Friday, November 18, 2011

Chevra Kadisha

Today’s post is by guest blogger, Sheindel Shapiro.

We took our places around the steel table upon which the body of Mrs. Berthe Berliner* lay.  I stood by her head. In unison, we said the first prayer: “Master of the universe! Have compassion on Beila, daughter of Moses, this deceased, for she is a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” Then we began our holy work.
For a number of years, I was privileged to be a part of the women’s branch of the Chevrah Kadisha, the volunteers who prepare the bodies of the deceased prior to burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Implements used during the taharah - purification of the body

You may think it strange to call the handling of a dead body a privilege, possibly because American culture has made death frightening. For many, our frame of reference is horror movies, Halloween, ghosts and goblins; we find death both intriguing and repulsive. Judaism, in contrast, teaches that we have a soul which enlivens the body and that when the soul is gone, the body that remains is still holy and must be treated with respect and loving care.
Ewer used by the Chevrah Kadisha

My experiences with the Chevrah Kadisha are among the deepest and most meaningful of my life. To be physically close to the dead body, to cleanse and to groom it, is to know without a doubt that the body is only a vessel for the soul. To cradle and embrace it, to purify it and send it off on its final journey ennobles you. You return to your husband, your children, your life, filled with appreciation for every breath you are granted.

* A pseudonym


  1. Another very moving post. For such a young woman, you have done so many mitzvot, LP! Let me share this story about my husband Ira's Polish-born grandmother Chaya: When she was in her 30's, she finally got the papers to join her husband, who had been in America for 6 years. She and her 2 daughters boarded the ship in Poland, ready to start their lives in the US as a family again. There were many Jews on the ship, including an elderly Jewish woman who had 2 sons in the US. Sadly, the old woman died on the third day of the 11-day crossing. The non-Jewish captain gave orders to dump her body in the Atlantic Ocean. Ira's grandmother was aghast; you do not treat a Jewish body that way, plus she knew the sons would be waiting at the NYC dock to see their beloved mother. Even though she had very little "extra" money, Chaya started a Chevra Kidisha fund, asking all her Jewish shipmates to contribute. She took part of the money to bribe the ship's captain (he accepted the bribe and did not throw the deceased woman overboard) and the rest of the money she used to entice women to "volunteer" for Chavra Kadisha duty for the remainder of the trip. Chaya was not one to boast of her mitzva; her daughters remembered the tears of grief and gratitude of the two sons who came to meet their mother at the embarking. The men were always grateful that their mother was cared for in an appropriate Jewish way and they were able to bury her in Jewish cemetery. I'm awed by the people who do this mitzvah!

  2. Thanks for your inspiring family story, Anonymous. Just to clarify, the post was written by guest blogger, Sheindel Shapiro.