WINNER of the 2006 KORET INTERNATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD
in the category of
Jewish Life & Living
NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD 2005 WINNER (runner up)
in the category of
Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice
by Rochel U. Berman
Foreword by Rabbi Irving Greenberg
A basic tenet of Judaism is the obligation to value and serve the deceased, to extend dignity beyond death.
In Judaism, a death is the affair of the entire community. Preparation of the dead for burial is undertaken by a community organization called the Chevra Kadisha, the Sacred Society. The volunteers of the Sacred Society quietly and privately wash, purify and dress the deceased. They simultaneously recite lyrical prayers from Psalms, thereby bearing witness to death as the last of life’s important passages.
Dignity Beyond Death examines the rituals of preparing the dead for burial from the point of view of those volunteers who undertake it, including chapters on the Holocaust and terrorism. For the first time, through personal interviews, the author shares a wealth of fascinating anecdotal material that will engage the reader in the humanity and ultimate dignity of this time-honored deed.
Rochel Udovitch Berman was a member of the Congregation Rosh Pinah Chevra Kadisha in Westchester, N.Y. for seventeen years. She is currently a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kadisha and serves as a consultant to the Congregation B’nai Torah Chevra Kadisha in Boca Raton, Florida. In 2004, she narrated a Public Broadcasting System segment on Chevra Kadisha that aired on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
Mrs. Berman holds a master’s degree in group work and community organization from Hunter College School of Social Work and has written and lectured extensively. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, Voluntary Action Leadership, The Gerontologist and Religious Education.
As a public relations professional, she has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the “Best of the Big Apple,” given by the Public Relations Society of America for her work on the First International Gathering of Children Hidden During World War II. Most recently, Mrs. Berman held the post of Executive Director of the American Society for Yad Vashem.
She lives with her husband, George, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg is the president of the Jewish Life Network/ Steinhardt Foundation and the author of The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (Simon & Shuster, 1988), Living in the Image of God: Jewish Teachings to Perfect the World (with Shalom Freedman; Jason Aronson, 1998), and For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (Jewish Publication Society, 2004).
Hardcover, 223 pages
Praise for Dignity Beyond Death:
“Dignity Beyond Death is a passionate and deeply informed study of one of the most ancient and significant rituals of Jewish practice. Written in a lively and engaging style by one whose authority is drawn from long-time experience, this book will serve as a standard for years to come.”
-Professor Froma I. Zeitlin, Director of Judaic Studies, Princeton University
“This book will shed light on an often overlooked, profoundly beautiful and deeply human ritual practice, which will have enormous appeal for observant and non-observant Jews alike.”
-Rabbi Irving Greenberg, President of the Jewish Life Network
“…a must for Jews confronting issues of death and mourning in their personal or professional lives. Jews and non-Jews alike will be compelled by the implicit contrast with modern commercial funerary practices.”
-Mary Rose Noberini, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, Manhattan College
"Dignity Beyond Death brings together the voices of ordinary people engaged in an extraordinary task. In its pages we learn about the deep spiritual meaning that Judaism attaches to death and the preparation for burial. The impact of this mitzvah on the volunteer members of the Chevra Kadisha is sensitively rendered in this compelling volume. Rochel Berman continues her acts of loving kindness by sharing this world with all of us."
-Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Senior Rabbi, Boca Raton Synagogue
"Berman’s informative study of the little-known ritual of tahara sheds light on an ancient and significant aspect of Judaism."
-From the selected list of featured recent books for Jewish Book Month 2005
Removing shrouds of misconception surrounding Jewish burial practices
Most people prefer to avoid the topic of death, and understandably so. Our culturally ingrained preference for avoiding this subject has led to what Rochel U. Berman, author of Dignity Beyond Death labels as rampant ignorance.
Berman conducted an informal survey in which she asked 100 Jewish men and women, selected randomly, what they knew about Jewish funeral practices and the work of the Chevra Kadisha (literally, "Holy Society"; the group of people who prepare the body of deceased Jews for burial).
She discovered that most people had no idea about customs regarding preparation for Jewish burial. The answers she received ranged from opinions that the deceased should be buried in their best clothes and have an elaborate casket "as a sign of respect," to "tahara (ritual washing, purifying and dressing of the deceased) is only for the Orthodox." Even in traditional homes, says Berman, the topic of death is almost never discussed, especially in front of children.
Berman's volunteer work as a member of the Chevra Kadisha allowed her "to replace discomfort and ignorance with understanding and appreciation." In Dignity Beyond Death, she tactfully and with reverence imparts information on a subject that is often rife with myth and misconception.
Throughout the book, Berman shares both her own experience with the Chevra, "the most profound expression of my Judaism," and that of numerous others. She covers the practical aspects of the tahara n the correct procedures involved in washing and dressing the body; as well as the basics, including who is entitled (all Jews), and who can perform this mitzvah. (Requirements vary widely among congregational and community Chevra Kadisha, but there are some "standard" laws. For example Kohanim are not allowed in the presence of the deceased, but can serve as dispatchers.)
She also guides the reader through the physical and emotional challenges of a child's death. In these cases, the author recommends using Chevra members who don't have children of the same age as the deceased.
A chapter each is devoted to dignity in the wake of terrorism and in the face of the Holocaust because of the unique circumstances they present(ed).
To comply with Jewish practices in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, Berman shares the heartbreaking challenges that face Israel's ZAKA (Disaster Victims' Identification) organization. ZAKA members not only collect body parts including every drop of blood from the victims, they also undertake the wrenching task of informing next-of-kin.
Says one 16-year member of the Chevra Kadisha of ZAKA, "It is also my job to inform families about the death of their loved ones. When you arrive, they might be eating or watching television. They might be laughing. Then, in an instant, the devastating news destroys a whole family."
"The Holocaust robbed the Jewish people of six million of its shining stars," says Berman in the chapter on the subject. "They went to their deaths without shrouds, without memorial prayers and without gravestones." She discusses how Jews in the ghettos, led by rabbis who often had to make rulings with life or death implications, did their best to show respect to the dead under unspeakable conditions. Following the war, says Berman, some survivors became involved in the Chevra Kadisha in direct response to their wartime experiences.
Dignity Beyond Death begins with an informative forward by Rabbi Irving Greenberg and concludes with a detailed procedure manual for the process of tahara (following the Ashkenazic customs). The book includes photographs of burial shrouds and a casket as well as a four-page glossary.
Cleveland Jewish News
One of the great kindnesses one can perform in Jewish tradition is preparation for burial and burial itself. Tradition says that this mitzvah is higher even than tzedakah, because one cannot possibly receive reward from the person served. The organization that prepares a body for burial is called the “Chevra Kadisha,” the Sacred Society. These modest and committed volunteers privately wash, purify and dress the deceased. As they do so they recite lyrical prayers from Psalms, witnessing to death as the last of life’s important passages. Rochel Berman’s book examines the rituals of preparation for burial, including chapters on the Shoah and on terrorism. Through personal interviews she shares a wealth of fascinating anecdotal material that is most engaging, and renders dignity to this ancient and honorable custom. Included is an excellent Procedure Manual for Purification, and other useful hints for forming and activating a Chevra Kadisha. A most useful handbook for time of need, which ultimately involves all of us.
-Dov Peretz Elkins
Jewish Media Review
Dignity Beyond Death is a surprisingly effective and educationally
valuable book. Surprisingly, I say, because who would have thought that a
book that examines the rituals for preparing the dead for burial from the
point of view of those volunteers who undertake it would be so engaging.
But, as Yitz Greenberg - who with his wife Blu had suffered the recent loss
of one of their sons - writes in his introduction:
"I was touched and stirred, imagining the loving kindness, the austere
dignity, the human care, the respect for privacy, the grace-filled help
for the helpless which marked the ancient ritual of tahara (purification)
which was done for [our son] as it has been done for Jews for thousands of
years. As I read, I felt a deep gratitude to Rochel Berman for
undertaking to bring this good deed, this responsibility, to the attention
of the people of Israel, so that more and more people will be the
beneficiaries of this final act of love. " (p. 10)
The importance of the book, then, is in making it clear that teaching this
mitzvah to our students need not be frightening or disturbing, but rather
calming and evocative.
I will not here summarize the book's discussion of the description of the
tahara, the suggestions for forming a chevra kadisha, or the personal
reactions of participants presented. Educators who want a good discussion
of these topics will have no trouble understanding their own reading of
the clearly written text. Rather, I would briefly emphasize the
importance of bringing this mitzvah to the attention of our students.
