The Ultimate Act of Kindness
By Sara Lehmann
Everyone is familiar with the mitzvah of chessed shel emes and its implications of selfless giving. However, not everyone is familiar with the selfless individuals who are involved in this ultimate chessed.
The term chessed shel emes has become synonymous worldwide with chevrah kaddisha, the Jewish voluntary organization that assists in Jewish burial. Perhaps the most difficult — also the most unrecognized — element of the chevrah kaddisha’s responsibilities is performing the taharah, the ritual purification of the deceased.
The chevrah kaddisha must adhere to strict halachos pertaining to preparing a body for burial, and extreme modesty is preserved even in death. The focus of kvod hameis is paramount to ensure the dignified treatment of the deceased.
Taharos are not for the faint of heart, but neither are they for the heartless. Indeed, the job is thankless by nature, and the average person is unaware of who most of the chevrah kaddisha members are and what they do. Yet their extreme dedication and their willingness to immerse themselves in such a challenging chessed bespeak much of their giving and altruistic character.
To learn more about such individuals and to gain insight into what motivates someone to become involved in the chevrah kaddisha, I spoke to four members about their experiences. Emblematic of the incognito nature of their occupation, all four chose to remain anonymous. Nevertheless, there is a name for all of them — they are righteous in this world and the World to Come.
R.M. just reached the 42-year mark since doing his first taharah. It all started after the tragic drowning death of his best friend in the Hudson River. R.M. remembers being present before the levayah, and the niftar’s mother approaching him.
“She said to me, ‘Can you please go and see how my son is?’ His body was found after several days in the water, and his distraught mother was agonizing over the body’s condition. When I went to check, the chevrah kaddisha was in middle of the taharah. Once I was there, I stayed.”
R.M., who still hasn’t gotten over the death of his closest friend, said that seeing the body was “a sight that didn’t leave my mind for a few days.” The impression stayed with him, and when he got married several years later, he decided this was something he wanted to be involved with. He got in touch with a chevrah kaddisha and became “part of a crew.”
When I ask R.M. how this chessed differs from others, he answers, “First, you must have a strong stomach. It’s not for the squeamish. Secondly, it’s not a pleasant chessed. We’ve had cases over the years where a normal person who’s not attuned to it can be impacted for life by such a sight.”
R.M. details what type of person he thinks should be involved in taharos. “Someone mature. Someone who knows that you’re going to do a very difficult mitzvah and obviously the reward is in the World to Come. There’s no fame, no thank yous, no gratitude; there’s nothing. You go to a taharah and walk out, and there’s an entire family there grieving. You sneak out the side door.”
After being involved in taharos for so many years, R.M.’s reputation precedes him. Not always in a good way. “Over the years I got the reputation of being in the chevrah kaddisha, to such an extent that if there’s ever a car crash and I just happen to be walking by, Hatzolah members tell me to leave. They’re scared that if people see me there, they’ll think I’m needed!”
R.M. is quite stolid about his involvement. “You do what you have to do and go on. It’s not something you harp on.” Such an attitude is a necessary tool of the trade, but I question whether a person who is involved in taharos over a lengthy period of time runs the risk of becoming hardened or desensitized. R.M.’s answer is double pronged.
“You get desensitized to a dead body, but you don’t become desensitized to tragedy, to your friend standing there crying. They’re two different things. Most of the time I don’t know the people I do taharos on. Recently, however, I’ve limited myself to doing people I knew very well. By definition, I know their family — of course, I feel bad. But there’s an exception when it comes to children. When I have to do children or stillborn babies, when I have to do a bris, those things pinch the heart. But I can’t let it get to me, or I’m done.”
How does one balance the sadness of a taharah with the obligation to do a mitzvah b’simchah? “There is a satisfaction. When I walk out of a taharah, I know I did a mitzvah that the vast part of Klal Yisrael cannot do. That’s why, throughout the modern history of Klal Yisrael as we know it, most people who were involved in chevrah kaddisha were wired differently. The average person, living a normal, ehrlich, frum life with a wife and kids, doesn’t want to be called at 7 in the morning or 11 at night to a gruesome scene and then go back home. It’s a disruption.”
