Transformations of the Soul: The Tahara Experience

First Published in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice

Judaism most often approaches the soul's many transformations on the "journey called life" by including rituals of chessed. These involve expressions of overflowing loving kindness via water, washing, immersion.

When a couple prepares for marriage, to leave their identity as single persons behind, each separately immerses in living waters — a river, lake, ocean or a ritual pool called a mikveh, releasing the identity of single and any baggage from single years, to become a bride, to become a groom. 

In another transformation, conversion, a soul chooses to join the Jewish people, to convert. Immersion in mayyim chayyim, living waters which must include natural rainwater, is part of releasing a former identity and entering into our people. 

When the potential for life, an egg, leaves a woman's body and no life is conceived that month, or a man has a seminal emission during sleep and no life was attempted to be created, traditionally each immerses in living waters, honoring the ability of the body to create a form, to one day receive a soul that will be life and marking the passing of that gift. 

So too, at the end of life, as the instrument on which the soul once played the song of its life is retired, the body is immersed or washed in an act of pure chessed, loving-kindness, so while dying and perhaps even on its mysterious travels from this life to the next, the soul comforted by those who would care for and retire its instrument so tenderly. "

The body is the instrument on which the soul plays life for G*d." This Hassidic phrase speaks to the Jewish understanding of honor and respect due the instrument that conveyed the song of your life. Great beauty and comfort can be found in the practices and mitzvot that Judaism has developed to respectfully retire the instrument. First it is important to recall our metaphors for birth, in order to understand the harmony of meaning within Jewish lifecycle practices. 

In Genesis 1:2 we read: "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. The breath/soul [ruach] of God [Elohim] fluttered upon the face of the waters." This verse uses the metaphors of birth for expressing creation. As in birth, the baby forms within the waters, finally to emerge to receive the breath/soul [ruach] beyond the womb. Ruach is one of five words for soul in Judaism. Elohim is one of 105 names for G*d in Jewish sacred literature, and is the name associated with the power of nature and natural events. 

Reader, there was a day when your body, when my body, readied to contain the soul, left the womb, and like all of life, took a first breath, and ruah Elohimthe soul of G*d, entered, and our soul is our God spark - where we are b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God.". Yes, in most opinions within Jewish tradition, life as a person --- body and soul - begins at birth. Before that a genetically unique instrument is being made, also a holy process. Right after birth the baby is met again with water, as s/he is tenderly washed of the debris natural to creating and delivering its body and then miracle of miracles, a child is welcomed --- body and soul.

So too, at the end of life --- when the instrument is ready to be respectfully retired, the breath exits, which in Jewish tradition is when, with a final exhale, the soul departs. The soul having departed its instrument for expressing life, there then remains a mitzvah sequence. The soul cannot consciously do any more than a baby could cleanse itself at birth; your soul needs the help of others to honorably retire the instrument that housed it, the body. A departing soul must trust that the family will organize and the community will undertake: to tenderly wash the body of the debris that comes with leaving life, a process known as taharah, "restoration of it's pure state," to sit with the body as we waited for it to arrive at birth, and to return it to nourish the earth from which its nutrients originally came. Many chant the inspiring poetry of the psalms while sitting with or washing the body. This washing is not done by funeral home operators, but rather by a volunteer corps which any Jew can join, called the chevrah kaddishah ? chevrah meaning "group of friends" or "comrades" andkaddishah meaning "holy." Treatment of the human form, that carried the essence of a person, which is said to be created "in the image of G*d," with lovingkindness, even when that soul isn't there to thank you, is one of the most profound ways to create and experience holiness.

Some places, such as a major Jewish funeral home in New York City, maintain an actual ritual pool, a mikvah where the chevrah kaddishah can fully immerse a met, a body which no longer houses a soul. For most the custom is to use forty se-ah, units, of water poured with pitchers. Water, mayyim in Hebrew, begins with the Hebrew numeral for forty the letter mem and ends with that letter. Forty is the number for transformation in Judaism --- forty years in the wilderness in the Exodus story --- changing from slaves to free people; forty days for Moses each time on the mountain top --- shifting from burnt out to inspired; typically forty days of pregnancy; forty days and nights of the flood --- moving G*d from deeming humans perfect to realizing we need time to evolve. The ritual pool known as a mikveh always has forty se-ah, units of water, because it is used for consciousness transformations too. 

After washing, the body is covered with a soft sheet and only revealed a small segment at a time, washed and then recovered. It is a very modest process. Any debris from the dying process is removed, and then shards of clay, representing the broken vessel from which the soul has departed on its travels, are placed on the eyes, and the met is dressed in the traditional soft white burial garments called a kittel --- no dresses, suits or personality for the body, that part of a person is the soul --- its journey from embodied life already underway. If tallit was part of the person's religious practice, then a corner is cut off to symbolize the met has fulfilled its relationship to the mitzvot in this life, and the met is dressed in the tallit, as well. A small packet of earth from the land of our people's origins, Israel, is also sprinkled as part of returning a body that housed a Jewish soul in the earth. And then the simple wood coffin is closed. How this is done may vary a bit from community to community, as may symbolic interpretation of ritual items and actions in Jewish lifecycle practices.

Jewish tradition insists we not to cause shame to anyone in the family who might not be able to afford a fancy coffin or funeral, so our tradition is for every body to be returned to the earth in the same simple style of kittel and coffin. 


For those of us who have had the experience of serving on a chevrah kaddishah and preparing a body, there is an initial shock at how obvious it is that the soul is gone; the body feels like the empty shell of a cicada, it is incredibly obviously devoid of the soul it once housed. I was so shaken to take in this realization; the soul had moved on and will no longer play this instrument. 

This is all by way of introducing a precious, powerful and very personal letter about the subject of taharah received from one of our readers: