sovev, a full gauze sheet. We dressed her every so gently. Since the body cannot cooperate, dressing required assistance from several of us. We added her tallit, prayer shawl, one fringe cut away to make it pasul, unusable, and to symbolize her soul’s departure from this body. We set the separated fringe upon the tallit near her heart.

We then lined the coffin with the sheet and sprinkled a sachet of earth from Israel. Lifting the body all together, we gently set her inside the coffin.

Finally, we placed broken fragments of pottery over the area of cloth above her eyes. These are called sherblah in Yiddish. Sherblah seem to symbolize a broken wine amphora, a metaphor for the body as a vessel no longer able to contain a soul or life force.

We now asked forgiveness of her soul for the intrusion of our efforts. Why? Tradition teaches that her soul could still be hovering, refraining from it’s journeys into the realm of Mystery while awaiting our completion of this one mitzvah a soul cannot possibly do for itself. Finally we placed the lid on the coffin, tidied up and went out to gather and reflect in almost total and inward silence on our experience. Two shomrim, “watchers” from the hevra kaddisha relieved us; they would take turns with others, sitting with the body, until the burial.

I lived alone at the time and made the mistake of going home. It was an uncomfortable night for me, taking in what we’d done, the surprisingly awesome beauty of this caring act and the emotional difficulty of it. I would have been wise to stay the night with someone from the hevra kaddisha who would have understood. Subsequently, when needed I help out with the hevra kaddisha where I live. Taharah ceased to be scary, but the awe only grows stronger. One thing for sure, when I die, I hope my women friends will do taharah for my body. It is pure holiness.