Members of a Prague chevra kadisha comforting a dying man. (Jewish Museum Prague)

Chevra Kadisha, or Jewish Burial Society

The chevra kadisha is a group of committed Jews who prepare the body for burial.

After a Jew dies, a burial society, known in Aramaic as the chevra kadisha (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 chevra kadisha, particularly because so many people are reluctant to do so. Although few Jews, particularly outside the Orthodox community, are even aware of chevra kadisha societies, they exist in virtually every Jewish community.

It is traditional for members of a chevra kadisha to fast on the seventh of [the Jewish month 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 chevra kadisha 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 chevra kadisha, “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 chevra kadisha 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.'”

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).

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