“We Ask Your Forgiveness”: Hevra Kadisha As a Spiritual Practice

It is said that caring for the dead in this way — an opportunity to perform what our tradition rightly calls hesed shel emet, an act of true lovingkindness — is the ultimate act of selfless devotion, for we do it knowing that it can never be reciprocated.

Each time, the ritual begins in precisely the same way. Gathering around the table, we solemnly invoke the name of the person lying before us. “Chaim ben Shlomo, we ask your forgiveness for any indignity that we may cause you in the process of the taharah (ritual purification).  Everything we are about to do we do for the sake of your honor.”

It is a strange thing to speak to the dead. Plainly, he cannot answer, cannot appreciate the rituals we are about to perform, much less whether we dishonored him in any way in the process. Yet, it is as if, against the evidence of our own eyes, we imagine him as alive. We say these words to announce our presence, to proclaim that, even in death, we will treat him as the person he was in life. He is, after all, one of us, a member of our community, someone to whom we have a responsibility that extends beyond the end of his life. He lies there — motionless, helpless, cool to the touch, stiff, merely a shell of the man whose neshamah (soul) once animated this body, giving him his unique personality. Still, we are in relationship to him, whether we knew him in life or not. And so, we speak to him — to affirm our kavanah that we will care for him with all the dignity that he deserves as a fellow human being and to purify him before he returns to the earth in accordance with the ancient rituals of our people.

I no longer recall precisely when I first participated in these rituals as a member of a hevra kadisha, a “holy society,” but it was either during or shortly after college. I was then a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis, perhaps the first non-Orthodox synagogue in the country to establish its own hevra. I began by doing a two-hour shift of shmirah, “guarding,” part of the ritual of watching over the body of the deceased from the moment of death until its burial, to ensure that the dead are never left alone. At the time, being a student, staying awake from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. was not a terrible imposition.

After some time, I was asked to join the small group of men who did the taharah, first as an observer, later as a member, and eventually, as the leader of that group. (I was part of the men’s team; there was a parallel group of women who performed the same rituals for women.) Over the years, I would get a phone call from the synagogue informing me that a man had died and a team needed to be assembled. It would be my job to make a series of calls to the volunteers on my list until I gathered the three or four others needed to perform the ritual washing and purification of the body. Those calls always arrived unbidden, as abrupt interruptions to whatever plans all of us had for the day. And yet, it was extremely rare for any of us to decline this call. We recognized it as a sacred duty, an opportunity to perform what our tradition rightly calls hesed shel emet an act of true lovingkindness. It is said that caring for the dead in this way is the ultimate act of selfless devotion, for we do it knowing that it can never be reciprocated.

For some 40 years since first joining a hevra, I have performed these rituals more times than I can count. When we moved here from the Twin Cities, my relationship to the hevra ended. It was one of the things I missed most about the Jewish community there, where I felt deeply connected and nourished. So I was pleased to learn several months ago that a new hevra was being created, and I immediately signed on. This ritual has been a central component of my Jewish identity and an essential element of my spiritual practice.

For most of us, death is scary, if not downright terrifying. It is a subject we would rather not talk about, except when it is necessary to do so. Unless we or someone close to us has a life-threatening condition, we generally avoid contemplating death. We go about our business each day, knowing in some abstract, intellectual sense that we are mortal, but pushing the reality of death out of mind. We live “as if” this life of ours will continue indefinitely; we cannot imagine our own demise. And if this is an innate human proclivity, contemporary American society only heightens this desire to hold death at bay. As many have noted, we are a “death-denying society.” Most of us cannot imagine having any direct contact with corpses, and the modern funeral-home industry is designed to spare us from the need to do so. Why would anyone volunteer to wash and dress a dead body? Indeed, why would we welcome those calls, interrupt our daily routines and leave the comfort of our homes in order to visit the realm of the dead? To answer those questions, I need to walk you through these rituals, if only briefly.

After the request for forgiveness that I mentioned earlier, the tahara team proceeds to carefully expose one part of the body at a time, looking for places where special care needs to be taken to remove bandages without breaking the skin. For Jewish tradition requires that the body is to remain entirely intact, whole and undisturbed. If some blood or other bodily fluid has stained the sheets covering the body, or leaked into a bandage, these must be placed in the casket and buried together with the body.

Next is the rehitzah (cleansing), as the body is washed with just water and clean cloths. With great gentleness and attention to detail, every square inch of the body is cleaned. Even as we wash the back, we make sure never to turn him face down, as a sign of respect. We carefully clean each hand and foot, scraping the dirt out from beneath finger and toenails. When the washing is complete and the body is dried, the team recites these words from “Song of Songs” (5:11-16):

His head is finest gold; his locks are curled and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves by watercourses, bathed in milk set by a brimming pool. His cheeks are like beds of spices, banks of perfumes. His lips are like lilies; they drip flowing myrrh.  His hands are rods of gold, studded with beryl; his belly a tablet of ivory adorned with sapphires. His legs are like marble pillars set in sockets of fine gold; he is majestic as Lebanon, stately as the cedars. His mouth is delicious and all of him is delightful. This is my beloved; this is my darling, O maidens of Jerusalem.

