Posts Tagged 'Chevra Kadisha'

In Your Hand: A Reflection on the Chevra Kadisha

In our zoom existence it is so unusual to actually have a visceral experience. Everything feels two dimensional. Now when I have truly grounded experience it is a little jarring. It can really get me in my kishkes.

For years I have been involved in the work of the Chevra Kadisha for years. I pause in writing this to reflect that I have been doing this for over 25 years. We in the Jewish burial society see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. It is holy and at times even mystical work. The customs are diverse and wild. When you stop to think about them it seems that we are looking at a pastiche of ritual. In response to death we pull together so many different threads from so many elements of Jewish life.

One powerful element of the ritual is dressing the men and women up in Tachrichim (Hebrew: תכריכים). There are traditional simple white burial furnishings, usually made from 100% pure linen, are for interment after undergoing a taharah (ritual purification). In Hebrew, tachrichim means to “enwrap” or “bind”. This came up recently on Purim because it comes from the Biblical verse “And Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal apparel of blue and white and a huge golden crown and tachrich butz– a wrap of linen and purple, and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was happy”(Esther 8:15).

The universal use of shrouds protected the poor from embarrassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Since shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death. In every generation, these garments reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality. In addition to tachrichim, men are wrapped in the tallit in which they prayed. The layers of this white cloth along with lack of pockets harken to the cloths of the Priest in the Temple that we read about recently in Exodus.

I had not thought about all the garments and their think to the Priest until a few months a go. David Cohen, a lovely man from our synagogue, passed away and I had the honor to do his taharah along with some other friends from shul. As part of the ritual we clean the body head to toe. One of the things we do to clean the body is to take toothpicks to clean out the dirt from their nails. I always find holding the dead person’s hand to clean it to be a powerful, humbling, and intimate expression of care.

But with David it was different. It was not just that I knew him. It was not just that I liked him and wanted to honor the father, husband, educator that he was in his life. It was different because David took his being a Cohen seriously. There holding his hand and cleaning out any dirt from under his thumb I got to thinking about Vayikra, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar.

Leviticus 1:15

In explain what “pinch off its head” means Rashi says:

The nipping of the bird’s head must not be done with an instrument but by the priest’s very self:. He nips with his finger-nail close by the nape, cuts right through the neck-bone until he comes to the “organs” (the wind pipe and the gullet) and cuts them through too (Sifra, Vayikra Dibbura d’Nedavah, Section 7 3; Zevachim 65a).

Rashi on Leviticus 1:15

There I was for a moment looking at David’s nail being transported past all time and space. I got to imaging this very nail being the agency of our sacrifices in the Temple. Even if that is just fantasy, this DNA was the same DNA that did that in the Holy Temple.

We have spent so much time removed from humanity over the last three years. Holding his hand in mine reconnected me to our people throughout history. I was reminded of the importance of ritual. Doing this really got to my kishkes. It is not only that the “Torah is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), to hold compassion and history in my hand reminded me that there is infinite capacity for redemption in all of us. There is a profound connection to Torah is in our very bodies.


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