Indeed, not everyone is in agreement that such a discussion has a place in
a classroom. But such people leave their students unprepared when they
have to confront death. That is the wrong time to have to think about
these issues. Berman writes that she had posted a query on Lookjed asking
how the topic was dealt with in various schools. She notes:
"Although I didn't expect many responses, I was surprised to receive none
at all. I can only speculate that most are not teaching it and therefore
didn't respond. So then the question is -why are they not teaching it?
It could be that it has not occurred to any of them to teach about the
Jewish preparation for burial. Some might even think that it is not an
appropriate topic, while others may not know how to go about it. And
finally, there are probably a good many who cannot confront the topic of
death for themselves, so they are certainly not going to address it with
their students." (p. 171)
Bookjed readers will certainly find instructive Berman's subsequent
discussion on why this topic should indeed find its way into the classroom
along with her presentation of actual educational practices.
My own preference - that which I do in my own classroom - is a
well-defined unit on Death and Dying as part of a Jewish Philosophy class.
It is possible there to have a good discussion on, say, "What goes through
the mind of a person when he or she has to suddenly confront the death of
a close relative?" and follow it with a presentation on how various
halakhot and customs address those issues. I devote another period in
this series to the chevra kadisha, focused primarily on why students think
they would be comfortable or uncomfortable participating in a tahara or
shmira. This year I brought Rochel Berman into the classroom in the form
of a ten-minute video clip of her interview of the Religion and Ethics
television program. This is a video presentation of the print version of
parts of this book. She talks about her feelings as part of the chevra,
and goes through what seems to be an actual tahara (but which is really
being done on a mannequin). Students found it both instructive and
But one need not have a full unit on the topic to bring up the topic. For
example, the death of Aharon's children -or, say, Yaakov's death-can be an
entr?e point for this discussion, and other possibilities quickly suggest
themselves. The important thing is to plan out the presentation so that
it comes up each year. In many ways, the video clip will be a more
important tool in the actual classroom presentation. But the book
Dignity Beyond Death will be an important tool in preparing for that
(Send requests for "Jewish Burial Practices" to Lylian Morcos at Channel
13, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, NY 10001, Phone: 212-560-6994. e-mail:
email@example.com; or contact The Resource Center at the Board of Jewish
Education of Greater New York.)
-Joel B. Wolowelsky
Lookstein Bookjed Digest
Between this world and the next
What do most Jews, including those with a religious education, know about Jewish burial? Most know that the deceased is buried in tachrichim (shrouds) which have no pockets, and that males are buried in a tallit.
Yet, as Rochel Berman elucidates in Dignity Beyond Death, there is an elaborate procedure to be followed prior to the memorial service and interment called tahara, or ritual purification.
Some describe tahara as being akin to a three-act play: Act I is "Cleansing"; Act II is "Purification"; Act III is "Dressing." This procedure is carried out by a group of volunteers (where possible) called the Hevra Kadisha (Holy Brotherhood). The various traditions involved are post-biblical, based mostly on kabbalistic sources from the later Middle Ages. (However, the custom of dressing the deceased in tachrichim comes from Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, compiler of the Mishna, who wanted both rich and poor to be buried in the same, simple manner.)
Behind the concept of tahara is the belief that a dead person must be pure and clean before the soul meets his/her Creator. Tahara consists of cleaning the body - removing all makeup, cleaning finger and toenails - and then pouring nine kavim (24 quarts) of water in buckets in a continuous manner over the deceased. If a Jew died uncircumcised (such as happens with many born under Soviet Communism), he must be circumcised prior to the tahara. The same is true of a male child who died before having had a brit.
After being washed, the body is clothed in a variety of garments, (the tachrichim) which include a hat, jacket, belt and linen shoes. The eyes are covered with two pieces of potsherds, and a mixture of vinegar and egg-white is daubed on the forehead. (In a footnote, Berman states that the daubing custom probably began during the Middle Ages, when bodies were transported to distant gravesites by non-Jews, so that the daubing indicated to the receiving Hevra Kadisha that this was a Jewish body and not that of a gentile).
In the Diaspora, earth from Israel is also sprinkled over the body, and a simple wooden coffin is prepared with at least three holes in the bottom to comply with the biblical verse: "You are from dust, and to dust you return."
Dignity Beyond Death aims not only to present a detailed guide to the tahara procedure (indeed, the appendix includes a manual with illustrations and the verses and prayers recited at each stage), but also encourages the creation of more volunteer groups in synagogues and communities.
Berman recognizes that the tahara procedure may repel people who can't handle all the requirements of the ritual, and often quotes people who were once faint-hearted.
In the words of one such person: "My membership [in the Hevra Kadisha] has enriched my whole personality. I am more sensitive to others, and since joining I have increased my commitment to Judaism."
It should be noted that some Orthodox Hevrot require that their members be fully observant, while others do not.
In discussing the Hevra Kadisha, Berman fails to mention anything about how its members are recruited in Israel. Are the committees paid or voluntary?
Berman herself is a veteran volunteer, with 20 years at the Hevra Kadisha in her synagogue in New York, and has dedicated herself to helping other synagogues and communities establish and train similar committees.
THE AUTHOR blames our religious schools for Jewish ignorance regarding tahara. In my own rabbinical education, we were never taught about tahara - a subject to which I was exposed only after becoming a congregational rabbi observing the ritual.
Berman assumes that once Jews learn the details of tahara they will not only want to volunteer for membership in a Hevra Kadisha, but will also want their loved ones to undergo the complete ritual.
Personally, I question whether learning all the details automatically leads to a desire to undergo all three stages of the procedure. However, it is my feeling that many more Jews, even those who prefer to forgo all three stages of tahara, would not object to having their loved ones dressed in tachrichim, in the spirit of Rabbi Yehudah's ruling.
Berman's book also has a chapter on Jews who are exempt from tahara. She quotes the Code of Jewish Law in reference to those who died for kiddush hashem, or the sanctification of God's name: "One who was assassinated by a non-Jew, although he did not bleed at all, should nevertheless be buried in the clothes he wore."
This ruling is extended to soldiers killed in the line of duty, or terror victims. These are buried with all their bloody clothes and body parts because they too died al kiddush hashem. She quotes the following rationale by a contemporary rabbi for the omission of tahara: "Any Jew who was murdered because he is a Jew goes up to the Heavenly court the exact way he was killed in order to make a statement about the sacrifice he/she has made in God's Holy Name."
An interesting chapter deals with the Twin Towers disaster in New York. From September 2001 to April 2002 several hundred Jews of all ages volunteered to remain in a special trailer at Ground Zero to which recovered bodies were brought, reciting Psalms and other prayers round the clock. Even on Shabbat the prayers were not interrupted. Girls from Stern college who lived within walking distance continued the recitation in fulfillment of the Jewish tradition that a body should not be left alone until after its interment.
Despite the fact that this book does not mention the tahara customs of non-Ashkenazi Jews, and is weak on the history of the various customs, it should be read by every educated Jew. It is not only informative, but uplifting.
-Joshua J. Adler
Death is no longer taboo, but there are still questions that are hard to ask. The customs of the tahara, the ritual of purification that follows death, are worthy of close study.
Performing these tasks is traditionally regarded as a great mitzvah. For those who are curious, for those who have wondered about participating in these rituals, or for those who provide medical or psychological support around death, this is a practical guide which also provides some fascinating insight into the anthropology of the Chevra Kadisha.
Australian Jewish News
Death and dying tends to be a taboo subject in our society. Even though Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her important book on the subject in 1969, we continue to avoid conversations about death and its inevitability. As a consequence, we know little about death until we ourselves or a loved one face it. Jews are generally aware of the fact that burial has to take place quickly; that mourners "sit shiva;" and that we observe the annual anniversary of a close relative's death by lighting a "yahrzeit" candle. Most of us do not know what happens between the time of death and the funeral. This book ably fills that void in our education by carefully and thoroughly describing the "tahara," the ritual purification process of cleansing, washing and dressing the deceased. It also informs us about the "Chevra Kadisha," the Sacred Society of volunteers who humanely, privately, and with dignity, carry out this "mitzvah" while reciting prayers and performing "this final act of loving-kindness."
