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What is the Hineni Learning Tool?

Hineni is a unique, interactive, web-based tool that gives users a simple, ergonomic, and fast way to get information about Jewish death practices. The word, Hineni, is the transliteration of a Hebrew phrase used in the Torah, meaning "Here I am." It was chosen to indicate this tool is here to give succinct, direct answers to everyone quickly and easily. Hineni is intended to be used by various audiences, starting with (1) with those who directly serve families (funeral directors, cemetery workers, hospice personnel, Jewish clergy, chaplains, death doulas, and hospital personnel, who want to learn more to be better able to serve Jewish families and who want to assist families in making end-of-life decisions), and (2) families facing death of a loved one who wish to learn more about our traditions. We also envision community leaders using this tool as they prepare drashot for services, lectures, or classes, along with Chevrah Kadisha workers who want to expand their abilities to share these practices with their community. Additional possible users could include bnei mitzvot classes and their teachers, chevrah leaders, chevrah volunteers, local education champions,  Jewish community lay leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish clergy, JADE helpline responders, and synagogue caring committee members. Acknowledgements The Hineni tool was developed by the JADE staff as a part of ongoing community educational efforts to find the best ways to disseminate and share knowledge about Jewish end-of-life practices, rites, customs, and traditions. An acknowledgement of the contribution of our staff is shown below.
Concept:
Rick Light
Prototype:
Rick Light
Coordination:
Isabel Knight
Content:
HollyBlue Hawkins, Rick Light
Editing:
Rick Light, David Zinner
Marketing
Isabel Knight, Susan Kramer
Implementation:

Caskets and Garments

A Deeper Understanding

Introduction


Preparation of the dead includes dressing the body in burial garments and placing it into a casket. We dress our dead in plain garments, shrouded in simplicity, and we return them to the earth in a manner that welcomes the natural processes to come.

The body is considered a holy vessel, “created in the Divine image,” both during life as well as after death. The body has acquired holiness by its association with the holy soul which it housed for its lifetime. Just as the Kohen Gadol was dressed in plain white linen clothing to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, so too our dead are similarly attired in preparation for their encounter with God after death.

The body is cradled in a casket referred to as an aron. The aron is also the name given for the container of the Torah scrolls in our synagogues and also for the container of the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments etched on them which Moses received at Mount Sinai. The aron houses the body which has acquired holiness by its association with the holy soul.

Values


As we explore how burial garments and caskets are used in Jewish traditions, it is important to recognize that the key Jewish value to avoid causing shame and embarrassment extends to our death practices. This Jewish approach to preparing the body for burial is based on two concepts, simplicity (as opposed to ostentation), and the equality of all in the sight of God (and in our sight).

In Jewish tradition death is the great equalizer.  The early rabbis determined that everyone should be treated the same, so that, regardless of who they were in life, no one is embarrassed or feels less important than anyone else.

Burial Garments


After death, a Jewish body is dressed in tachrichim and wrapped in a sovev. The burial clothes of the deceased are simple, made of white cotton or linen, with no pockets or adornments.

Rabban Gamliel was the head of the Sanhedrin (Jewish judicial body) and a prominent leader in the third century C.E. The Talmud tells us that he noticed that the poor were abandoning their dead because it was so expensive to bury them, and that the poor were embarrassed because they could not afford nice burial clothing and other accouterments that the rich were able to afford. So he instituted that everyone should be buried equally, in clothes that are inexpensive caskets that are simple.

We see in Moed Katan 27 a-b that:

… at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and left instructions that he be taken out for burial in plain inexpensive linen garments. This practice was instituted after him and became standard practice.  Rav Pappa said:  "And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar."

Caskets


Traditionally, Jewish caskets are extremely simple. They are usually made of plain, unfinished wood. The casket is constructed to encourage the gentle and natural return to the earth, with no metal liners or nails and made from wood that degrades easily.

The Sages instituted that everyone should be taken out for burial on a plain bier, to honor everyone equally.  Again, the Talmud (Moed Katan) teaches that: “… at first the wealthy would take the deceased out for burial on a dargash (an elaborate couch) while the poor would take the deceased out on a plain bier made from poles that were strapped together, and the poor were embarrassed.”  The Sages therefore instituted that everyone should be taken out for burial on a plain bier, to honor everyone equally.

Death is the ultimate humbling experience. We who remain face the reality of death in a state of awe. Our respect for the departed is demonstrated by the meticulous care we show them by prayerfully dressing and burying them in the traditional Jewish way. The Jewish dead when prepared this way, are treated with the utmost care, respect, modesty, and privacy.

