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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:

Taharah

A Deeper Understanding


One of the most holy tasks in our tradition is the care we afford our fellow Jews after death. Judaism has developed sensitive, respectful and caring practices for how our dead are to be prepared for burial. Taharah is the ritual through which this happens.  The taharah team prepares a Jewish body through this ritual to “midwife” the soul as it transitions between realms of existence.

Introduction


Jewish custom requires that a body be buried as soon as possible after death.  Between death and burial, the Chevrah Kadisha volunteers come together with the sole intent of preparing the body of a fellow Jew in the most loving, honorable and dignified way. This custom is known as a taharah, and it involves a thorough washing, the ritual pouring of water, and dressing in burial shrouds. Inspirational readings and prayers are said every step along the way.  The taharah seeks to maintain the dignity of the dead while easing the grief of the mourners.  It teaches us how to show respect to both the living and the dead. The ritual of taharah is a holy act of kindness available to all Jews.

The ritual of taharah has two simultaneous tasks. First, the care of the body, a cleansing and purifying of the holy vessel that held the now detached soul.  And second, support for the soul in transition, what could be called a midwifing of the soul for the next phase of its journey.  Through this sensitive process we are helping a holy being, a soul, move from one realm to another (from this world to the next).  The liturgy and the customs associated with taharah come from a book called the Ma'avar Yabbok, published in 1626 in Italy. It is a foundational text that blends Kabbalah with practical instructions.   Thus, taharah is a blending of community, sacred intent, prayer and text-based liturgy, with physical actions designed to create a unique and beautiful “sacred space” to support the soul on its journey. 

Details


Taharah includes elements that interact through the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and the physical, simultaneously.  The ritual involves washing the physical body as an analog for washing the soul.  Just as a newborn baby is often welcomed into this world with a warm bath, the deceased is washed and prepared to be welcomed into the next world.  The body which has absorbed holiness from the soul which it has carried in this world, is treated with the utmost respect and honor. As the soul separates from its body, the Chevrah Kadisha help is on its journey into the spiritual realms. The whole taharah process assists both the body and the soul on their respective post-mortem journeys.

The taharah is performed with physical actions along with spiritual and holy intentions and prayers.The accompanying liturgy is sourced from the book, the Song of Songs (by King Solomon), from the Psalms, from the Prophets, and from the Talmud. Each reading is aimed at helping the Chevrah Kadisha have the holiest of intentions and also to help comfort and protect the soul as it disengages from its body.

There are 5 stages in a taharah (plus closing prayers and team debriefing):

  • Preparations and opening prayers
  • Cleansing the body physically (rechitzah)
  • Washing and purifying the deceased spiritually (taharah)
  • Dressing the body in burial garments (halbashah) and
  • Placing it in the casket (halanah)
  • The closing prayers and debriefing


Taharah is often described as the traditional ritual washing of a Jewish person who has died. This is a woefully incomplete definition. A more complete explanation of taharah includes these four elements:

  • Kehilah - Each Jewish community is responsible to ensure that there is an organization (usually called the Chevrah Kadisha) that takes on the mitzvot to care for the dead.
  • Kavanah – Those who do the taharah adopt a practice of sacred, focused, intention - maintaining humility and providing respect throughout the process. It is understood that the disembodied soul is present and has an awareness of what is happening.
  • Tefilah - the traditional readings and prayers that are said as the taharah ritual is performed. Among these, we ask the deceased for forgiveness in case we inadvertently show any disrespect to the deceased, and we ask God for strength to do this holy work.
  • Maaseh - the physical care the Chevrah Kadisha provides for members of our community who have died.  This includes inspecting the body, cleaning and washing it thoroughly, ritually pouring water in a specific amount and manner, dressing the body in burial garments, and placing it gently into the casket.


Everything is done in confidence to protect the dignity of the deceased.  The taharah team is very sensitive to the sacredness of the task and the modesty of the deceased.

The taharah liturgy includes a number of prayers and readings in both English and Hebrew.  The prayers and readings recited during the ritual have intellectual, physical, and spiritual value for both the deceased and the members of the chevrah who are involved.  Some groups have everyone recite the prayers, while other groups have a single reader or pair of readers. Some recite everything in Hebrew only, others in English only, and still others in both languages, sometimes simultaneously.

The dead are traditionally clothed in white, simple, often hand-sewn, cotton or linen garments that are modeled after the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of Temple times, on Yom Kippur.  Everyone is traditionally buried the same way since we are all equal, no one is holier or more worthy than anyone else.

The Performance of Taharah


The details of each step of the taharah ritual are summarized here. If more in-depth understanding is desired, read one or both of the following taharah manuals:


Taharah procedures are organized into the five main steps mentioned above:

(1) Preparations and opening prayers


Several important events happen during this first phase of the taharah, beginning with the leader briefing the team on what is to come. This phase may include a review of the procedures by the leader and assigning roles to specific people. The team may recite a prayer setting intentions to see the face of God in each other as well as in the deceased, and then everyone enters the room in silence to begin laying out supplies, donning protective clothing, and to start preparing the casket. The decedent is covered with a sheet if not already covered, while preparatory readings are recited.