The second phase of the ritual is the purification, the tahara. Wooden planks are placed below the body so that it is now suspended just above the table. As much as possible, the body must be completely surrounded by water, as it would be in a mikvah, to perform the purification. With that, three members of the team surround the deceased with large buckets of water, which are poured sequentially over the body in one long, continuous stream, as together we recite, tahor hu, tahor hu, “he is pure, he is pure.” This piece of ritual concludes with the recitation of these words from the book of Ezekiel (36:25):

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all of your uncleanness and from all your idols.”

And finally, these words from Leviticus (20:7): 

“You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I, Adonai, am holy.”

The final phase of the ritual is the clothing of the met (body). The body is carefully shifted this way and that as we put on the tahrihim, or shrouds — first pants, then tunic, then a kittel and a hood, and finally a tallit — all of pure white. The met at this point looks as one imagines a high priest would, a pure body wrapped in pure garments, which explains why we recite verses describing the priestly vestments as we clothe each part of the body. Finally, clay shards are placed on the eyelids and mouth, and a small packet of earth from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is sprinkled over the body as it is placed in the casket. Then one last set of verses is recited, this time from Zechariah’s vision of the restored Temple and the end of days.

Then the lid of the casket is set in place, never to be removed again. When all this has been done, we turn again to address the met to ask his forgiveness for any indignity that we inadvertently caused him in the course of this rehitzah (washing) and taharah (purification). In this way, the entire process is bookended with an acknowledgment of our relationship to the met, and of the sacred significance of the work that we have done.

Apart from the liturgical words referred to, the entire ritual is performed in almost complete silence. The members of the hevra, if they need to communicate with one another, do so in hushed tones. It is as if we have stepped into another dimension of time, where the ordinary concerns of the outside world cannot intrude. Entirely absorbed in our work, we do not look at our watches or allow ourselves to be disturbed by cell-phone notifications or give any thought to the tasks that await us outside the tahara room. For the duration of this extended ritual, we inhabit another world, alongside the lover in “Song of Songs,” the priests in the Temple, and all those who await the final redemption. So, too, our individual identities, our professional titles and expertise, all these are set aside. Here we are just a group of Jews who have gathered to care for a deceased member of our community. When our work is finished, we cross the threshold back into the world of the living and return to our business. There is no need, no desire even, to speak of this other world where we have spent the past hour, a world both mythical and utterly real.

I hope I have succeeded in conveying the austerity and the beauty of these rituals. Like all rituals, these are composed of simple actions. Washing and dressing are ordinary acts; we do them ourselves every day. Yet when they are performed in a ritual context, surrounded by symbols and sacred texts, they provide us with a vision of who we are and how we are to live. As scholars of religion have long recognized, this is the ultimate purpose of religion and of religious ritual in particular. It is to transmit a set of values and to transport us into a world where those values are deeply felt and acted out. Then, when we return to our ordinary lives, we strive to live them in a way that honors our connection to that sacred, ritual world. What, then, are the values that these rituals communicate? What vision of human life do they provide us? What is our tradition teaching us through these last rites?

I can answer these questions only for myself, based on my personal experience. For me, there are three fundamental lessons I have learned from my participation in the hevra. They are lessons I need to learn and relearn, and I have tried to internalize them more and more deeply with the passing years.

First, the performance of the ritual itself connects me to a sense of higher purpose. The very fact of doing something so out-of-the-ordinary, so disconnected from my daily routine, helps me to put my ordinary concerns in perspective. Like many of us, I suspect, I am entirely capable of being absorbed in my professional work and preoccupied with my endless “To Do” lists. Life sometimes seems like a series of tasks — the things I need to do to stay healthy, to keep our household running, to manage my unit at Stanford, to maintain relationships with friends. All of these are important, to be sure, and I genuinely enjoy most of them most of the time. But rarely do I feel as though any of them lifts me above the level of doing what needs to be done to live productively and healthfully from one day to the next. In the midst of that routine, the phone call (or now, the text) comes to remind me that there are more important tasks, that there is someone who needs me now more urgently than any of those other people in my life.

This is what the tradition is pointing to, I think, when it refers to this work as a hesed shel emet, as an extraordinary act of lovingkindness — the ultimate act of devotion that one human being can perform for another. In setting aside all those other tasks that occupy so much of my attention, I refocus my energy on matters of life and death, and on what the living owe to the dead. I feel that I am responding to a higher calling, and that doing so puts the rest of those concerns in their proper perspective. Truthfully, when I do a tahara, I don’t really think about what a selfless thing this is, or that I will never be repaid for this work, and certainly not that I deserve any special credit for doing something hard or unpleasant. I do, though, feel ennobled, reminded that there are sacred tasks calling to me. I even get a glimpse of the fact that I could more often seek out other “calls,” other invitations to find those things that ultimately matter. And this is why I never view these calls as a burden, even if they come at inconvenient times (and when is death not inconvenient?). Rather, they are an opportunity to imbue my mundane life with sacred responsibility.