R.M. stresses that the sacrifice is worth it, as long as one’s spouse is on board. One must be married and have reshus from his or her spouse, or the chevrah kaddisha won’t accept that person.
Not only is this mitzvah one that is not repaid, it is not talked about either. R.M. stresses it’s not a chessed that’s shared. “Because what are you bragging about? Someone else’s tzaros? It’s not important for others to know. The process is cleaning a dead body. There are a lot of technical things that must be done for kevuras Yisrael. It’s not a subject for discussion.”
Throughout our talk, R.M. emphasizes the overriding importance of kvod hameis. “The number one rule in chevrah kaddisha and taharah is kvod hameis. You do not do anything that is disrespectful to the meis. During the taharah, you constantly talk to the meis and mention his name. You ask for mechilah along the way for what you have to do to come to kevuras Yisrael, because it involves handling a body. If the person were alive, it would be degrading. There are tefillos and pesukim to be said before we start and at every stage of the taharah. The last thing we do is to remind him of his complete Hebrew name. Then we close the box and leave.”
R.M.’s involvement in this mitzvah spans decades. I ask if he has reached the point of tapering off or whether lengthy participation is advantageous. He replies that until 10-12 years ago, he was totally involved, sometimes doing daily taharos. But he feels at a certain point, it’s time to let a younger crew move in, because otherwise there will be a gap, and that younger crew needs to be trained.
In addition, R.M. notes that today there are many more chevrah kaddishas than years ago. “When I started, there were basically only two, so we were running all over the place. Now I don’t do it as often. But I will get calls if there’s a difficult case, and they need someone with extreme experience. It also requires lifting, so it’s not easy.”
R.M. thinks recruitment might be more of a problem with women, with fewer women looking to train. “They’re so occupied. You need to have a certain amount of unlimited freedom to be able to show up to these at any time of the day. The dynamics are different, so the women involved today are usually older.”
I inquire whether any particularly tragic death, perhaps due to age or circumstance, affected him more than others. “I have a list of almost 2,000 names of people I’ve done. I was involved in the taharos for those who were niftar in the helicopter crash over 20 years ago and Flight 800 that blew up over Long Island. These things you don’t forget. And G-d forbid, children in car accidents or surgery patients. These things are etched in my mind. They’re all tragic. But your question whether it affects me is one that should be asked prior to the actual taharah. The tragedy itself affects me, but the taharah itself doesn’t affect me, per se, because the requirement of my job is to take care of the deceased body.”
For the most part, R.M. sees it as being all about balancing. “It’s like a doctor who does surgery. He goes to the operating room and then leaves and doesn’t stop his normal life. I usually don’t think about it afterward, unless it’s someone I know very well.”
He relays that there used to be a minhag in Klal Yisrael: With every taharah, there’d be a pail of whiskey placed on the aron. Chevrah kaddisha members would drink a l’chaim after the taharah to “drown out” what they just went through. But on a more esoteric level, seeing death up close leads R.M. to see himself as being “held to a little bit of a higher standard.”
R.M. explains this is the only mitzvah in the Torah called chessed shel emes. One does not expect anything in return. It’s a title that no other mitzvah has. “Do I have a personal satisfaction in doing it? Yes, I did a great mitzvah. Do I hope G-d will reward me? Yes. But it’s a unique mitzvah in the sense that it’s very personal. Anybody who does this is not looking for any sort of recognition at all. No one does a taharah for anything other than l’shem mitzvah.”
According to R.M., this mitzvah is a manifestation of “Deracheha darchei no’am — The ways of the Torah are always pleasant”. The fact that there is such a process required for a human being to be prepared before he or she meets our Maker is not an inconvenience. “It’s part of the beauty of the Torah; the respect for the human body is paramount, because it’s made by Hashem b’tzelem Elokim. It’s not an Amazon return. You can’t just return it in a box with a label. You have to prepare it with tefillos, wrapped spotlessly clean. As if to say, ‘Hashem, I’m coming back to you.’”