(2) Cleansing the body physically (rechitzah)


This part of the taharah is performed as gently and carefully as one might for a newborn baby. The body of the deceased is always covered with a sheet. Any clothing they were previously dressed in is removed. While the appropriate readings are recited, the body is completely washed using warm water and a soft cloth or batting. Fingernails and toenails are cleaned and trimmed; all medical devices, catheters, IV’s , band aids, etc., are removed if possible. Everything is done gently and respectfully. During this part of the taharah, the body is kept covered with a sheet except for the part that is being washed.

(3) Washing and purifying the deceased spiritually (taharah)


Team members ritually wash their hands, put on clean gloves, and  fill buckets with clean water for the ritual pouring of water (for the spiritual washing phase). The body is either immersed in a mikveh or nine kavim (approximately 24 quarts) of water are poured over the deceased in a steady stream (to simulate mayim chayim - an unbroken flow of living water).  After this, a clean dry sheet is placed over the deceased, and both the body and the table are thoroughly dried.

 (4) Dressing the body in the burial garments (halbashah


Now the deceased is carefully dressed in tachrichim. These clothes are made from cotton or linen, have no pockets, buttons, or snaps, and include pants, a shirt, a jacket, a head covering, a belt and leg ties. The pants have a tie at the waist, the shirt and jacket include a tie at the neck, and there are ties for each leg (placed just under the knee). Each of these ties is secured in a way that represents Hebrew letters suggesting one of the names of God. As each piece of the tachrichim is put on, a specific and appropriate phrase from Leviticus (Chapter 16) is recited.

(5) placing it in the casket (halanah)


Once the deceased is dressed, the aron is prepared by placing a large sheet-like cloth (called a sovev) over it. If the deceased wore a tallit during life, a tallit will be placed into the casket after removing one of the tzitzit (this is done because the dead can no longer do mitzvot).The body is then lowered gently into the aron.   Earth from Israel is sprinkled into the casket and on specific areas of the body, broken pottery is placed on the eyes and mouth, and the body is wrapped up in the sovev like a swaddled baby.

The closing prayers and debriefing


The team then formally asks the deceased for forgiveness for anything they did that was not respectful or dignified.  At this point several concluding prayers and Biblical passages are recited, some of which are related to the protection of the deceased for their upcoming journey.  Once completed, the aron (the casket) is moved outside of the taharah room, more prayers are recited and a lit candle is placed near the head of the deceased.

Then, Chevrah Kadisha members straighten up the room, wash their hands again, and sometimes they assemble in a separate room for a post-taharah debriefing. Here, the team members’ emotional health is supported, as participation in this ritual can be a very powerful experience. In addition, any practical issues that need to be addressed can be discussed outside of the space where the taharah was performed.

Every community has its own customs on how best to help the Chevrah Kadisha members re-enter the ‘real’ world. Moving from the liminal and sacred space of the taharah, back into the chaos of daily life can be a shock.

If a body is to be transported for burial in Israel, a certificate stating that a taharah was performed is required to accompany the body.

Resources to Learn More


 

Between death and burial, the community comes together to prepare the deceased for burial through a sensitive and loving ceremony of cleansing, pouring water and dressing, accompanied by a rich liturgy and holy intentions.


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

Practical

Textual

Emotional

Spiritual

Taharah from the Practical / Physical Perspective

The taharah ritual is usually performed by a team of participants (members of the Chevrah Kadisha). This process includes a physical washing (a sponge-bath), a spiritual washing (pouring water over the body), drying the body, dressing it in tachrichim, and placing the prepared body into an aron. This usually happens in a funeral home preparation room.  Prior to the advent of the modern funeral industry it was performed in the home of the deceased.

Taharah from the Intellectual / Textual Perspective

The liturgy said during the taharah is based on the writings of the Ma'avar Yabbok, a ground-breaking book written by the kabbalist Rabbi Aaron Berechia (1626 in Modena, Italy). The traditional readings said today in the US come from several sources, most notably, the book called Song of Songs (written by King Solomon), the Prophets, and the Talmud. These prayers directly address God and the deceased. They also speak of the spiritual results of the process being undertaken. Specific readings are said before performing each of the actions during the taharah to help set the intentions.

Taharah from the Emotional / Feelings Perspective

Every aspect of taharah is focused on honoring the dignity and sacredness of the deceased. Kavod hameit is the central guiding principle, every action in taharah is infused with respect and kavanahEach action during the ceremony is done gently and deliberately, with awareness of its impact on the deceased. The taharah begins and ends with the team asking the dead for forgiveness for any disrespect that might inadvertently occur.  In addition, many teams meet before and after the procedure to ensure team members are emotionally healthy, for entering this liminal space can be a powerful experience.

Taharah from the Spiritual / Soul Perspective

The Jewish traditional belief is that the living are a composite of physical, material, organic body infused with a spiritual, holy, God-given soul. Death is the beginning of the uncoupling of the soul from its body.  The soul journeys through a period of transformation as it adjusts to life outside of the body, and then is thought to move into higher realms. When taharah is performed, the team and the liturgy address the soul in transition, to help that soul move between worlds. The soul never dies and continues to exist in a purely spiritual realm. After death and before burial the soul is thought to stay close to its body with which it had an intimate relationship with for its lifetime.

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