Taharah (purification ritual) is the ritual practice of purifying and preparing the deceased for burial. It is especially comforting for us when a death occurs to know that our loved one is in the loving care of members of our own community. Taharah is performed by trained members of our temple and is available for our congregants and their family members. Taharah may be requested when funeral arrangements are made.
Jewish custom provides guidance for every life-cycle event: birth, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and death. When a death occurs, we prepare the deceased for burial by practicing the rituals of Taharah.
Judaism holds that in life, a person is an integrated whole, composed of body and soul. At death, the two parts are separated. As the body is prepared for burial, the neshama (soul) remains near the body until burial. Therefore, respect for the kavod ha met (body) is of the highest concern. After burial, the neshama prepares to enter Eternity.
Preparation for Death
Preparation of the deceased for burial is entrusted to the Chevra Kadisha, the Sacred Burial Society. Throughout Jewish history, serving on the Chevra Kadisha has been a great honor. These women and men are volunteers who are specially trained to perform Taharah.
As death is the end of the cycle of life, funeral rituals reflect those of birth. Just as a newborn is washed, dressed and delivered to a loving parent, the deceased is also washed, dressed and prepared for delivery into the hands of a loving Parent. Special prayers drawn from the Torah, Prophets and the Song of Songs are recited during this ritual. The preparation for burial is a chesed shel emet (truest act of loving kindness, which can never be repaid).
The process of preparing the deceased for burial is called Taharah. After the body is washed and dried, the deceased is ritually purified through immersion of running water, similar to the mikvah (purification bath) that was required of worshippers entering the Temple of Jerusalem. When a mikvah is not available, a continuous cascade of water is poured over the body. Taharah insures that the deceased is made ritually pure.
When the body has been rendered ritually clean, it is carefully dressed in special clothing called tachrichim (shrouds of white linen). They are patterned after the clothing worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur.
“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” (Gen. 3:19). A traditional casket is made entirely of a natural biodegradable material, such as wood, with a few holes in the bottom to hasten the body’s natural decomposition. In keeping with the concept of equality in death, a simple casket is appropriate. When the body is settled in the casket, soil from Israel may be sprinkled over the shrouded body, making the connection with the land of our ancestors. The deceased is wrapped in a large linen sheet and the casket is closed, not to be reopened.