Death is part of the life process, as R.M. sees it, but has to be approached with “a certain kindness or proper etiquette” to maintain a person’s dignity even after he has died. It’s his job as part of the chevrah kaddisha to return someone’s loved one to Hashem in “the way he is supposed to be returned.” And he laments the numerous people who are not zocheh to kevuras Yisrael. “I get messages all the time from the chevrah kaddisha looking for a minyan for a guy who died six months ago; they found out he’s Jewish and are burying him upstate in a Jewish cemetery for meisei mitzvah.”
R.M. points out kevuras Yisrael is a mitzvah d’Oraysa. He explains the reason we don’t make a brachah, even though it’s a mitzvah, is because a certain shittah holds not to make a brachah on anything that both we and goyim do for the same reason in the normal way of life, like kibbud av va’eim or burying the dead. It’s an issur to leave a body, and it’s brought down that a body should be buried before sunset of that day. There are some directives from famous tzaddikim who requested to be buried immediately where they are when they pass away. R.M. adds there’s an exception for kvod hameis. For example, if a big Rebbe or Rosh Yeshivah was niftar and there will be 100,000 people at the levayah if they wait, rather than 5,000 people, they wait.
“But the key to all of this,” R.M. underscores, “is kvod hameis.”
E.L.’s husband was involved in taharos for quite a few years, when they spent a Shabbos in New Jersey at a friend’s house around 20 years ago. Though familiar with her husband’s involvement, she never asked him any questions. But right after that Shabbos, the lady of the house said she had to run out.
“When I asked her where she’s going, she said to a taharah,” E.L. explained. “She asked if I wanted to join her, and I did. I went with her to the taharah and stood as a bystander and watched what was going on. Then I returned home, called the chevrah kaddisha and told them I’m ready to join.”
That was the beginning of E.L.’s long-lasting involvement with taharos. I question E.L. about how she felt that first time. “Aren’t women more squeamish?”
“For some reason, it didn’t bother me at all,” she replied. “I think my demeanor in life is that I’m calm by nature. I raised six children. They fall; they hurt themselves. As a parent, you have to be ready for anything — a broken bone, stitches. I think that’s what got me over the squeamish part.”
However, E.L. readily agrees that a certain personality is required. “Definitely. I would say you need strong nerves. There are people who can’t handle seeing a dead body. For some reason, it doesn’t affect me at all. It’s like being in the medical field. I think I would have made a good nurse.”
Doing taharos is not the only chessed E.L. performs, but she sees it as one that differs from others. “This is a great mitzvah to do, because you’re doing something for someone else and they cannot return the favor. That’s why it’s called chessed shel emes.”
E.L. sees her involvement in one of the most important elements of a Jewish burial as carrying over into other aspects of her life on a very personal level. “I feel fulfilled. It’s something I learned quickly, and I can do it. I didn’t need any schooling for it, learned it on the job and I walk out with a content feeling that I just did something good. As a matter of fact, around two weeks ago, I was leaving a taharah early in the morning and driving slowly down the street. The light was green when I came to the corner, and suddenly a lady riding a bicycle rode against her red light, right in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and miraculously didn’t hit her. Some bystanders were astounded that I was able to stop. But I believe Hashem was watching over me. And I knew it was a direct result of having just done this mitzvah.”
I wonder how dealing with dead bodies can impact one’s outlook on their own mortality and whether it causes her to dwell on it. “Not really,” E.L. answers. “I compartmentalize the fact that what I’m doing is a mitzvah and don’t think about someone doing it for me one day. It will happen, but I don’t think about it. Although when my father recently passed away, I didn’t do taharos afterward for several months. I couldn’t be involved at that point. I wasn’t interested in seeing a dead body.”
E.L. also tries to separate doing taharos from the sadness of death. “I was once at a taharah for a young girl, around 15, who’d been sick. I was very sad, but I completely separated doing the mitzvah from the tragic event.”
As to whether this is a coping mechanism to avoid internalizing people’s tragedies, which would prevent her from doing the mitzvah, E.L. agrees. “Probably it is. This is the world we live in. We’re all meant to leave the world at some point. Some go earlier; some go later. Hopefully the young people are few and far between.”
