Published in The Arizona Jewish Post Volume 64, Issue 4, February 22, 2008
Members of the burial societies known as chevra kadisha (literally, "Holy Societies") gathered Sunday, Feb. 10 at Congregation Anshei Israel to discuss "rites, rituals, protection and procedures." The conference took place three days before the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of the death of Moses, which is traditionally associated with the chevra kadisha. Chevra kadisha members often commemorate the day together, and some fast to atone for any disrespect they may have inadvertently shown the deceased. The conference, cosponsored by the Tucson Board of Rabbis, brought together chevra kadisha members from several local synagogues for the first time.
Preparing a person for burial is considered one of the highest mitzvot a Jew can perform. Rabbi Robert Eisen of Anshei Israel explains that it's the ultimate selfless act, "one of the few things you can do for which they can't say 'thank you.'"
The conference began with a demonstration of the tahara, or ritual purification of the body, using a mannequin. During the tahara, the body is cleansed with an unbroken flow of water. The ritual strongly emphasizes respect toward the deceased person, called the met (male) or metah (female). Men perform the ritual for men, and women for women. While performing the tahara, one does not wear jewelry, chat with others, pass objects over the met, stand in direct alignment with the head of the met, or turn one's back toward the body. Before and after attending to the body, the chevra kadisha asks forgiveness for anything that may have offended the deceased person. After the tahara, the met is wrapped in a burial shroud without jewelry or adornments, signifying that all are equal in death.
The demonstration was followed by a discussion in which attendees raised questions and shared advice. Next year's conference, says Eisen, will place a greater focus on exploring personal experiences.
Most local congregations have volunteers trained in the tahara ritual. For many years, Anshei Israel had the only organized chevra kadisha, which has existed as long as the congregation itself. Over the last several years, other congregations have begun forming their own. The chevra kadisha members are not limited to their own congregations, however, and volunteer wherever they are needed.
Max Ellentuck has been the chevra kadisha coordinator at Anshei Israel for two years, as part of his job as ritual coordinator. "It takes a special kind of person [to join a chevra kadisha]," says Ellentuck. "These are the strongest people I know."
Eisen agrees that the volunteers have made a unique commitment. "No matter how many times you do it, every tahara is unique. It's an emotional investment," he says. "It becomes a final tribute that comes from the heart."