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A transformational procedure in which Jewish dead are prepared for burial.

One of the most sacred tasks in our lives is the care of our loved ones after death. Judaism has developed sensitive and caring practices for our dead throughout the centuries. Taharah is one of these. Between death and burial, the Chevrah Kadisha (those who care for the dead) comes together to prepare the body of a deceased Jew for burial through a sensitive ritual of washing and dressing that is accompanied by readings and sacred intent. The central values underpinning taharah are respect, honor, and comfort for both the deceased and the living. The taharah seeks to maintain the dignity of the dead while easing the grief of the mourners. It teaches us how important respect is in Judaism, in both life and death. The performance of the taharah is a holy act.

Jewish custom asks that a body be buried as soon as possible after death. Between death and burial is a liminal time in which our focus is on caring for the dead. The Chevrah Kadisha performs the transformational mitzvah of preparing the body for burial. This ceremony is a blessing for both those who perform it and those who receive it. It is for all Jews.

The ceremony of taharah has two simultaneous tasks. First, the care of the body, a cleansing and purifying of the holy vessel that held the now detached soul. And second, support for the soul in transition, what could be called a midwifing of the soul for the next phase of its journey. Through a sensitive process of washing and dressing the body, accompanied by readings and sacred intent we are helping a holy being, a soul, move from one realm to another (from this world to the next). Taharah is a blending of community, sacred intent, prayer and text-based liturgy, with physical actions designed to create a unique and beautiful “sacred space” to support the soul on its journey. The text of the taharah liturgy is based in Kabbalah (mystical teachings) and is specifically designed to protect and assist this soul as it moves between realms of existence.

Taharah includes elements that interact through the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and the physical, simultaneously. These are implemented through five phases of action:

(1) Preparations and opening prayers
(2) Cleansing the body physically (rechitzah)
(3) Washing and purifying the deceased spiritually (taharah)
(4) Dressing the body in burial garments (halbashah) and placing it in the casket (halanah)
(5) The closing prayers and debriefing

When there is a death, the Chevrah Kadisha members are called upon to perform this beautiful practice as lovingly and respectfully as possible. Everything is done in confidence to protect the dignity of the deceased. The taharah team is very sensitive to the sacredness of the task and the modesty of the deceased.

The taharah liturgy includes a number of prayers and readings in both English and Hebrew. The prayers and readings recited during the ritual have intellectual, physical, and spiritual value for both the deceased and the members of the chevrah who are involved. Some groups have everyone recite the prayers, while other groups have a single reader or pair of readers. Some recite everything in Hebrew only, others in English only, and still others in both languages, sometimes simultaneously.

The dead are traditionally clothed in white, simple, often hand-sewn, cotton or linen garments that are modeled after the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Temple times, on Yom Kippur. Everyone is traditionally buried the same way since we are all equally holy and worthy of respect.

To better understand this along with the feelings involved in the performance of this sacred work, see Jewish Rites of Death: Stories of Beauty and Transformation, by Richard A. Light; a book in which some 20 authors share what it feels like to care for the dying and the dead; and the short video, A Conversation with Karen Binioff Friedman. Karen is an artist who paints images that convey the feelings and actions of taharah; in this short video, she explains taharah and her art.

The Performance of Taharah
The details of each step of the taharah ritual are summarized here. If more in-depth understanding is desired, read one or both of the following taharah manuals:

● Chesed Shel Emet, The Truest Act of Kindness, 3rd Edition, by Rabbi Stuart Kelman and Dan Fendel (This manual explains the liturgy in detail.)
● To Midwife A Soul, Guidelines for Performing Taharah, 6th Edition, by Richard A. Light (This manual includes chanting, taharah ruchanit (virtual taharah), and nonbinary liturgy, and is specifically organized for ease of use in the taharah room.)

