Aspects of tahara, the ritual burial preparation of a Jewish corpse, are drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, the Kabbalah and 17th-century Jewish manuals on dealing with the sick and with a beaten egg and work it in. These practices may originally have been used to enable the identification of bodies as Jewish prior to burial, and also could be rooted in kabbalistic symbolism, experts say. Finally, the body is dressed in ritua dying. Many chevras use Rabbi Mosha Epstein’s “Tahara Manual of Practices,” about to come out in its third edition, as a guide.
But practitioners say the process is guided as much by tradition and local custom as by Jewish law.
Most taharas include several common elements. A chevra is most likely to perform a tahara in a funeral home, though some are done in houses, hospitals and elder-care centers.
First, any clothing remaining on the body is removed, along with other extraneous items, from medical tubes to bandages to nail polish.
The body is then washed. The head is cleaned first, followed by the person’s right front side, left front side, right back side and left back side.
Next comes the washing of the hands and feet, much as Jewish priests washed their hands and feet before entering the biblical tabernacle or offering sacrifices.
The actual ritual cleaning comes next. Known as the tahara or the tisha kavim, it’s carried out in one of four ways: the body either is left lying down and propped up with boards; angled on a tilting table or held upright as chevra members pour three buckets of water onto it, starting at the head and running downward; or dunked in a mikvah.
At this point, some chevras will rub wine or vinegar into the corpse’s scalp and eyebrows. Some Chevras, particularly older ones, will wet the hair l burial garb — a hood, pocketless pants, a shirt, kittel, socks and a sash around the midsection — and placed in the casket. As it is being dressed, the metaharim, the Hebrew term for those carrying out the tahara, often will sprinkle earth from Israel over the body’s eyes, mouth, heart and genitals.
This practice is based both on the biblical axiom “Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return,” and on the age-old Jewish connection to Israel.
A number of prayers are said during the process, and the body is kept covered as completely as possible throughout. Once the tahara is done, the metaharim ask their subject’s forgiveness in case they’ve offended them or hurt them in any way.
Ideally, the body is not left alone between the time of death and burial. Shmira, or guarding the corpse, is another function often performed by members of a chevra kadisha.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.