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Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Tahara ritual certificate used by the Chicago Rabbinical Council's Chevra Kaddisha.

Living Judaism

Transformations Of The Soul
The Tahara Experience

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Judaism most often approaches the soul's many transformations on the "journey called life" by including rituals of chessed. These involve expressions of overflowing loving kindness via water, washing, immersion.

 When a couple prepares for marriage, to leave their identity as single persons behind, each separately immerses in living waters — a river, lake, ocean or a ritual pool called a mikveh, releasing the identity of single and any baggage from single years, to become a bride, to become a groom. 

In another transformation, conversion, a soul chooses to join the Jewish people, to convert. Immersion in mayyim chayyim, living waters which must include natural rainwater, is part of releasing a former identity and entering into our people. 

When the potential for life, an egg, leaves a woman's body and no life is conceived that month, or a man has a seminal emission during sleep and no life was attempted to be created, traditionally each immerses in living waters, honoring the ability of the body to create a form, to one day receive a soul that will be life and marking the passing of that gift. 

So too, at the end of life, as the instrument on which the soul once played the song of its life is retired, the body is immersed or washed in an act of pure chessed, loving-kindness, so while dying and perhaps even on its mysterious travels from this life to the next, the soul comforted by those who would care for and retire its instrument so tenderly. "

The body is the instrument on which the soul plays life for G*d." This Hassidic phrase speaks to the Jewish understanding of honor and respect due the instrument that conveyed the song of your life. Great beauty and comfort can be found in the practices and mitzvot that Judaism has developed to respectfully retire the instrument. First it is important to recall our metaphors for birth, in order to understand the harmony of meaning within Jewish lifecycle practices. 

In Genesis 1:2 we read: "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. The breath/soul [ruach] of God [Elohim] fluttered upon the face of the waters." This verse uses the metaphors of birth for expressing creation. As in birth, the baby forms within the waters, finally to emerge to receive the breath/soul [ruach] beyond the womb. Ruach is one of five words for soul in Judaism. Elohim is one of 105 names for G*d in Jewish sacred literature, and is the name associated with the power of nature and natural events. 

Reader, there was a day when your body, when my body, readied to contain the soul, left the womb, and like all of life, took a first breath, and ruah Elohim, the soul of G*d, entered, and our soul is our God spark - where we are b'tzelem Elohim, "in the image of God.". Yes, in most opinions within Jewish tradition, life as a person --- body and soul - begins at birth. Before that a genetically unique instrument is being made, also a holy process. Right after birth the baby is met again with water, as s/he is tenderly washed of the debris natural to creating and delivering its body and then miracle of miracles, a child is welcomed --- body and soul.

So too, at the end of life --- when the instrument is ready to be respectfully retired, the breath exits, which in Jewish tradition is when, with a final exhale, the soul departs. The soul having departed its instrument for expressing life, there then remains a mitzvah sequence. The soul cannot consciously do any more than a baby could cleanse itself at birth; your soul needs the help of others to honorably retire the instrument that housed it, the body. A departing soul must trust that the family will organize and the community will undertake: to tenderly wash the body of the debris that comes with leaving life, a process known as taharah, "restoration of it's pure state," to sit with the body as we waited for it to arrive at birth, and to return it to nourish the earth from which its nutrients originally came. Many chant the inspiring poetry of the psalms while sitting with or washing the body. This washing is not done by funeral home operators, but rather by a volunteer corps which any Jew can join, called the chevrah kaddishah ? chevrah meaning "group of friends" or "comrades" and kaddishah meaning "holy." Treatment of the human form, that carried the essence of a person, which is said to be created "in the image of G*d," with lovingkindness, even when that soul isn't there to thank you, is one of the most profound ways to create and experience holiness.

Some places, such as a major Jewish funeral home in New York City, maintain an actual ritual pool, a mikvah where the chevrah kaddishah can fully immerse a met, a body which no longer houses a soul. For most the custom is to use forty se-ah, units, of water poured with pitchers. Water, mayyim in Hebrew, begins with the Hebrew numeral for forty the letter mem and ends with that letter. Forty is the number for transformation in Judaism --- forty years in the wilderness in the Exodus story --- changing from slaves to free people; forty days for Moses each time on the mountain top --- shifting from burnt out to inspired; typically forty days of pregnancy; forty days and nights of the flood --- moving G*d from deeming humans perfect to realizing we need time to evolve. The ritual pool known as a mikveh always has forty se-ah, units of water, because it is used for consciousness transformations too. 

After washing, the body is covered with a soft sheet and only revealed a small segment at a time, washed and then recovered. It is a very modest process. Any debris from the dying process is removed, and then shards of clay, representing the broken vessel from which the soul has departed on its travels, are placed on the eyes, and the met is dressed in the traditional soft white burial garments called a kittel --- no dresses, suits or personality for the body, that part of a person is the soul --- its journey from embodied life already underway. If tallit was part of the person's religious practice, then a corner is cut off to symbolize the met has fulfilled its relationship to the mitzvot in this life, and the met is dressed in the tallit, as well. A small packet of earth from the land of our people's origins, Israel, is also sprinkled as part of returning a body that housed a Jewish soul in the earth. And then the simple wood coffin is closed. How this is done may vary a bit from community to community, as may symbolic interpretation of ritual items and actions in Jewish lifecycle practices.

Jewish tradition insists we not to cause shame to anyone in the family who might not be able to afford a fancy coffin or funeral, so our tradition is for every body to be returned to the earth in the same simple style of kittel and coffin. 

For those of us who have had the experience of serving on a chevrah kaddishah and preparing a body, there is an initial shock at how obvious it is that the soul is gone; the body feels like the empty shell of a cicada, it is incredibly obviously devoid of the soul it once housed. I was so shaken to take in this realization; the soul had moved on and will no longer play this instrument.

This is all by way of introducing a precious, powerful and very personal letter about the subject of taharah received from one of our readers:

The Tahara Experience
A final loving gesture.

-- The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.

Imagine for just one horrible moment that you have died. Your soul is hovering over your body, and you are scared and totally confused. "What is going on? Am I dead? What happens now?" You see two men come in and start preparing your body for burial. 

At this point, you realize that our body must be prepared a certain way, and they are doing it all wrong, but nobody hears your pleas.

This is not a nightmare. It is a true story, and I feared that this was what was going to happen to my husband's beloved Aunt.

She lived and died in a small town, where there was no Chevre Kadisha (Jewish burial society), and due to circumstances beyond our control there was no way to transport her body to a place where she could be prepared properly and in time for the funeral. What could I do? Let her be buried tamei (impure), or perform the tahara (ritual purification) myself? I'm the type of person who can't look at a dead animal, let alone see a person who has passed on. I always speed up and look the other way when I pass any type of accident, and I refuse to watch scary or violent movies. I
even faint at the sight of blood. Performing a tahara was definitely the scariest thing I had ever contemplated doing.

My husband and I live in Miami. We were scheduled to leave for the town where the funeral was to be held before sunrise the next day. I knew Jews were prepared for burial in a very special way, but had never really wanted to know how this was done. Now, I had to learn how to perform a "Tahara" in the next few hours. I called the Rabbi, and he referred me to a woman, who I now think
must be part Angel.

She took me to a funeral home for a "Tahara crash course", and just walking through that door was torture for me. There, she and a Rabbi gave me the ritual instructions and a video where a Tahara is performed on a mummy. After this, they took me to see a body that was ready for burial, and gave me the supplies I needed. I was not able to go in the room where the dead body was and all my doubts and fears started haunting me. If I could not look at the body of a person I did not know, how in the world was I going to be able to view my sweet Aunt's? I told the "Angel-woman" just to explain the ritual and prayers to me and that I would somehow muster the courage later. At this point, seeing how distraught I was, she offered to help me at the site by
guiding me on the telephone every step of the way. What a brilliant idea! Still shaking I went home, read the ritual instructions and prayers many times, and watched the video with the mummy, to the point of exhaustion. As soon as I went to bed, my heart and mind start racing. I became totally
terrified again and decided to wait until morning, to tell my husband that it was impossible for me to perform the Tahara.

I did not sleep for one second that night, and as soon as my husband woke up I told him I could not do it. Again, we started to look for alternatives. We called more Rabbis, more associations, and more foundations, but there was no other option, than letting her be buried impure, or doing it myself.

A person can not perform a Tahara alone. The ideal number of people is four, but in this case, that was not an option either. The only other Jewish woman, who could help me, was my sister-in-law, and she was even more fearful than I was. There was no choice. She bravely volunteered. I could see the pain in her eyes. She loved her Aunt dearly and having lost her was hard enough.

It was a long road trip, so I, "the expert" on Tahara, had enough time to explain the procedure to her. When we arrived at the funeral home we watched the video for the last time and before we went inside the prepping room, I took a moment and prayed to H-shem with all my might. I asked for courage, love, light, guidance and every positive thing I could think of. I begged H-shem to help me perform this ritual perfectly. Then, my sister-in-law and I entered the chamber. At that moment I realized my cellular had no service, and I panicked. How was I going to call the "Angel-woman"? I found a telephone, connected it and it worked! Until that moment I had not even dared to look at the covered body on the other side of the room. I called my support lady, put her on speaker
phone, and started the Tahara. As soon as we started the ritual and the corresponding prayers, I went into a daze and started feeling a special love; peace and serenity encompass my whole being. Everything flowed perfectly. It seemed as if my soul had taken over and knew exactly what to do. I wasn't scarred to look; or touch; or anything. I was doing something beautiful and so very important. The last act of kindness to another human being!

When we finally finished and left the room, my husband told us we had been in there an hour and a half. It seemed like only a few minutes, as if we had surpassed time and space.

After the funeral, when I finally had a moment to think, I realized that I had been told this was a great mitzvah because you can never expect anything in return from the deceased. I feel as if I'm the one that benefited from it all. What a great opportunity it was for me to learn about our totally
awesome religion and what is really important in our life. I am a different person since that day, and I hope that H-shem will help me deserve to stay this way.

When I got home, I felt as if I needed to encourage everyone to perform a Tahara if necessary, and this is the reason I wrote this true story. I want everyone to know, that if my sister in law and I were capable of performing a Tahara, anyone can do it. It is not scary or gory, and our fears are much
worse than performing the act itself. It is an incredibly beautiful and spiritual experience, and nothing can be more important than sending off a soul, to join H-shem, with love and caring; and pure again. All Jews have this right, and we should never allow another Jew to be buried without a proper Tahara.

If even one Jewish soul is buried with a Tahara because of this story, sharing this experience has served its purpose.

Previous Features  

The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com