The author of this book, Rochel U. Berman, a professional social worker, lives in Boca Raton where she is a member of the Chevra Kadisha. Before moving to Florida, she served for seventeen years with the Congregation Rosh Pinah Chevra Kadisha in Westchester County, New York. She has lectured, consulted, and written on the subject of her excellent book. She became involved in this volunteer effort after the death of her father when she discovered the care and respect given to his body by the Chevra Kadisha. Since then, she has participated in many "tahara" rituals; recruited and trained others; and interviewed a number of participants. Thus, the book is the admirable result of her own experience as well what she learned from other volunteers.
Berman carefully and thoroughly describes the act of "tahara" and the reactions of those who volunteer to fulfill this tradition. She briefly describes the history of the Chevra Kadisha but her emphasis is on the process itself and its special meaning for the participants.
Problems of performing "taharot" on children, accident and murder victims, and those disfigured by their final illness are sensitively described. Particularly moving chapters consider the problems with respect to tahara during the Holocaust; when terrorists kill Israelis; and after the World Trade Center disaster.
On a practical level, Berman discusses starting a Chevra Kadisha; training its members; and spreading information about Jewish preparation for burial. She describes teaching school children about death and dying, arguing impressively that a Jewish high school graduate should know about tahara and the Chevra Kadisha. Berman concludes her presentation with an appendix in which she offers a "sample tahara procedure manual."
As Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in the foreword to this outstanding book, we owe Rochel Berman "deep gratitude" for bringing the ancient ritual and good deed of tahara to wider attention.
-Dr. Morton I. Teicher
Palm Beach South Jewish Journal and Westchester Jewish Chronicle
Author pens book to bring sacred Jewish custom out of obscurity
Little did Rochel Berman know that when she attended her father's funeral in 1985, her life would change the way it did.
"When I was standing by his graveside, I was very aware something had been done to him, but I was not sure exactly what," said Berman, referring to the Jewish burial preparations, known as tahara.
Soon after, at Berman's synagogue in New York, the rabbi was looking for more women to volunteer with burial preparations for the deceased. Berman volunteered, and soon was a part of the Chevra Kadisha, the sacred society for those who practice tahara.
Two decades later, Berman has written a book on the practice, "Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial," fullfilling a lifelong dream.
"I have been writing most of my adult life," said Berman. "I always knew I wanted to write a book but I never knew about what."
Berman came up with the idea shortly after retiring to Florida three years ago with her husband George.
The purpose of the book, Berman says, is to bring tahara, which started 3,500 years ago, out of obscurity. She said she believes the practice is not well understood, which is why by her estimates less than 20 percent of Jewish people undergo tahara after death.
"It's a beautiful practice," said Berman. "It is the most profound connection I have ever had with my Judaism faith."
Berman enjoys performing the burial preparations because it is task-oriented. Bodies are washed, purified, and then dressed while songs and scriptures are read aloud. This is considered the last important passage in the life of a Jew. Berman likes to refer to it all as a "three-act play."
George also partakes in tahara. The couple finds tahara a fullfilling way to serve the Jewish community.
Berman is a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kadisha and serves as a consultant to the Congregation B'nai Torah Chevra Kadisha. Berman and her husband also started the Florida chapter of the American Society for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. Through the chapter, they have collected about 130 pages of testimony from Holocaust survivors. Berman used some of the testimonies in her book, which came out in May. The couple also has two grown children and three grandchildren.
What are your hobbies?
"Sewing my own clothes. Even though my parents manufactured children's coats, I never learned to sew until I inherited my mother's sewing machine upon her death. I then self-taught myself with the help of a friend."
What is your favorite movie? Book?
Lilies of the Field (1963). The Stranger by Albert Camus.
If you could have dinner with anyone who would it be?
"My husband is the best form of company possible. But if I had to pick someone else, it would be Margaret Mead. She was a social anthropologist who blended knowledge with action. She helped us understand the role that cultural conditioning plays in shaping behavior."
-Angela C. Perez
Palm Beach Post
As much as Rochel Berman’s new book, Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial (Urim Publications), deals with death, it focuses on life. It deals with men and women who become part of their local Chevra Kadisha, literally “holy society,” the group which, according to Jewish tradition, prepares the deceased for burial.
This sensitively and carefully written “Bible” on the customs and practices of Jewish preparation for burial is more than a reference book. Filled with anecdotes and personal remembrances, it is concerned with the effect of these customs on the living, while it illuminates the Jewish approach to preserving the integrity and dignity of the departed on their journey to eternity.
To Mrs. Berman, there is no artificial line between temporal life in this world and the universal life of the spirit—it is one unending continuum.
Not a Bad Place
One of her carefully chosen interviewees, a physician from Vermont, ties his work with his Chevra Kadisha to his belief in the afterworld. As a result of visiting a cemetery as a child with his father he comments, “I never viewed the cemetery as a bad place…Later in life, I…found there was much to support my conviction that the coming of Messiah would be accompanied by the resurrection of the dead.”
Spanning the total Jewish world, from Orthodox to Reform to the unaffiliated, Mrs. Berman presents each person’s perspective towards death and towards life, and intertwines these viewpoints with insight and meaning.
While Dignity beyond Death comprehensively details the historic and current practices of the tahara, the purification ritual, the narrative never descends into the realm of the dry, manual-like catalog. Written with grace and perception, Mrs. Berman speaks to her readers’ hearts and souls, pushing them to face the ritual procedure and then to confront their weltanschauung, their world view, of the termination of life.
In a real sense, the reader becomes part of a personal discussion with Mrs. Berman’s interviewees. Commenting on her mother’s death, Helen Cohan tells Mrs. Berman: “Imagining the grace and respect my mother was afforded in death is an ongoing source of comfort. Her tahara affirms her abiding presence even though she has passed from this life.”
Nor does Mrs. Berman shy away from the darker side of death: suicide, terrorism, killings, and the Holocaust. The perpetrators tried to render their victims anonymous, but Mrs. Berman foils their scheme. She focuses on the brave and honorable survivors, who valiantly preserve the identity and sanctity of the deceased, and on the victims themselves, portraying them as people, not numbers.
“Random and repeated acts of terror in Israel are… an attempt to rob the Jewish people of their identity. Each terrorist act on innocent civilians leaves in its wake blood, human flesh, and an array of body parts that often cannot be identified. The randomness of the victims, in fact, sends the message that their identity is unimportant, any Jew will do,” writes Mrs. Berman.
By painstakingly portraying the work of those groups in Israel that offer religious and communal responses to terror, especially ZAKA, the organization in Israel that, following Jewish law, searches for all body parts, identifies the dead, and assists in the burial of terrorist victims, Mrs. Berman takes communal disaster and renders it personal. By quoting the survivors and the dedicated communal servants who tend to the deceased and to their families, Mrs. Berman includes the reader in the process of dignifying the dead, and welcoming them into the sphere of eternal life.
Managing the Impossible
In the ultimate deliberate attempt to eliminate all remnants of dignity, the Nazis murdered people en masse and buried them in mass graves. Nevertheless, despite indescribable indignities and dangers, members of the Chevra Kadisha and others throughout Europe sometimes managed to secure burials for relatives and friends.
Mrs. Berman’s survivors tell incredible tales. Dalia Ofer, a Holocaust historian who has analyzed the heroic efforts of these survivors, says “The quest for even a semblance of normalcy was what Jews desperately tried to achieve, knowing full well that everything in the ghetto defied, even negated, normalcy.”
The Chevra Kadisha was one of those organizations that bravely defied the Nazis and secured burials whenever possible, at the risk of the lives of Chevra members.
In this marvelous, sensitive, and insightful book, the reader triumphs over the fearful and isolating aspects of death, and unites with those who see death as a stepping stone to another life, or at least, as an aspect of life to be treated with dignity, respect and love.
The Jewish Voice and Opinion (Englewood, NJ)
Tahara: Securing a Dignified Final Passage
By Rochel U. Berman
The Museum of Science and Industry, located in Tampa, Fla., recently opened what it is describing as an "educational" exhibition devoted to the body. Among the "pieces" on display are skinless corpses sliced in two, tarred human lungs, dehydrated brains, a gallery of dead fetuses, and a variety of sliced and diced body parts.
As a volunteer member of my community's Chevra Kadisha, or burial society, I found myself troubled by the prospect of Floridians flocking to so ghoulish an exhibition. Judaism's preparation for burial — a ritual known as tahara (purification) — demands that respect for the body and the soul extend beyond death. The Chevra Kadisha quietly and privately washes, purifies and dresses the deceased in white linen shrouds tied with knots in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of one of the holy names for God. Chevra Kadisha members also recite lyrical prayers as a way of bearing witness to the last of life's passages. After burial society members have gently lowered the body into its casket, they gather around it and ask the deceased to forgive them for any unintentional lack of respect during the tahara. The casket is closed and remains so until burial. What a contrast to the carnival freak show currently being staged at Tampa's museum!
