Respect for a Sacred Society
In modern-day Jewish burials, the beauty of tahara has the reverence it once had long ago
BY: Rabbi Elchonon Zohn
An elite club existed in the Europeanshtetl,
the membership of which was handed down from father to son like most precious heritage. Often its members were chosen by lot or by secret vote. Thechevra kadisha,
the "Sacred Society" was generally the first group to be organized in the founding of any Jewish community. The chevra was responsible for the entire spectrum of burial service, from pronouncing death to plot allotment and cemetery maintenance.
This unique specialty originates in part from the Talmudic passage: "Rabbi Simlai lectured: Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness.... It concludes with an act of kindness, as is written (Deut.); 'And He buried him (Moses) in the valley'"(Sotah 14A). Thus, the act of burial and its preparation is seen as an emulation of G-d, fulfilling the commandment to "walk in His ways." It is for this reason that the day of the birth and death of Moses, Zayin Adar, the seventh day of the month of Adar, is the traditional celebration of the chevra kadisha, underscoring that on that day G-D performed the work of the chevra, thereby giving it its special status.
What happened in this country that for many years the chevra was less than respected, often ridiculed and largely ignored? Why was the chevra generally perceived by the funeral director as an outside group to be called in at a time of necessity, only when insisted upon by the family, the rabbi, the society, or the cemetery? Respect for the chevra kadisha as an institution, appreciation for the beauty of its customs, interest in its meaning to the Jewish community, declined to a great extent. I dare say, that even within the most traditional quarters of the Jewish community, there was a loss of respect and appreciation for the work of the chevra, whose members often downplayed and denied their participation. Why?
The loss of prestige of the work of the chevra would be more understandable and less painful if the customs and traditions were not so beautiful and full of meaning. However, in truth,tahara
(the preparation of the body) is very rich in its significance, its every ritual a reflection of the most basic concepts of our faith. Proper performance of the tahara andshmira
(the vigil kept at the side of the body until burial) are a unique expression of the ultimate respect for the dignity and the specialty of man.
There is no place in this article to explain each minute custom and its origin and significance. However, as an example, let me cite two main themes: The first is that Judaism is predicated on the belief in an afterlife where men and women will receive their ultimate eternal reward after appearing before G-d for their final judgment, in essence their final Yom Kippur. Is it not then fascinating to know that the traditional burial shroud is designed to be exactly like the clothing worn by the High Priest for his Yom Kippur service, before G-d, in theBais Hamikdosh,
our holy Temple? Doesn't it make sense to carefully wash and clean, and yes, ritually purify, all Jews before their final Yom Kippur, when they are soon to appear before the heavenly court?