Second, this work speaks to me of community and the interconnectedness of generations. There is the community of the hevra itself, of course. There is a bond that develops over time among the small group of men with whom I share these awesome responsibilities. For although there are never more than five or six men involved in a tahara, we are there as representatives of the community as a whole. For really, all of us are collectively responsible to care for the dead, just as we are all obligated to feed the hungry and visit the sick. And so we know that our hands are doing this work on behalf of the community. This sense of transcending ourselves is accentuated through the recitation of those prayers, which speak of Zion and Jerusalem, of priestly vestments and prophetic visions. They affirm that the deceased, too, transcends his own bodily existence, for he remains to the end a member of an eternal people and we, acting for that community, are preparing him, as the rabbis would have it, for eternal life.

But, of course, there is another level at which community is present here. Mostly, we perform this ritual for members of the community that we did not know or may have known only in passing. But even if these are strangers, through the rehitzah and taharah, we become very intimate. Indeed, there are few things I know that are more intimate than washing and dressing the dead. And that is what makes the duty of care and respect feel so intensely important, so much so that we begin and end with that request for pardon. Because I know that, though we are strangers, we are also deeply interconnected. His fate will be mine, as well. Today, he is lying here before me, mute and lifeless. Someday that body will be mine. And this is why I perform each taharah with the same quiet prayer in my heart: May those who someday care for my body exhibit the same tenderness, attentiveness and loving concern that I do now. When my time comes, wherever I may be, may the members of that Jewish community gather around me, cleanse me and gently dress me in preparation for being carried to my final resting place.

And so, finally, the work of the hevra for me is about coming face to face with my own mortality and overcoming my longstanding fear of death. Perhaps because I had an older brother who died very suddenly and prematurely (he was not quite 40), I have always lived with a kind of low-grade anxiety that I will die before I have lived fully. I don’t know that I will ever entirely overcome that fear, but I do know that each time I do a taharah, I feel a little bit of opening — a recognition that dying is as natural as living — and so I move a little closer to embracing my mortality. In what is perhaps my favorite verse in all of Tanakh, Kohelet says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every person, and the living should take it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). How strikingly counter-intuitive and counter-cultural this is! Surely, given the choice, we would all prefer to go to a party than to a shiva, all the more so, to a tahara. But it is a far better strategy, Kohelet reminds us, to keep our gaze fixed on our mortality because whatever wisdom and maturity we acquire in this life must take account of our finitude. The awareness of death is the root of all spirituality.

It is also the root of urgently embracing all the possibilities of life. When we are reminded of death, we cannot help but be focused as well on all that we have to live for. We are imbued with a sense of “the fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in another context. We dare not let life pass us by, or adopt an observer’s attitude. Too much is at stake. In the words of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:16): “The day is short and the task is great.” We had best make the most of the days we have, live them intentionally and purposefully. These are the commitments I make, and then make again since they are so hard to keep, each time I return from a taharah into my ordinary life.

I share the story of one taharah I performed not because of what happened during the ritual, but because of what happened afterward. At the time, my son Etan was an infant; he is now a 33-year-old with his own 6-month-old son. Our house was overflowing with the promise of new life that comes when we welcome a newborn into the world. The taharah was scheduled for late at night, and it was probably nearly midnight by the time I returned to a dark and quiet house. And as I walked upstairs to where he was sleeping, the contrast could not have been more stark. I had just left the funeral home where I had washed and dressed an elderly man’s body to return to a home where I regularly washed and dressed the body of my young son. From the house of death, I walked back into a house that was bursting with new life. One man’s life had ended, but Etan’s life was just beginning. He was still full of possibility. The juxtaposition of death and life could not have been more palpable.

And then it dawned on me that the man whose body I had just cared for had also once been an infant. And suddenly, what had felt like a stark contrast gave way to an appreciation that the beginning of life and its end are intrinsically interconnected. There is mystery and wonder at both ends of life; we cannot have the one without the other. We are inclined to celebrate the beginning of life and mourn its ending. But the wiser course is to embrace the whole of it and to live as much as possible with gratitude for each additional day we are given.

One day all this will end for me, as it will for all of us. Until then, I have choices about how I will use the indeterminate but unquestionably finite days I have left. One of those choices will be to continue serving on a hevra kadisha. I will do so for several reasons. It shows me what the future holds for me, how it will look and feel when everything that makes me me has left my body. But it also provides a regular incentive to use my time well, to make the most of each day, to continually strive to align my actions with my deepest values. Finally, the hevra serves for me as a reminder of my humanity, which I share both with the other men who join me in this ritual and with the man whose only role is to offer his silent forgiveness to us for any dishonor we have caused him. Ultimately, it is a reminder that all of us, the living and the dead, are one.

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