The overriding principle informing Jewish burial customs is kavod hamet, respect for the body of the deceased. At death, the soul (thought to be the spirit of God) leaves the body and enters a transitional stage until burial. Judaism teaches that the soul hovers near the body and that the totality of the person who died continues to exist until burial. From the moment of death until burial, the deceased is provided with a shomer, a round-the-clock honor guard, who prays for the soul by reciting Psalms.
The principle of respect for the dead is put into practice with great attention to detail. Even though the body is covered by a sheet, additional small coverings are provided for the face and the genitals. As a sign of deference, the body is never placed in a face-down position. In order to wash the back, for example, the body is rolled from side to side. One never passes objects over the deceased. If one member of the team needs scissors to remove a tag, he or she (men serve men and women serve women) will walk around the table to get them. Male members of the Chevra are also not allowed to have the fringes of their tallit katan (fringed undergarment) visible during the tahara. The fringes are a reminder to obey the commandments of the Torah, and since the deceased no longer can do this, having them visible is considered an affront.
Another of the process's requirements is that blood released from the body after the time of death cannot be washed away. It is considered part of the body and must be buried with the deceased. Blood spots on sheets are cut out and placed at the foot of the casket. Open wounds are treated with a coagulant, and the cloth used for this likewise is placed at the foot of the casket.
As a symbolic tie to the Land of Israel, most burial societies sprinkle Israeli soil in the casket, on the eyes, heart and, with men, on the brit milah area of the shrouded body. Finally, it is customary to use a plain pine wood casket that has holes drilled in the bottom. The simplicity of the casket speaks to the fact that all are considered equal at the time of death, while the holes allow the fulfillment of the biblical verse, "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."(Genesis 3:9)
Beautification, embalming and cremation are considered by Jewish law to be impermissible violations of the body. Following the tahara, viewing of the deceased is only permitted for identification purposes.
In Greenfield, Mass., which has a Jewish population of 2,000, the Chevra Kadisha has added an additional practice to the usual customs. Phyllis Nahman, head of the women's Chevra, described the practice:
"Before we perform the tahara, we always gather as a small group for about 15 minutes. We center ourselves with guided meditation or just by talking about the deceased person's life. It helps to bring us into holy space. Prior to this gathering it is someone's responsibility to speak to a member of the bereaved family to garner information about the deceased. We have been astounded to hear about the deceased person's amazing acts of bravery and courage. Not only is it healing for the family to reminisce, but it enables the Chevra to get a sense of the whole person, which in turn dignifies the ritual."
Chevra Kadisha members who face the most daunting challenges are the first-line responders to terrorist attacks in Israel. The members of ZAKA Search and Rescue, an organization established to identify disaster and terrorist victims, are responsible for identifying bodies, informing the next of kin and preparing the deceased for burial. Motti, a ZAKA member, talked about the challenges he faces:
"We collect every drop of blood and the smallest piece of a body. Every time a blood vessel bursts, there is a cascade of blood. We have special materials that help us absorb this blood for burial. When there is blood commingled from a number of deceased victims, then it is buried in one of the existing graves or in a separate grave called kever achim, the grave of our brothers."
Providing dignity beyond death not only honors the deceased but also provides comfort for the bereaved family. Helen Cohan of Boca Raton, Fla., recently reflected on the death of her mother, Sabina Mager:
"Imagining the grace and respect my mother was afforded in death is an ongoing source of comfort. Her tahara affirms her abiding presence even though she has passed from this life."
-Rochel U. Berman is a member of the Boca Raton Synagogue Chevra Kadisha. She is the author of the recently published "Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial" (Urim Publications), from which this essay is adapted.
Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial by Rochel U. Berman (Urim, cloth, $24.95). Berman is a social worker and was a member of the Congregation Rosh Pinah chevra kadisha (burial society) for 17 years. In this book she explains the rituals of tahara, the ritual of purifying the body for burial in great detail and with much compassion. She offers lots of anecdotes to illustrate her points and also includes chapters on the Holocaust and terrorism. A very edifying look at one of the least-known parts of the Jewish life-cycle.
...there is an interesting book by Rochel U. Berman " Dignity Beyond Death : The Jewish Preparation for Burial" (Urim Publisher $24.95). Rochel is an active member in Chevra Kadisha, the Sacred Society who wash, purify and dress the deceased.
The book tells the history going back to Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenzi in Prague in 1564. Interestingly, much of the organizational structure was influenced by Christian guilds that excluded Jews. The burial washing and dressing is called a "Tahara". The individual's experiences in performing this deed are written about and the religious experience each feels. It is an awkward subject, death, but Rochel Berman handles it with extreme sensitivity.
Talks Books Cable TV
Tahara: Ritual for a burial
Ancient Jewish practice is `comfort for the soul'
When a person dies and the call comes for the ancient Jewish ritual called tahara, Rochel Berman's mission of comforting the soul begins.
"We believe that the soul hovers above the body from the time of death to burial," said Berman of Boca Raton, author of Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial.
Berman will speak about her book and the ritual of tahara performed by the sacred society called Chevra Kadisha on Tuesday at Barnes & Noble in Boca Raton.
Some synagogues don't have enough volunteers for tahara, and Berman is meeting with them to help address that need.
Berman will speak on tahara to about 200 members of Temple Emeth, a Conservative synagogue west of Delray Beach, on Jan. 26.
Rabbi Richard Yellin hopes Berman's talk will encourage women to become part of the synagogue's Chevra Kadisha. The 2,500-member synagogue has a few men who do tahara, but no women, Yellin said.
"One of the commandments of the Torah, the only one related to death, is to be properly buried," Yellin said.
Tahara does that, he said.
"We have to educate people about this. Only pious men should be handling men and only pious women should be handling women," Yellin said. "There's a kind of decency issue involved in it."
Irene Sholk, who lives west of Boynton Beach, knew about tahara through her daughter in Tampa, who would drop everything when the phone rang with the call for the ritual.
"I figured if she could do that, then it's time for me to start," said Sholk, 75, chairwoman of the fledgling group that does tahara at B'nai Torah Congregation west of Boca Raton, where she is a member.
The Conservative synagogue has 10 men and 10 women in the Chevra Kadisha, and most have done tahara in their former synagogues in other states.
"The first time I did tahara, I approached it like most people -- with a little trepidation," Sholk said. "But I was awed by the group of women doing it such a sensitive way, with such respect for the body. There's a procedure, and you do it with very loving care.
"You almost say to yourself, `When it's my time, I hope someone will do this for me with the same respect and sensitivity,'" she said.
"It's in no way morbid or depressing," Sholk said. "If one word would cover it, that word is uplifting. There is a feeling among the group that you're doing something very special."
Respect is fundamental in tahara. Speech is reserved for prayers and for the necessary work of purification. Volunteers never pass anything over the body, but walk softly around it. The genitals are kept covered.
"Privacy, modesty and all those values we live by during our lifetimes become such huge priorities at the end," said Helen Cohan of Boca Raton, who has twice assisted with tahara.
Berman became interested in tahara 20 years ago, when her father died and she was puzzled about the preparations for burial, she said. She had heard about tahara and a short time after her father's passing, her synagogue in New York put out a call for more women to volunteer to perform the ritual. Tahara became part of her life.
Berman and her husband, George Berman, are members of the Orthodox Boca Raton Synagogue, where they are among 100 members of the Chevra Kadisha. Both have done tahara for two decades.
"Between us, we've done 1,600 to 1,800 taharas over 20 years," George Berman said.
Some are more difficult than others.
"There was a young man who was very ill and knew he would be ill for a very long time. He jumped off a building," George said. "That was very difficult, seeing the violence."
There are gruesome deaths from accidents, sickness, murder or bombings.
"Many people die in a certain amount of agony," George said. "By the time I'm finished, they're at peace."
Tubes and other unnatural devices are removed. One step at a time, the body is purified and cleansed, washed with a cascade of 24 quarts of water.
The body is wrapped in an unhemmed white linen shroud to symbolize impermanence. The same linen wrap is used for rich and poor, young and old.
The shroud is tied with knots with three loops to form the Hebrew letter shin, referring to the initial letter of the Hebrew name for the Almighty.
