Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).
After a Jew dies, a burial society, known in Aramaic as the hevra kaddisha (literally, "holy society") prepares the body for interment. This process, called tahara (purification), involves the ritual cleaning of the corpse, by men for males and by women for females.
Jewish tradition regards it as exceptionally meritorious to join a hevra kaddisha, particularly because so many people are reluctant to do so. Although few Jews, particularly outside the Orthodox community, are even aware of hevra kaddisha societies, they exist in virtually every Jewish community.
It is traditional for members of a hevra kaddisha to fast on the seventh of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’ death, to atone for any disrespect they may have shown to the dead. The night after the fast, they hold a joyous banquet, celebrating their honored position in Jewish life.
A moving description of the work of a hevra kaddisha was given by Professor Jacob Neusner concerning the death of his father-in-law, who died while on a trip to Jerusalem: "Those beautiful Jews," Neusner wrote of Jerusalem’s hevra kaddisha, "showed me more of what it means to be a Jew, of what Torah stands for, than all the books I ever read. They tended the corpse gently and reverently, yet did not pretend it was other than a corpse."
At the conclusion of the burial, the head of the hevra kaddisha said, "in a loud voice, that the dead should hear, and the living: ‘Mordecai ben Menahem, all that we have done is for your honor. And if we have not done our task properly, we beg your forgiveness.’"
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.