Taharah procedures are organized into the five main steps mentioned above:

(1) Preparations and opening prayers
Several important events happen during this first phase of the ritual, beginning with the leader checking out the room and the deceased, and then briefing the team on what’s coming. This phase also includes a review of the procedure by the leader for new team members, and assigning roles to specific team members when necessary. The team may recite a prayer setting intentions to see the face of God in each other as well as the deceased and then enters the room in silence to begin laying out supplies, donning protective clothing, and preparing the casket. The decedent is covered with a sheet if not already covered, while preparatory readings are recited.

(2) Cleansing the body physically (rechitzah)
This phase is similar to a sponge bath for the deceased, performed as gently and carefully as one might for a newborn baby. Clothing on the body is removed and the body is laid on the table covered by a clean sheet. While readings from Zachariah and Song of Songs are recited, the body is completely washed using warm water and soft cloth or batting, fingernails and toenails are cleaned and trimmed, and medical devices are removed if possible while maintaining the dignity of the deceased. During all of the washing, most teams have the covering sheet remain in place to preserve the modesty and dignity of the deceased; corners are picked up, skin washed under where the sheet was, and then the corner replaced. Some groups rinse the body before covering it with a new, clean dry sheet.

(3) Washing and purifying the deceased spiritually (taharah)
Team members ritually wash hands again, and don clean gloves, and buckets are filled with clean water. This is the spiritual washing phase that is accomplished by simulating the immersion into a natural body of water (mayyim hayyim – living waters). The simulation is performed by pouring nine kavim (approximately 24 quarts) of water in a continuous stream over the deceased, or by immersing the body into a mikvah (ritual bath). After this, a clean dry sheet is placed over the body, and both the body and then the table are dried thoroughly. Once the body is dried, another clean dry sheet replaces the wet covering.

(4) Dressing the body in the burial garments (halbashah) and placing it in the casket (halanah)
Now the deceased is dressed in tachrichim (traditional burial garments, designed to resemble the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the days of the Temple on Yom Kippur). These clothes are made from cotton or linen, have no pockets, buttons, or snaps, and include pants, a shirt, a jacket, a head covering, a belt and leg ties. The pants have a tie at the waist, the shirt and jacket include a tie at the neck, and there are ties for the legs. Each of these ties is secured in a way that represents Hebrew letters suggesting a name of God. As each piece of the tachrichim (burial garments) is put onto the body, a specific phrase from Leviticus (Chapter 16) is recited that is related to that piece.

Once the deceased is dressed, the aron (casket) is prepared by placing a rectangular sheet-like cloth (called a sovev) across into the casket, with the corners overlapping the sides and ends. If the deceased wore a tallit (prayer shawl) during life, a tallit will be placed into the casket after removing one of the tzitzit (fringes on the corners).

The body is then lowered gently into the aron (casket). The tallit is wrapped around the shoulders. Earth from Israel is sprinkled into the casket and on specific areas of the body, broken pottery is placed on the eyes and mouth, and the body is wrapped up in the sovev like a swaddled baby.

(5) The closing prayers and debriefing
The team then formally asks the deceased for forgiveness for anything they did that was not respectful or dignified. Often a lit candle is placed upon the closed casket. At this point several concluding prayers and Biblical passages are recited, some of which are related to the protection of the deceased for their upcoming journey.

Once completed, the aron is moved outside of the taharah room, the room is straightened up and gear put away, the team washes their hands again both ritually and with warm water and soap, and the team then assembles in a separate room for the post-taharah debriefing. Here, the team members’ emotional health is supported, as participation in this ritual can be very powerful for some participants. In addition, any practical issues that need to be addressed can be discussed outside of the confines of the holy space encapsulating the taharah itself. It is here also that many teams do a closing ritual to separate between this spiritually profound space in which death is a hairbreadth away and the outside mundane world of everyday life.

Every community has its own local customs on how the ritual is performed in that community. But regardless of variations found between communities, the central elements of this ritual remain essentially identical worldwide.

If a body is to be transported for burial in Israel, a certificate stating that a taharah was performed is required to accompany the body.

For a more in-depth understanding of taharah, please watch this recording of a powerful conference taharah demonstration (with extensive Q&A session at the end) along with its PowerPoint slides.