"It is care for the body and comfort for the soul," Rochel said.
-Rhonda J. Miller
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Most people intentionally avoid the topic of death. Since it is an entirely unknown experience, it is a source of great anxiety and unease. Tragically, however, they unintentionally avoid speaking of the chevra kadisha and tahara, a group and a process that are exclusively dedicated to providing great comfort. For too many uneducated (and even educated) Jews, the chevra kadisha and their holy work called tahara have been a taboo topic, rarely mentioned and seldom explained. Indeed, the title chevra kadisha is often mistranslated, or at least misunderstood, to mean "decret burial society."
In truth, the work of the chevra kadisha, "sacred burial society," is described by the Talmud as chesed shel emes - genuine, unreciprocated kindness. The first formal burial society was formed in Prague in the 16th century. However, the practice of tahara, "sacred burial preparation," dates back much farther. The 5th century mishna in Shabbat (23:5) refers to washing and anointing the deceased as a form of honor and respect.
Though Judaism views the soul as immortal and the body as temporal, great honor and dignity are afforded to the remains. Jewish tradition teaches that the extraction of the soul from the body is most often a tremendously painful and anxiety-filled experience. The degree to which the soul identifies and defines itself by the body determines the level of pain the disassociation causes. This state of confusion lasts until the body is returned to the earth from which it was formed. Until then, our tradition teaches, the soul hovers above its former body.
The primary mission of the chevra kadisha and the principle that drives all of its activities is to provide comfort, companionship and consolation to the soul of the deceased during this tenuous time period. These goals are accomplished mainly through the sensitive washing, purifying and dressing of the deceased while simultaneously reciting beautiful prayers, thereby truly granting dignity beyond death.
This beautiful and majestic practice has been one of the best kept secrets among the Jewish community, with only an estimated 15 to 20 percent of Jews receiving tahara after their demise. Equally unappreciated is the incredible impact and influence tahara has had on the lives of those who carry out this sacred mission.
It is in this context that Rochel Berman has contributed a valuable gift to the Jewish people. In her new book, Dignity Beyond Death, she has lifted the veil covering the mysterious activities of the chevra kadisha and revealed much more than just its origins, history and protocols. More significantly, she has provided us with a window through which to peer at tahara and its impact - from the unique perspectives of the volunteers who undertake to perform it.
Dignity Beyond Death provides the reader with a comprehensive study and examination of the full gamut of complex issues involved in participating in this incredible final act of loving kindness. We learn of the various motivations for people to get involved through the voices of those who so selflessly devote themselves to this cause. Additionally, we gain great insight into the joys and obstacles of having to work together - including putting together the team, and conflict resolution.
A full chapter is dedicated to the formidable challenges often confronting the performance of tahara. Members of the chevra kadisha may face tragic circumstances such as taharot on the very young, unusual sources of death, and the performance of tahara in extraordinary locations. Continuing the same theme, independent chapters teach us about dignity in the face of the Holocaust and dignity in the wake of terrorism.
Most profound is the portion of the book dealing with the personal impact on those who perform tahara. Based on the sacred nature and extreme importance of this task, one may have assumed that all members of the chevra kadisha must meet the highest criteria of virtue and piety. In truth, while members of chevra kadisha are virtous and pious, they are also ordinary people with normal lifestyles, regular professions and everyday family obligations. Yet, they almost universally describe how extraordinary they feel when volunteering to participate in burial preparations. A social worker quoted in the book says, "I feel most gratified when the family of the bereaved does not know that I was a member of the team. It makes it more of an act of loving kindness if you receive no recognition or thanks. The satisfaction lies deep within my soul. Nobody can give it to me or take it away from me."
Dignity Beyond Death is equally compelling to both the novice and experienced chevra kadisha member. For the uninitiated, the passionate voices recorded therein are gripping and mesmerizing and will likely evoke a newfound interest and appreciation. For those that have done tahara, the many stories, anecdotes, feelings and emotions are not only familiar, but articulately stated.
This volume represents an excellent addition to any Jewish library. Rochel Berman is to be commended for courageously opening the door to this ancient and sacred practice and inviting us all to enter and learn more.
-Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, The Jewish Press
In her excellent book on chevra kadishas, Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial (Urim), Rochel U. Berman writes about the transcendent power of tahara….
Berman writes that becoming an active member in her local chevra has brought her own mortality into focus and reinforced her links with the stream of Jewish history. This service also becomes a concerete demonstration of her commitment to equality and justice. And being on a Chevra Kadisha has given her a profound means of expressing her Judaism.
Beyond personal transformation, Berman reminds us that the underlying principle of tahara is kavod hamet, to honor the dead. The human body, writes Berman, is the receptacle in which the Almightly places the soul. The body retains its sanctity even after the soul departs. Since the soul has a consciousness after death, the chevra comforts the soul during the tahara. The chevra also comforts the family of the deceased. In one of life's most emotional times, the community stands ready to do the right thing and to comfort the family.
Tahara is the right of all Jews, of all denominations, whether secular or religious. In writing "Dignity Beyond Death," Berman calls each of us to consider volunteering for this honor.
A number of books has been written about the Jewish view of death, as well as customs and mitzvot associated with the end of life. Berman's book is one of the first to really honor those members of the Chevra Kadisha who perform this great act of lovingkindness."
Jewish Herald-Voice (Houston, Texas)
Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say that Judaism is the world's least known religion--even among Jews. Certainly the Jewish way of preparing the body for burial is almost completely unknown to most of us. Those who do it claim no credit and get no praise, and so it is little understood. And in the nonobservant Jewish world, where burial arrangements have been almost completely taken over by undertakers, hardly anything is known about the sacred tradition of tahara (purification), although recently many new burial societies have been formed in the Reform community.
There are many Jewish societies, but only one is known as the hevra kaddisha, the holy society. This indicates the respect the tradition of caring for the dead is given.
Rochel Berman's book Dignity Beyond Death is welcome and much needed. It contains testimonies from many members of the hevra kaddisha who say the sacred task has enriched their lives. It also. has a practical how-to that will be of great help to beginners, and it has much to teach us about the Jewish way in death, dying and living as well.
The hevra kaddisha offers awesome dignity and care to those who have died; it is a responsibility, a commandment and an obligation the living owe them. But when you participate in a tahara or read about how much reverence for the body and soul goes into every one, the words "made in the image of God" take on a new reality.
The tahara begins and ends by asking forgiveness from the dead person, who is addressed by name, for any disrespect that the hevra kaddisha may inadvertently show. The clothes that were once the sign of wealth or poverty are carefully removed. Then, with no idle chatter, the workers wash the body with meticulous care. A cascade of water, the sign of life, is poured over the body, which is then dressed in the final garments, the takhrikhim, an unornamented white gown without pockets because we can take nothing with us except our good deeds. Finally, the body is placed in a plain pine box, for the end of life is not a time for ostentation but for simplicity, equality and realism. This loving-kindness represents the heritage of Jewish values that the hevra kaddisha expresses in every act.
The preparation room where the hevra performs its task is one of the few places on this earth where the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown, the mighty and the powerless, the old and the young, are treated with equal care.
Dignity Beyond Death will be a valuable resource to all who wish to rediscover this dimension of Jewish heritage. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in his moving introduction: "I feel a deep gratitude to Rochel Berman for undertaking to bring this good deed, this responsibility, to the attention of the people of Israel, so that more and more people will be the beneficiaries of this final act of love."
Event will recognize holy society for service to dead
It's easy to see how misconceptions might arise about the chevra kadisha, or holy society, whose members perform traditional rituals to purify a person's body after his or her death and prepare it for burial.
Apart from the fact that they deal with dead bodies, their work takes place in private.
"People think it's secret. People think it's Orthodox. But it's not," said Cheryl Gold, president of Kansas City's Central Chevra Kadisha. "It's communal. There are people from all walks of life. But because it's involved with death and dying, a lot of people are not aware of the work we do."
To help rectify that situation, the proprietors of the Kansas City area's only Jewish funeral home, Louis Memorial Chapel, are sponsoring a dinner and program in honor of the Central Chevra Kadisha at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, at the Jewish Community Campus. All past and present members of the Central Chevra Kadisha are invited to attend at no charge. To RSVP, call Gold at (913) 648-7648 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 7 corresponds to the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar (also known as Zayin Adar), which is a traditionally significant date to honor chevra kadisha members. It is said to be the date on which Moses died. The local dinner will feature a speaker and reminiscing by chevra members.