E.L. also explains the seeming secrecy of taharos in contrast to the public nature of many other chassadim like bikur cholim, shidduchim or tzedakah. “The reason it’s private is because of the actual work we are doing. It must be done in an extremely bakavodik fashion.”
The actual work varies only slightly from one community to the other, and E.L. doesn’t feel it’s necessary to learn about different minhagim for different people ahead of time. “Different groups do different things. The one I belong to does things one way, but Boro Park Shomrei Hadas does things a little differently. It varies only slightly.”
The process works through a group; E.L.’s group has around 30 women on it. A text is sent out when people are needed for a taharah, and as soon as four women reply in the positive, they receive a message that it’s covered.
People are recruited by word of mouth. Someone who is involved tells a friend who might be interested. “Some people are okay with this. They start and see that they can do it. There’s a need for people. Sometimes the guy in charge will call me privately to ask if I’m available. Then I know he’s desperate, and I go. Recently, he called me regarding a woman who had been found deceased in her apartment after two months. I readily agreed, though I knew the body would be in terrible condition.”
Asked whether she feels that at a certain point, members of the chevrah kaddisha might become weary and should step back, E.L. doesn’t think it likely that taharos take an emotional toll. “There are two women in the group who are in their upper 60s who are involved, but they’re starting to step back a little and allow the younger people step in.”
What about becoming jaded? “I’m not hardened,” E.L. says. “But I have become desensitized to death and to bad news. It doesn’t shock me anymore because of my involvement. Years ago, before I became involved in taharos, I would cry hysterically if I heard news of a tragic death or the death of someone I knew. It may not faze me now in that way, but of course, I still care. I was with my father in the last moments before he passed away. I was able to speak to him privately after he passed away. I cried and asked forgiveness, and it was a very comforting feeling. Because I am involved in taharos, it was easier for me to be there.”
E.L. doesn’t dwell on the sadness and sees no contradiction in performing this mitzvah or others b’simchah. “I don’t find it to be a sad mitzvah at all. Everybody has their time, and thank G-d, we’re able to facilitate this for them. It’s mostly old people above age 80, and it’s a beautiful mitzvah. What’s especially impactful is giving up of your time when you can be doing something else, and utilizing your time to do a mitzvah that you have the privilege to do.”
When G.C.’s cousin passed away close to 20 years ago, he created a tzedakah in his name. Sadly, his mother passed away shortly after, and he looked for a different way to do something l’iluy nishmas his mother. He turned to Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz in Eretz Yisrael, with whom he has a relationship, and asked for advice.
“I’ll give you one mitzvah that you can be mevatel Torah for,” Rav Gamliel replied. “If you want to join a chevrah kaddisha, it would be a tremendous zechus for your mother.”
As a Kohen, Rav Gamliel said that it’s not a mitzvah that he could personally do. “But if I could do this chessed shel emes, he told me I should definitely pick it up. And baruch Hashem, I’ve done 18 years’ worth. I do all of it in my mother’s name. That’s what motivated me.”
Involvement in this mitzvah has certainly impacted G.C.’s life. “When you start, guys who have been in it for a long time advise a person to quit if he doesn’t continue to get hisorerus from doing the avodah after doing it for a while. But I find that the more I do taharos and the more I understand what life’s all about and where everybody ends up — nobody escapes it — it gives me a lot of hisorerus. It’s actually a tremendous mussar right in front of you. And a zechus for me.”
G.C. has also learned to detach from certain things he sees in the course of his involvement. “It opens up your eyes to certain issues and problems — you see overdoses and kids and crazy cases. It definitely affects you. You learn to compartmentalize it, or you go crazy. But in the compartment that it’s in, it permeates the rest of you.”
While G.C. tries not to internalize some of what he witnesses, he does not feel he has become desensitized; rather, he’s become inspired. He explains that the term “chevrahman” comes from those involved in the chevrah kaddisha, who over time have become hardened. But he was taught to “walk away” if that happens to him.