Witnessing a burial, whether in person, over livestream, video recording or photograph, can help us to face the reality of death and begin our grieving process.  Today, when a casket is used there is a powerful emotional response to the sound of earth landing on the casket once it has been placed into the grave.  For the mourners, knowing that the body of their loved one has been cared for according to the Jewish tradition can offer a source of solace and comfort.

More Details


Part of the traditional preparations after death include dressing the deceased in burial garments called tachrichim, which are made of natural fabric such as linen or cotton. They are modeled after the garments worn by the High Priest on Yom Kippur when he would enter the Holy of Holies.  They are elegant in their simplicity and humility, without pockets or fasteners (to signify that we take nothing with us in death except our name), and are held in place with sashes tied in a slip knot with three loops resembling the Hebrew letter shin (the beginning of one of God’s names).

Tachrichim may either be purchased commercially, locally produced by the Chevrah Kadisha, or home-made. Some communities have a sewing circle that meets from time to time to create their own garments. The garments may have a personal history, such as a beloved tallit no longer fit for prayer worn by the deceased or a family member.

Casketless burials are common in Israel and some other parts of the world, and are gaining popularity in North America, especially where “green burial” is becoming more common. A sovev is the outer cloth or sheet in which a body is wrapped, to provide another layer of protection and dignity. Commercially made sets of tachrichim include a sovev with the boxed set of garments.

Our dead are dressed in simple garments and cradled in a container carried by pall bearers to their final resting place. Jews are attired in clothing appropriate for an encounter with God after death.

The aron is a wooden casket with a lid, into which the body is placed. Customarily, a Jewish casket is made of soft wood such as pine, fir, or poplar which decomposes quickly. The aron is simple and unvarnished and without any adornments, although a wooden Jewish star may be glued to the lid. There are no metal screws or liners. The casket is held together with glue and wooden dowels. The lid is carefully attached with wooden dowels to keep it in place. During the funeral service the casket may be covered by a simple pall that will be removed before it is lowered into the ground.

It is traditional to bury the body in direct contact with the earth. The goal is to hasten the process of the body becoming one with the earth. If there are no holes in the floor of the casket then the Chevrah Kadisha may drill them in order for the body to have contact with the earth to which it is to return. Usually, the chevrah will also sprinkle soil from Israel inside the casket to connect with the Holyland.

Burial caskets may also be made of woven natural materials, such as wicker or willow. The design of the casket is intended to perpetuate the sense of humility and simplicity first instituted by the revered Rabban Gamliel.

Resources to Learn More


 

The deceased is dressed in simple garments, wrapped in a shroud, and placed in a plain casket made of natural materials without ornamentation. Rabban Gamliel (2nd century CE) determined that in death everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, so that, regardless of their status, all are treated equally. 

Click on icons below to learn about this topic from different perspectives.

Practical

Textual

Emotional

Spiritual

Caskets and Garments from the Practical / Physical Perspective

Burial garments are called tachrichim and are modeled after those worn by the High Priest, in the holy Temple, on Yom Kippur. Tachrichim are made from plain white linen or cotton. Depending upon local customs, and the cemetery regulations, one may be buried in a wooden casket or simply wrapped in a plain white shroud. Jewish caskets are usually made of easily degradable wood such as pine, fir, or poplar. They also have no metal liners or nails. Holes may be drilled into the bottom of a casket so the body can more easily come in contact with the earth (to which it is to return).

Caskets and Garments from the Intellectual / Textual Perspective

In Moed Katan (in the Talmud) we find teachings from Rabban Gamliel instructing us in the importance of simplicity and equality when honoring all who have died. It is on the basis of this text that today we honor all Jews by dressing them in simple white garments and using unadorned caskets. The traditional Jewish burial garments are based on the clothes used in dressing the Kohen Gadol when he went into the Holy of Holies, on Yom Kippur. This demonstrates our desire to honor each Jew as a holy being as they approach the Divine in the next world.

Caskets and Garments from the Emotional / Feelings Perspective

In the Talmud, Rabban Gamliel observed that the poor were abandoning their dead because it was so expensive to bury them, which caused the family great embarrassment. This story honors the feelings of those who needed to bury their dead.   Rabban Gamliel instituted a ruling that everyone should be buried in the same inexpensive clothes and on plain biers, thus honoring all Jewish dead as equals.

Caskets and Garments from the Spiritual / Soul Perspective

After death, Jews are dressed in clothing appropriate to go before God, and the body is cradled in a container (the aron) that honors the soul while allowing the remains to return to the holy earth. Just as in daily life our clothing and our means of transportation reflect our activities, after death we prepare for the olam habah with appropriate attire and container.

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Deeper Understanding

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