"We need more people, and I decided they needed a little recognition," said Rabbi David Fine of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner. "I want people to know more about what they're doing and why they're doing it, and about some of the customs of the chevra kadisha."
"It's important that the chevra be recognized by the community for the services they perform," said Henry Epstein, proprietor of Louis Memorial Chapel and sponsor of the Zayin Adar dinner. "They provide the highest mitzvah in the world ... and it's done with very loving care."
Who and what
Gold said about 15-20 women and 10-15 men are members of the Central Chevra Kadisha. In addition, Kehilath Israel member Gene Soloff maintains a separate chevra kadisha for male KI members.
At some point, Gold says, most of the synagogues in Kansas City joined to form the Central Chevra Kadisha. Today, BIAV Secretary Diana Newman serves as coordinator, telephoning members to perform the Tahara (purification) ritual when it is requested.
Louis Memorial Chapel makes its Jewish clients aware of the service, should they desire it. It is required for burial in KI Blue Ridge, Sheffield and Mount Carmel cemeteries. Louis requests clients make a $150 donation to the Central Chevra Kadisha Fund, which, among other things, pays for supplies and the continuing education of its members.
Gold said the Central Chevra Kadisha uses a 13-minute training film provided by the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. It also has its own --- minhag, -- or set of customs, largely following a booklet of regulations published by the Jewish Sacred Society of Chicago.
The chevra's main function is to perform Tahara, a precisely ritualized system of washing and praying that is believed to purify a dead person's body and prepare it for burial. Men work on men's bodies, women on women's bodies, in teams of three. There is no embalming or cremation in traditional Jewish burials.
After cleaning the body, chevra members wrap it in white linen shrouds, again according to various rituals, and place it in a plain, pine box. These measures signify "the equality of all before God," according to Rochel U. Berman in her 2005 book "Dignity Beyond Death: Jewish Preparation for Burial." (Urim Publications)
Rabbi Fine and Gold said they hope to bring Berman to Kansas City later this year to speak on the subject. Berman's book quotes Elizabeth Nussbaum, a longtime member of the Central Chevra Kadisha, about her experiences.
The members of the Central Chevra Kadisha are volunteers. In addition, parents of Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy students may earn tuition credit for their service on the chevra.
That is how Ellen Barocas, a five-year member of the Central Chevra Kadisha, came to join. But she said she found it so meaningful that she stayed even after her child graduated.
"It's really a beautiful ritual," said Sherri Brudoley, as she prepared to perform Tahara on a recent weekday morning. "People are so meticulous with the procedure."
"It's a great equalizer," said chevra member Julie Bergmann. "Everybody gets the same treatment, rich or poor."
"The person can't reciprocate directly, yet it leaves you with such a satisfied feeling," said Merrill Goldberg. "It's not a feeling of immortality, but an understanding of the whole process of death and dying. So that when my father died 11 years ago, I knew he'd be taken care of. So it's a little comfort that comes in the process."
Gene Soloff said he can't afford to make big monetary donations to the synagogue or communal institutions. With his service performing Taharim, "I feel like I'm doing my share," he said.
Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
Final Acts Of Lovingkindness
This Tuesday, which corresponds to the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar, is a significant day on the Jewish calendar, but not known to many. Zayin Adar, the anniversary of the birth and death 120 years later of Moses, is the annual day on which Jewish communities around the world honor those people in their midst who serve anonymously in the chevra kadisha. Literally the holy society, members voluntarily take on the obligation of preparing the dead for burial according to Jewish law.
Traditionally, members of the chevra kadisha would fast during the day and seek forgiveness for any mistakes they might have unwittingly committed, recite penitential prayers, visit the cemetery to honor the memory of those whose bodies they had prepared and then attend a festive banquet given by the community in their honor. In Prague, where the model for modern burial societies was established in 1654, customs developed of using specially engraved silver and tableware at these banquets, and members would dress formally. In New York, dinners will be held around town — some communities continue to fast and visit the cemetery, while some engage in communal study as part of the festive dinner.
Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial by Rochel U. Berman (Urim) explains the work of the chevra kadisha in terms both practical and spiritual. Berman, who has been a member of a chevra kadisha for more than 20 years, writes with a humane sensibility about a topic little discussed and often misunderstood. Her focus is the tahara ceremony, which is the ritual purification of a body prior to burial and the final act of lovingkindness. The task is one of the most noble of mitzvot, an act of pure love that can’t be paid back.
Berman includes the candid voices of many people around the country, from all streams of Judaism, who are involved with chevra kadisha groups (attending separately to men and women). One young rabbi told her that he of course puts on tefillin every morning, but does so by rote. But for him doing a tahara is never by rote — each one has its own mysteries, challenges and spirituality.
Others spoke of the deep satisfaction of performing this work, taking on a huge responsibility and doing their best. Some spoke of the holiness that is inherent in the process as being transformative. One woman said that the experience has elevated her understanding of life and that after every tahara, she evaluates whether she’s living life to the fullest.
The author also quotes Holocaust survivors who told how their parents managed to bury the dead with dignity through the worst of times. And she includes the voices of survivors who joined the ranks of the chevra kadisha after the war in response to their experiences. One woman sometimes sees the faces of murdered family members in the deceased person for whom she is doing a tahara, and feels as if she is offering the victims of the Holocaust a kindness they were not afforded.
The number of chevra kadisha groups around the country is growing, with many synagogues across the denominations forming their own societies. Berman attributes this to the very power of tahara, and the fact that people are trying to reconnect with tradition.
But even as more communities establish their own societies, according to Berman only about 15 to 20 percent of Jewish burials are accompanied by tahara. She explains that the reason is a lack of knowledge about it. And, even in the Orthodox community where the percentage is higher, many people have little idea what the ritual entails.
“Everyone knows about the public mitzvot,” Berman says in a telephone interview from her home in Boca Raton, Fla., “and those get transmitted. But when it comes to tahara, there’s a tradition of not talking about it, a tradition of secrecy, and that’s one of the reasons its practice is not so pervasive.” She adds, “I’d like people to see the beauty of this mitzvah.” And she’d like to see Jewish educators teach on the subject, which often entails confronting their own anxieties about death.
Berman, whose background is in social work and public relations, first joined a chevra kadisha in Westchester, where she used to live, soon after her father’s death. She writes that being part of a chevra has radically changed her life and has become one of her pivotal defining identities. Over the years, she has participated in the tahara ceremony hundreds of times.
In a powerfully moving introduction to the book, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg writes, “Burial practices serve a remarkable testament of the bond of humanity. From the moment of death, no human body is to be left alone. Death appears to be the ultimate state of being cut off and isolated. But love responds by stepping forward, in solidarity, to be with the deceased. This treatment is irrefutable testimony that the departed one was and is bound up in the bonds of life and love.”
The book jacket is stark and striking, black and white, with a photograph of a knot made of linen cloth, tied in the shape of the Hebrew letter shin, used to fasten the shrouds in which the deceased is dressed.
This book is an uplifting illumination of the path the Jewish deceased follow in their final journey before burial. For the first time, the ritual of tahra, purification, is told by the community volunteers who commit themselves to providing this elegant passage. Born and educated in Winnipeg, Rochel Udovitch Berman (BA/56, BSW/57) is the former Executive Director of the American Society for Yad Vashem. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Hadassah and The New York Jewish week. She lives and works in Boca Raton, Florida.
Final journey: Author to speak on burial practices
Rochel Berman, a retired public relations specialist from Boca Raton, Fla., has made it her cause to inform both Jews and non-Jews about the traditional Jewish burial practice known as Tahara and the chevra kadisha, or holy society, that enacts the ancient ritual.
It was to that end that she wrote the new book "Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial" (Urim Publications, 2005). And it is in that connection that Berman will travel to Kansas City for a speaking engagement at 7:30 p.m. June 15, at Kehilath Israel Synagogue. Her talk is free and open to the public.
"I have found a great interest in the Jewish way of death in today's world," said Rabbi David Fine of Congregation Beth Israel, Abraham & Voliner, who serves as adviser to Kansas City's Central Chevra Kadisha. "We hope to let people know more about it. We invite the entire community."
Berman has been traveling around the country for the past year, speaking about her book, and she said in a telephone interview that she has found a high degree of interest in the subject. Tahara is a precisely ritualized system of washing, wrapping and praying that is believed to purify a dead person's body and prepare it for burial. Its rules are prescribed by halachah, the rabbinic code of Judaic law.
