No one understands death. It is a mystery. It is incomprehensible and devastating. It is also part of life.

Until 20 years ago, I gave absolutely no thought to what happens to a body before it is buried. Then one day I read an incredible essay, entitled “Clothing of the Soul,” by Varda Branfman. The article described tahara, the traditional Jewish preparation for burial, which involves washing the body, dressing it in shrouds, known as tachrichim, and finally placing it in the coffin (called an aron).

I thought about the article for months. It flirted with the little I knew about funerals, skipping into my consciousness when I least expected it. I decided to find outNo one understands death. It is a mystery if there was a chevra kadisha (lit. “holy society,” a volunteer group that performs this task) in Montreal. I got the contact person’s name, but it took another couple of months until I mustered the courage to call her.

Dialing her number, I kind of hoped she wouldn’t pick up so I could just leave a message. No luck. “Hello,” said a kind, soft voice.

“Hi, it’s Joannie Tansky, and, well, um, I read an article about tahara recently and wondered, uh, well, if you could tell me a bit more about what it is.”

“It’s so nice that you called,” she answered.

Her reaction to my call was in the same vein as the article. Gentle. She sensitively explained to me how she got involved and how she recruited others.

She told me that most people, religious or not, know very little about this ritual. It is not something that is openly discussed, even by those who do know. She said she would send over a small booklet for me to read, and I should call her in a few days with any questions.

A week later, I called her back. “What happens if I decide that I want to do a tahara?” I asked.

“I will call you,” she said. We left it at that.

The Call

It’s interesting how life works. I finally got “the call” two weeks before the birth of my first grandchild, very close to Shavuot. It was 10:30 on a regular Tuesday morning.

“We have to do a tahara at noon. Can you come?” she asked.

“I guess so,” I murmured.

“Thank you so much. Can you be outside at 11:45? We’ll pick you up then.”

Thankfully, I was very busy at work, so the time flew by. What seemed like minutes later I was climbing into the van.

There were three of us in the van, two women in the front and me in the back. They gave me three sheets of paper stapled together, essentially a small synopsis of the booklet I had read, including all the appropriate blessings to be recited during the tahara.

Nothing can prepare a person to see death. Suffice it to say it is one of the things that will remain etched in my memory forever.

In the article, “Clothing of the Soul,” a person who has died is compared to an infant, helpless, completely at our mercy. What struck me while watching theNothing can prepare a person to see death women perform the tahara was the kindness, tenderness, and dignity given to the body. They followed the booklet to the letter, working quietly and efficiently. The whole procedure took an hour.

Looking at the body clothed in the spotless tachrichim, I realized that these women were preparing a soul, a neshama, to meet her Maker. All of the rituals were for a divine purpose, and the women clearly understood their profound responsibility.

It took me a few hours to come back to myself after that first time. I could not share the experience with anyone, nor, frankly, did I want to. I told one of the women when we were through that I hoped Moshiach would come immediately, so neither I nor she would ever have to do this again. “Amen, amen,” was her reply.

The Explanation1

Tahara is not merely an old custom or tradition, rather it is an absolute requirement of Jewish law. Women perform the tahara on women; men on men. There are usually four people present, and no one speaks unless it is to ask a question or give directives. One member of the group leads, usually the most experienced.

Before beginning, we recite prayers asking forgiveness for any sins the deceased may have committed, praying that G‑d guard her and grant her eternal peace, and asking her to forgive us if we inadvertently cause her any spiritual harm or discomfort.

The task is performed exactly as it has been for centuries, quickly, efficiently, and as gently as possible. The body is never fully uncovered, giving unqualified dignity and respect to the deceased.

The mechanics of the tahara are precise. One always begins washing the body on the right side, which, as stated in the Kabbalah, is the side that represents kindness. Once the body has been fully washed, it is immersed in a mikvah three times (others accomplish this by pouring 9 kav of water over the body). It is then dried and dressed in tachrichim. The shrouds should be simple, preferably handmade, of muslin, cotton or linen. As Sarah Esther Crispe writes in From One World to the Next, “Her final clothing is symbolic of the priestly garments, with white pants, a long shirt, a top coat, belt, apron, head and face covering. The face is covered like that of a bride under the canopy, hidden from the outside world in order to connect with G‑d above and oneself below. And to symbolize the purity and innocence, the deceased, like the bride, is dressed completely in white.”

