LET’S EXPLORE… TAHARA

In earlier articles we talked about the traditional Jewish practice of burial preparation called a tahara, where a small group of congregants gather and lovingly prepare the body for burial.  The synagogue group who performs this service is called the Chevra Kadisha (sacred society).

Thankfully, Temple Emanu-el is a relatively young congregation.  Members of the Chevra Kadisha sometimes go weeks or months without getting called; but when a call comes, we must answer it quickly; often have only a day in which to perform the necessary rites.

Who are these Temple Emanu-El members and why do that take on this task?  We asked several of them that question and here is what they had told us.

“I strive for moments of serenity in my daily life, and participating in a tahara fills me with the feeling of serenity that I need.   The spirit of the deceased hovers over me to make sure that what I am doing protects the dignity of the process.” Steve Zizzer

After touring Israel and vising Massada, I was so touched, that when we returned home I wanted to help revive this ancient Jewish practice in our synagogue.  Many of us get soul satisfaction by doing this Mitzvah, where no one can thank us.  We do tahara from the heart, not for the recognition we may receive.” Reba Herzfeld.

This is one of the ways I can give back to my community.  I like the idea that we take care of our Temple Emanu-el family and that we can provide this service to our community.  Not everyone is cut out for this type of work.  Those of us who can have a sacred obligation to help fulfil this fundamental Jewish ritual.”  Robert Wittenstein

This is one of the quiet ways we can help our synagogue community.  We are the last people who are in a position to do something nice for a member.  This is a mitzvah that many people feel they cannot perform but it is an important service and it is a meaningful service”, Peter Birnbaum

If you are interested learning more, and perhaps participating in Temple Emanu-El’s Chevre Kedisha, please contact Robert Wittenstein at robertlw@nullmindspring.com or Reba Herzfeld at RebaReneeKay@nullaol.com.


 

We have talked about the traditional Jewish practice of burial preparation called a tahara, where a small group of congregants gather and lovingly prepare the body for burial.  The synagogue group who performs this service is called the Chevra Kadisha (sacred society).  The cleansing process and prayers draw a lot of concepts from the mikvah.  The ritual cleansing washes away sin and purifies the spirit.  The garments are plain white muslin.  Rather than dress up, the traditional Jewish approach is to dress plainly signifying that we are all equal in death and we are all equal in God’s eye.

The final prayer we recite is a psalm 23:

God is my shepherd; I shall not want.

God makes me to lie down in green pastures;

leads me beside the still waters and restores my soul.

You guide me in straight paths for the sake of Your name.

Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.

You have set a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I will dwell in the house of God forever.  Amen


When we experience a death in the family we rely on family and friends, and our synagogue community to help us get through this emotional and stressful time.  We also rely on ritual.  From wearing a piece of torn cloth, to personally placing a small amount of earth on the coffin at the grave site to saying Kaddish, we evoke meaningful and traditional practices to help us find peace and comfort.One of these rituals is the performance of a tahara, a traditional Jewish preparation for burial.  The synagogue group who performs this service is called the Chevra Kadisha (sacred society).For the last several years, Temple Emanu-el has had its own Chavra Kadish.  (Before that, we relied on congregants from other synagogues to perform these services, or families omitted this part of the Jewish burial.)It works like this:  When a family member of a congregant, dies, the male or female chairperson of the Chevra Kadisha is notified.   Preparation teams are gender specific.  A group of 3-5 members of the Chevra Kadisha gather in a special taharah room in the funeral home.  Prayers are recited; the body is washed (twice) and carefully dressed in a traditional linen burial outfit.  More payers are said, and the body is placed in the coffin with a small amount of earth from Israel.  It takes about an hour.Respectful silence is maintained and the guiding principal is to show respect for the dignity of the deceased.It is a somber task, but a rewarding and satisfying way to contribute to the synagogue and our community.  We are the last people to do something nice for a member of our extended religious family.


The Reform Jewish community has experienced significant changes in its burial practices over the last decade or two. The shift to more traditional Jewish practices in the Reform Jewish community provides new options to families when a loved one dies and offers new opportunities for rewarding spiritual observances for the community.

Taharah is the Jewish practice of ritually washing a body with water and dressing it in a white linen shroud prior to placing the body into a wooden casket. As men or women pour water over a body, they recite certain prayers in honor of the deceased, prayers that implore God to receive this person in love.

The formal name for such a group of Jews, acting as they are out of sense of mitzvah (religious obligation) is a Chevre Kedisha, a holy burial society. Increasingly, Reform Jews are turning to a Chevre Kedisha to prepare a family member for burial.

Over the next few weeks we will explore the tahara as a traditional practice in Judaism and share some of the thoughts of those in the Temple Emanu-El community who have dedicated themselves to performing this service for our synagogue community.

If you are interested learning more, and perhaps participating in Temple Emanu-El’s Chevre Kedisha, please contact Robert Wittenstein at robertlw@nullmindspring.com or Reba Herzfeld at RebaReneeKay@nullaol.com.