Berman wrote the book after serving for several years as a member of the chevra kadisha in her hometown, then in New York.
"There was this vast ignorance about what it is," Berman said. "If people know how loving and tender Tahara is, why would they opt for anything different, like embalming, which is such a violation of the body, done by people listening to boom boxes instead of readings from the prophets and Psalms? Tahara is done by people who don't even talk while doing it, except about the tasks at hand. There is an intensity; a complete and total focus on the deceased. Everything else in your life stops when you are doing it."
Berman said she wrote the book "so more people would have Taharas."
"I want to inform the uninformed," Berman said. "Whether they choose to do it or not, they should know about it. Then I hoped Jews who did not know about it would choose to have it. Those who are going to have it should know more. A third reason for writing it was that I hope to reach non-Jewish audiences, as well. Tahara is uniquely Jewish, and it garners a lot more respect for Judaism."
Berman has heard numerous stories of people whose only comfort as their loved one neared death was the knowledge that that person's body would be treated with loving kindness and respect after death.
She hopes her book will provide readers with a similar level of comfort.
"I think people are ambivalent about death," Berman said. "They know they have to face it at least twice in their lives - once for those near and dear to them, and once for themselves. They don't want to talk about it, but they do want to have a peek at it.
"The other thing is that death is the ultimate chaos, and rituals make order out of chaos and are really very comforting. It's not a family responsibility. The community takes over and looks after family. They set up the shiva house, they arrange for the minyanim and they do the Tahara."
Berman said her own introduction to the chevra kadisha came with her father's death, "when I was totally mystified and uninformed."
"I had a negative, fearful feeling about who chevra kadisha were," Berman said. "When I found out, I was totally amazed. When I returned to New York after his death, there was a call for additional women to join the chevra kadisha, so I decided it was time for me to find out what it was all about.
"I was so moved by the total act of loving kindness, the care people took, the intensity, the spirituality. When I began to write about my experiences 10 or 15 years ago, only 10 to 15 percent of Jewish deaths were accompanied by Tahara. Now that's up to 20 percent, and it is only that low totally because of ignorance. Even those who belong to Orthodox synagogues, most likely, don't know anything about it. If people don't know about it, they won't do it. If they know about beauty and spirituality and that there is only one way to be buried as a Jew ... It has nothing to do with the different streams. No rabbi would disagree that this is the way a Jew is to be buried. Do they insist their congregants have them? That varies."
On the other hand, virtually every Orthodox and traditional cemetery requires Tahara for bodies to be interred there.
"It's not simply the washing and dressing of a body," Berman said. "The story is told of two bricklayers who were told to build a cathedral. A passerby said to the first one, 'What are you doing?' and he replied 'I am laying bricks.' The passerby went to the second one and asked 'What are you doing?' and he responded 'I am building a house for people to pray in.' So it's the spirituality of this that's important, not just the washing of the body. I object to articles that start out about washing the body. It's really a final journey and a spiritual one."
Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
Preparing a Jew for burial is called chesed shel emes—an act of genuine loving kindness—because the deceased can never reciprocate this mitzvah (good deed). Separate groups of men and women, known as the chevra kadisha (the holy group) volunteer to wash and dress the deceased with special clothes for burial with the kind of attention, reverence and care that shows remarkable respect for the dead. Everyone is treated as equal.
This book is a collection of voices of those involved in this holy work who explain why the volunteer, how they are trained, how they cope with the emotional and physical elements of this process, the impact this experience has on their family, their view of death and how they deal with the community, and the laws and customs of Jewish burial. Of special interest is how the Holocaust and terrorism has affected the work of the burial societies. This is an invaluable book for every Jew, no matter the level of observance they practice. Non-Jews will also benefit from the insights found in this extraordinary work.
-Alex Grobman, Lifestyles Magazine
The winners, and many of the finalists, were not always the obvious choices.
In the "Jewish life and living" category, Rochel Berman's "Dignity Beyond Death," a gentle, somewhat obscure book about Jewish burial societies, beat out Deborah Lipstadt's better-known "History on Trial," the chronicle of her well-publicized legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving.
-Sue Fishkoff, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Judging a "Holy Work"
By Rabbi Harold Kushner
What happens to a person after he or she dies? I am not talking about competing theologies of life after death, heaven or hell. I'm referring to the mundane issue of what happens to a person's body. How does one accomplish the practical task of preparing a corpse, who was until recently a cherished, living human being, for burial while at the same time maintaining Judaism's emphasis on the dignity of every human being, even after death? In Judaism, that task is delegated to a committee known as the Hevra Kadisha.
Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial, our selection as the book of the year in the category of Jewish Life and Living, is Rochel Berman's account of her involvement in her community's Hevra Kadisha, their burial society. Her book is simultaneously informative and deeply moving. The term Hevra Kadisha literally means "the holy committee," "the holy society," and as with so many dimensions of Jewish life, the laws and customs of Judaism take something that could be done in a perfunctory manner and elevate it to the level of mitzvah, an encounter with the presence of God and the will of God. One of the judges called it "a holy work" (the book, not only the subject), going on to say, "Rochel Berman teaches the reader about the beauty, sensitivity and dignity of Jewish burial practices and the fellowship of the Hevra Kadisha, Jews who perform a mitzvah for which they can never be thanked by the recipient." Rochel Berman cites the words of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman: "All ritual expresses the deepest human yearning for order, meaning and structure in what would otherwise be chaos."
Ours is a society that goes to great lengths to deny the reality of death. We invent euphemisms to avoid saying the word "dead." We employ cosmetics to beautify the corpse and deem it a success if we can move people to say, "He looks like he's sleeping peacefully." All too often, that denial makes it harder for people to accept and come to terms with the fact that someone they loved has permanently gone from their lives. But death is real and death is messy, and traditional Judaism, to its credit, does not shy away from that reality. We have all seen newsreel clips of the work of ZAKA in Israel whenever there has been a terrorist bombing with loss of life. We have seen the almost unbelievable lengths to which they go to ensure that every scrap of human flesh is retrieved and brought to a proper Jewish burial. Berman's discussion of the dignity of the deceased is not a book of theology, though there is an implicit theological statement in the scrupulous adherence to halacha (Jewish law) by the members of the "holy society." Neither is it a book about the psychology of grieving, though we learn much about how people deal with grief in this book. It is a book about blood and wounds and the messiness of death. The first bit of advice given to the neophyte member of the Hevra Kadisha is "don't wear your good shoes to the tahara (the ritual cleansing of the body)." And yet it is a gentle and often beautiful book.
In Dignity Beyond Death, we vicariously encounter the problems of dealing with dead bodies in all their varieties-the grossly obese woman whose remains represented a physical challenge to the women performing her tahara, the young man who committed suicide by jumping from an upper story and whose remains were marked by grotesquely mangled bones. One of the Hevra caregivers wrote of that last experience, "In the process of tahara, I felt as if we had managed to wash away the suffering and provide some comfort for his soul. When he was dressed in the shrouds and placed in the casket, (I felt) now at last he was at peace."
The reader cannot help but be moved by accounts of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi extermination camps, where death was an everyday presence, and of the lengths they went to, to afford a traditional Jewish burial where possible and to provide as close an equivalent as they could where burial was not possible. It was not only a matter of obeying Jewish law. It was a maximum effort to restore some measure of dignity in circumstances designed to rob people of their dignity.
As one who comes from a more liberal approach to Jewish law, I confess that I was occasionally put off by some of the Orthodox practices adhered to by Rochel Berman and her colleagues. I would have permitted the parents of the young child who died suddenly to say one last goodbye to their child. I am not sure that the dignity of the deceased is compromised if the requisite amount of water is not poured over the body in one continuous flow. I sometimes found the members of the Hevra Kadisha coming across as a bit too credulous about the deceased's ability to know what was being done to him or her, and being comforted by that knowledge. And I would have welcomed a discussion of the permissibility of organ donation. But despite those quibbles, I and many other readers responded to the compassion, the sensitivity, the unselfish devotion of those men and women who perform this final mitzvah for a deceased Jew, without regard to how prominent or ritually observant he or she may have been. No wonder they are called "the holy committee."
-Rabbi Harold Kushner is author of several books as well as serving as chair of the 2006 "Jewish Life and Living" Koret Award.