The tachrichim are so important that Jewish law requires that the funeral be postponed until proper ones are obtained orThe face is covered like that of a bride under the canopy made—although usually any delays before the funeral are avoided. In The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm explains, “Jewish tradition recognizes the democracy of death. It therefore demands that all Jews be buried in the same type of garment. Wealthy and poor, all are equal before G‑d, and that which determines their reward is not what they wear, but who they are. Nineteen hundred years ago, Rabbi Gamliel instituted this practice so that the poor would not be shamed and the wealthy would not vie with each other in displaying the costliness of the burial clothes.”

Finally, earth from Israel is sprinkled into the aron, the body is gently placed inside, and the lid is affixed. Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body in its entirety be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration into its primordial source—the soil from which it was formed. Thus Torah law forbids cremating and viewing the body.2

I have kept a diary for many years. After a tahara in February 2004, I wrote:

I have had the merit to be in the Chevra Kadisha for almost five years. You never get used to it. It never becomes, oh, another tahara. Quite the opposite; the more involved one becomes, the more one realizes how sacred, how holy this ritual is.

Although the body is cold, when pouring the ritual water, I always cringe at the thought that perhaps the person does feel something. You want to be so, so gentle, keeping her dignity intact. One is very cognizant of the fact that the soul is still aware, hovering close to the body until after the funeral. Yet with all of this, I managed to keep my emotional distance—until today.

Although I had had quite a few private, deep conversations with her, I didn’t really know this deceased woman. She fiercely safeguarded her privacy. She exuded a nobility that is inbred. You can’t teach someone to be regal.

What struck me during the tahara was that this woman, in her death, was still regal, still dignified, and still guarding her secrets.

After we finished, I sat in my car for a long time… And then I thought if this were my last five minutes what would I do? I didn’t know. Say Shema, recite a prayer, thank G‑d for allIf this were my last five minutes what would I do? that He had given me? Maybe it would be all of the above. Whatever I’d do though, I realized that I would like someone to be softly singing a niggun (Chassidic melody). Somehow a niggun is the bridge between this world and the next. Thinking about it, that is what I would have wanted to give this woman – a sweet, soft niggun. She needed a soothing woman’s voice. Although the tahara is performed with the utmost respect, things in the last few moments on this earth are very physical; we’re still busy with business from this world. I thank G‑d that I had the merit to be a part of this tahara and pray that she finds true peace where she is…

The Comfort of Tradition

According to the spiritual traditions of Judaism articulated in the Talmud and Kabbalah, the soul does not completely leave this world until after burial. Thus, the period from death to interment is very bewildering for the soul, for it is in a vulnerable state of transition, disconnected from both the past and the future. This is one of the reasons that Jewish law stipulates that the burial be done as soon as humanly possible. Unnecessarily postponing the funeral causes suffering for the soul.

Indeed, the fact that Jewish tradition treats the deceased with such respect is itself a comfort for grieving family and friends. An individual is accompanied by other Jews during every rite of passage in Jewish observance. All we have to do is tap into the incredible resources given to us in the Torah, and we benefit – in times of joy and in times of sadness.

When I do a tahara, I think of my grandmothers. I think of those who died al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of G‑d’s Name, throughout our history, of those who perished in the Holocaust and of all those women whose families were simply not aware of this ritual. I also think how remarkable it is and how fortunate we are that G‑d allows us to help our loved ones as they pass from this world to the next.

May we all live to see the time that G‑d promised us, when illness and death will be eradicated forever, when we will be united with all of our loved ones. May that time happen immediately, without delay.

This article is dedicated to five women, of blessed memory, all of whom added their own special light to the world in life and in death. They were part of the Montreal Torah Center family, were joined together in their love of Yiddishkeit and in battling their diseases. They died within three years of each other. May they all be good advocates on high on behalf of all of their loved ones, bringing down His blessings for all that is good, materially and spiritually. They are: Masha Rosenfeld, Goldie Pearl, Roz Sirzyk, Aniko Galambos, Hinda Bizem Aleihen Hashalom.