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Taharah: A Personal Look at the Jewish Way of Death and Burial

May 9, 2009 | by Varda Branfman

The mysteries of life and death provide one woman an unusual gateway into the meaning and beauty of traditional Judaism.

I often thought about the importance of "seeing," but there were things I was afraid I would see if I looked too deeply, and things I was even afraid to think about. I was like a child afraid to find herself alone in a house at night because of what might surface from the Other Side, the name I gave to the source of all circumstances beyond my control.

I was inspired to become an observant Jew because I experienced the possibility of a world which acknowledged the mysteries of life and death, and I found people who tried to live their everyday lives with that awareness. I discovered a tradition thousands of years old which not only encouraged me to open my eyes but depended on my functioning in the fullness of my vision.

I once complained to my older sister that I didn't feel I "existed," and she replied that motherhood, with its constant demands, had brought her down to earth and a sense of her own existence. When I decided to live as a religious Jew, I began to feel the palpable sensation of "existing" in my very bones. The Jewishness I grew up with was largely a realm of ethical imperatives and ideas. The Jewishness I have come to know is a world of action where whatever insights I have earned came to me by way of keeping Shabbat, by practicing the Jewish dietary laws of kashrut, by saying the Hebrew liturgy and my own words of prayer and thanksgiving.

My experience of reclaiming my heritage is not uncommon; there are many of us who returned to our Jewish tradition after exploring a myriad of spiritual paths, including Christianity and Eastern religions. What is perhaps unusual about the route I took was my involvement in an aspect of Jewish observance which the newcomer rarely experiences. Shortly after I moved to Denver's Orthodox community, I was asked to participate in a taharah, the Jewish way of preparing the dead for burial.

Taharahs require a great deal of compassion because the dead in their hands are entirely helpless.

Traditionally, a Jewish Burial Society counted as its members the most prominent individuals in the community. These Jews were honored to have the opportunity to carry out the commandment of taharah -- the cleaning and bathing of the dead -- dressing the body in shrouds, and resting it in the coffin, with prayers woven throughout the process.

Taharah is a service in the fact that the recipient of the kindness is unable to give thanks or repay the favor. Those who perform taharahs are entrusted with a task that requires a great deal of compassion because the dead in their hands are entirely helpless.

In Denver, I belonged to the small circle of women who performed taharahs when they were requested. We were recruited out of sheer necessity because of the dwindling number of older, experienced women who were able to perform taharahs.

I was totally unprepared for my first taharah, but I didn't have a chance to worry. Barely an hour elapsed between my decision to go along as an observer and my arrival at the funeral home.

I realized the moment that I stepped inside that all my ideas about death had been affected by its image in popular culture and the scores of horror films I had seen as a child. I could almost hear the chilling musical accompaniment as I descended into the basement of the mortuary.

I wanted to turn around and run.

I wanted to turn around and run, but I focused on the faces of the three women who had come with me. Their tenderness and total lack of self-consciousness returned me to a world of Jewishness and the sense of serving, of doing what needs to be done without being overwhelmed by its enormity.

During that first taharah, I stood aside from the actual preparation of the body, its cleansing and dressing in shrouds. I was handed the box containing the shrouds, and I spent most of the time ripping out the machine stitches every few inches. By Jewish law, the shrouds are supposed to be sewn by hand so that they can more easily disintegrate, and I was trying to remedy this discrepancy by loosening the seams. This simple task helped to anchor me.

I held the cloth and felt the power of tradition -- the chain of generations who had been laid to rest in shrouds exactly like these. The garments were spanking clean, ironed, and folded. My mind filled with associations of sewing my own clothes and ripping stitches. I remembered dressing myself that morning and seeing my own body clothed. I began to envision my body itself as a kind of clothing. I thought of my hands that were now carefully working with the cloth, how these hands are part of the clothing of my soul.

I witnessed with my own eyes how the soul had departed, leaving the body an empty shell.

My conception of the neshamah, the soul changed radically after my first taharah, when I actually sensed the existence of the soul independent of the body. I observed how the body houses the soul but is in no way identical with the soul. At the taharah, I witnessed with my own eyes how the soul had departed, leaving the body an empty shell.

Though I've become familiar with the procedure and the surroundings, I still feel at each taharah that I am being forced to awaken, that I am jolted out of my limited perspective so that my everyday concerns take on their proper proportions. As I pour the buckets of water over the body and say the Hebrew words asking that the soul be purified and freed from its attachments on earth, I also experience a degree of release from the stranglehold of my needs and desires.

However, the effort which I exert in a taharah is not directed towards understanding its meanings – which I can only guess at -- but rather towards carefully executing each one of its prescribed steps. By doing the taharah to the best of my ability and with my full concentration, I am fulfilling a commandment which may carry me far beyond the rewards of intellectual comprehension. In my attentiveness to every action of the taharah, I submit myself to an Intelligence infinitely greater than my own.

I always feel tremendously comforted by the nearness of the two women who work with me. We seem to move as one, and it even feels, at times, as if we are sharing one mind. As we light the candles, spread the sheets, and carry buckets of water, we are creating a web of intimacy and comfort around the dead woman. It may only be my imagination, but the taut atmosphere of struggle which pervades the room when we arrive gradually relaxes as the taharah proceeds.

After one taharah, Sari, who had recently given birth, pointed out the similarity between the newborn and the dead, both so totally dependent on our kindness. The dead, like infants, have been divested of whatever personal or professional identity they earned in their lifetimes. With its purifying waters and white shrouds, the taharah carries this process further so that the soul, restored to its essence, can proceed on its journey.

Two weeks after I performed my first taharah, I was married, and I was privileged to encounter another piece of the Jewish experience. An individual is always accompanied by other Jews during every rite of passage. Standing under the marriage canopy, the chuppah, surrounded by the faces of my family and the community, I felt the strength of their prayers and blessings. As I circled my husband seven times, I sensed the totality of the commitment I was making. I had been told that the chuppah would literally transform me on a cellular level, and I believe that I experienced the transformation. How the chuppah prepares the soul so that it can unite with another soul, and how the taharah helps to heal the soul and release it from this world — can I ever know the depths of these mysteries? What I do know is how it feels when some of the veils fall away, and the soul feels itself more fully alive.

This article originally appeared in Our Lives: An Anthology of Jewish Women's Writing, edited by Sarah Shapiro.

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