Modern man’s encounter with death is a disquieting, painful, and uneasy moment. Spoken of in hushed tones and enveloped by tears, death is the ultimate and inevitable reminder of the powerlessness of humanity to control its own destiny, despite all of our advances in knowledge and technology. Yet for a Jew who believes that death is but a passage to the next and ultimate world of eternity, death is simply another, albeit painful, moment of passage within a cycle of opportunity and life.
Therefore, for a Jew, the road from life to death is filled not with fear and helplessness, but with meaning, ritual, and obligation, and guided by an extraordinary group of men and women, the chevra kadisha. Literally, the “sacred society,” these people gather, often at a moment’s notice, to wash, purify, and dress the deceased before burial with the utmost dignity, care, and respect.
In Dignity Beyond Death, Rochel U. Berman, a member of a chevra kadisha in her own community, has set out to describe the work of this very special group of men and woman in a passionate and insightful manner. Using the voices of many ordinary people who themselves engage in this extraordinary mitzvah, Berman describes not only the details and procedure of this mitzvah, but most importantly the impact this ultimate chesed has upon families of the deceased and the members of the chevra kadisha themselves.
While many of her sources are secondary in nature, Berman’s voice is authentic and her style creates a surprisingly engaging and compelling book, that, while emotion-laden, draws the reader into this mitzvah and most importantly into this intimate circle of men and women. Berman’s intent may have been to merely educate the vast majority of readers who are unfamiliar with this “chesed shel emet” [lit., true act of lovingkindness], but within a few pages her stories and reflections serve to make the reader want to join in this sacred deed.
Hard as it is to imagine, Berman’s descriptions of the taharot [lit., purifications] of the elderly and the young, the infirm and the victims of accident or terror, offer the reader a sense of comfort, as she describes the loving manner in which the members of the chevra kadisha treat the lifeless body. As such, this book is an invaluable resource not only for those who mourn the loss of loved ones but also for those who seek to understand how Jewish law protects the dignity of the individual even beyond life.
Berman should be commended for creating this important, and most importantly, sacred work that extends her chesed beyond the moment of death and into the hearts of the living.
-Rabbi Dr. Leonard A. Matanky
Jewish Book World
I find this to be truly amazing, absolutely extraordinary. These people obviously have the capacity to love and to give in ways that I hope to emulate in the future. They are not recognized for what they do, but that is not its purpose. They aim to find "satisfaction of the soul." Nevertheless, on behalf of all of us, we owe a tremendous debt and extend our gratitude to the tahara volunteers and Chevra Kadishas throughout the entire world.
Please realize that I have not touched the merest part of what Rochel Berman manages to relate in her book. It is a fantastic book. She herself has performed hundreds of taharas, if not more, and she has sections in her work relating to the Holocaust, personal identity, variations in ritual procedures with regard to the Tahara, the people who participate, what it is really like (how to dress), difficult taharas, medical complications, quotes from others (many others), and her entire approach is comprehensible, interesting, and very easily understandable. I now have an understanding of what happens to the body after death, and it is immensely comforting.
How wondrous is God! And how wondrous his people!
the Curious Jew Blog
This book is exquisite in its portrayal of one of the most
emotional rituals in our tradition. It fills a desperate need in
that it demystifies what is often thought to be a very
mysterious, if not scary ritual. Now, thanks to Ms. Berman, the
firsthand accounts by amchah as well as rabbis and medical
professionals are brought to focus.
Dignity Beyond Death is not a typical 'how-to manual' detailing the
technicalities of doing a taharah. One set of procedures is included
but almost as an afterthought; as well it should be, since there
are many different ways to do a taharah, with each hevrah kadishah
following the specific tradition that it chooses. The
sample forms, certificates and brochure are, however, helpful.
From a personal perspective, I found some confusion. Ms.
Berman went out of her way to include the voices of women,
often adding texts that might not be found in more traditional
taharah manuals in order to reflect a more egalitarian
approach. She went out of her way to be as liberal as possible
in a ritual that is governed by the smallest of detail. One of her
respondents, Vera, says (quoting her mother about a particular
case-namely, that of her own mother-in-law): "You have
mostly to be concerned with her soul and less with her body.
And I am sure that if you follow the dictates of your heart, you
will do the right thing" an amazing statement in a rather traditional
book! Sometimes, her Orthodox bent slips in, as, for
example, in a footnote where she states: "Orthodox Jews
observe the rules of Shabbat ... "! Yet, in all fairness, she
quotes the work of David Zinner and the national work of
Kavod V'Nichum, which is transdenominational.
What was most disconcerting was her use of Ashkenazi
vocalization throughout the book, even going so far as to
change the actual title of the book I wrote from Chesed Shel
Emet to Chesed Shel Emes! But, quite frankly, I found this
amusing and by no means did it detract from the main purpose
of her book -- which was to describe the actual experiences of
85 people who have performed taharot.
So, my recommendation is that this book needs to become
required reading -- not only for those contemplating joining a
hevrah kadishah but for those accustomed to performing
taharah. For newcomers, it can help prepare an individual for
the experience; for the experienced, it can help clarify the
variety of emotions which emerge case-by-case and raise some
new and important issues. For me, the section entitled "In the
Aftermath of the Holocaust" was such a case in point. This
volume, plus the "how-to manual," may lead to a larger
number of people willing to take back this mitzvah from the
"professionals." In that regard, her section on the relationship
with funeral homes only touches modestly on the complexities
and tensions that often exist.
The performance of this mitzvah has the power to transform
not only the individual but the institution. The section about
introducing the work of the hevrah kadishah to children and to
the community at-large is one way of trying to spread the
word. Taharah and the work of the hevrah kadishah are not
"synagogue programs"; they speak to the very essence of the
soul of the institution. If you are searching for synagogue
transformation, this could be the focal point and the beginning
way into institutional change.
-Stuart Kelman, Conversative Judaism
For whatever reasons, as we get older, the intellectually provocative moments – when we truly encounter something off the mind's radar – occur less and less. Rochel Bermans's Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial is a heuristic, practical introduction to tahara, (or as she explains, "the ritual purification of a body prior to burial") that brings to light practices that most of us have never thought about, yet which move us to consider the fundamental question of existence, of life and death. Despite some repetitions within the text, Berman succeeds beautifully in her goal of enlightening Jews and non-Jews alike about these Jewish burial rituals in a thorough, but concise volume that combines spiritual reflections, theological rationales, and practical illustrations of practices that are either unknown or often misunderstood. In an appendix, Berman includes things like a sample procedure manual, a sample brochure that explains the process to families, a bibliography, and even a helpful glossary.
Berman finesses what might have been a dry book of explanations and procedures into a study that defines and instructs as it gives glimpses into real lives and real encounters. She includes a brief history of the importance kavod hameit, or respect for a dead body, that includes scriptural references, the Mishna Shabbat, and a 1626 compilation of Aaron Berekhiah. And although practices have been revised through the years, much has stayed the same. We learn about the Chevra Kadisha, or the society that completes these preparations, which include cleansing the body, ritual purification with the nine kavim (or 24 quarts) of water, and dressing the body in shrouds. The accompanying prayers are also discussed. The spiritual basis behind each ritual is almost always presented and explained. For instance, there is an effort to retain every drop of blood, which represents the soul, at the time of death for burial. Berman includes numerous personal accounts, where people discuss their Chevra experiences in an affectingly honest manner, e.g. their fears before their first tahara or the trauma of preparing an accident victim or young child. The dignity of the deceased and the communal response to the death of an individual are integral to all of the experiences.
Berman's study takes on even added depth when she considers the Holocaust and terrorism. She captures the crux here: "Identity is the key to dignity, in death as in life." She tries to get at the difficulty of maintaining dignity even as the Holocaust and terrorist perpetrators seek to eradicate identity. Most readers have probably never heard of the ZAKA or Disaster Victims' Identification organization in Israel that rushes to attack scenes to help identify the deceased. Personal accounts of these workers or the volunteers who read Psalms at the New York 9/11 site again reinforce the stark realities of just how to deal with a person who is dead.
Most of us have never thought about why we embalm or why Jewish custom says not to. Berman's discussions help us stop and consider some larger questions. The book is meaningful in that regard to almost anyone: Jews and non-Jews, religious and non-religious, academics and non-academics.
Women in Judaism
Rochel Berman's Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial is a path-breaking, comprehensive and inspiring work on this subject. Anyone wishing to know all the rituals involved in tahara and precisely how to carry them out would do well to consult Berman's book.
-Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (p. 94)