G.C. also feels that this chessed differs from others for obvious reasons. Some people are squeamish and can’t physically handle it, although he does believe that “90% of the people” could do it if they stuck it out. “You’d be surprised as to what you can or can’t handle. I was considerably nervous the first time, and I didn’t sleep when I came home. I was wide awake. But you really see Yad Hashem involved in various aspects of life. It’s inspiring.”
He does not deny the fact that it’s not for all people. “People have a fear of dead bodies, or they don’t have a strong stomach. Doing bikur cholim or giving tzedakah is easier. Not everyone can do this. Some people are too sensitive. It took me months and a lot of on-the-job training. There are sefarim to learn from, but from the outset, it’s a more difficult path. I started it for a specific reason, but there isn’t a gravitational pull towards this avodah. Pulling $10 out of your pocket is easier.”
G.C. looks forward to doing this chessed as long as he’s physically able. He doesn’t see his resolve for this mitzvah ever waning and sees similar dedication among other “Chevrah guys,” who typically respond “miyad,” to the calls that go out. “The six people needed are usually filled in a second.”
He normally does taharos once a week and certainly every Motzoei Shabbos, when he’s busy for two to three hours. He’s especially busy after a three-day Yom Tov. As such, G.C. describes how it’s a commitment one’s family has to make. “In the beginning, it was a little harder, because the kids were smaller. Now it’s not a big deal. But my wife is part of the mitzvah.”
G.C. talks about the under-the-radar nature of the chessed. “It’s not intended to be a secret society with a handshake and a signet ring. But it’s not talked about openly, so it seems secret. There are rules in the chevrah that you’re not allowed to talk about anything you’ve done or the people whom you’ve done. Fellow members don’t speak during the taharah process, and we don’t speak about the cases afterwards.”
Chevrah kaddisha members might not talk about their experiences, but it’s not that they don’t think about them. “You hope to be 105 years old and die in your sleep. But whenever you see a case that involves something that’s “meshunah,” out of the realm, or a younger person, it affects you more, because it hits your inner mortality meter. I certainly think about it more now at my age than when I started. You realize that the life span is a certain number of years, and you’re kind of at the back end of it. You really start thinking more seriously about things.”
While this is especially true if tragedy is involved, G.C. likes to focus on the positive. “When you see young people or people who suffered horribly in an accident or illness, it hits you. On the flip side, although they’re few and far between, you get people with numbers on their arm, and that’s a tremendous hisorerus for the group. It doesn’t happen often anymore, but when I started it was prevalent. And it gave you tremendous chizuk to see a person who came through and built a new dor.”
Doing taharos also leads him to truly experience life’s cycle. “You see death during the brief time that you spend in the taharah room, and then you come back to your own life. When you leave there, that reality declines, and then a new reality sets back in, and you see babies being born. You see the life cycle in action.”
G.C. also views this chessed as extending beyond the scope of chessed shel emes. He explains that this is a mitzvas asei from the Torah, derived from the words in the passuk, “kavor tikberenu” (Devarim 21:23) and applies to everyone. It’s a mitzvas asei that’s obligatory upon each person, not only upon the chevrah. However, when a person gets to that point, he can’t do the mitzvah himself and needs assistance.
“Therefore, it’s possible to run into somebody who never did a mitzvah in his life (as is the case with a lot of the people we assist) like Russians, people who didn’t even know that they were Jewish, or completely unaffiliated people, and we have to do a bris milah prior to the taharah. Well, that’s the one mitzvah that the person will do, and you’re assisting them in doing that. There’s a certain pride and simchah knowing that I’m helping this guy who may never have done another mitzvah “l’shem mitzvah,” and here he’s being buried in tachrichim with kever Yisrael. It’s a big deal. Many people are not zocheh to that.”
G.C. mentions the simchah that also results from doing a taharah for a tzaddik, who has plenty of zechusim but is receiving help because he has a chiyuv. He says he takes “nachas ruach from whom I am being metapel with during the taharah. That goes a long way.” While recognizing those left behind, he balances his mission by feeling happy for such a tzaddik or other people who have lived well.
Above all, G.C.’s feeling towards taharos is a joy borne out of a sense of achievement. “It never ends until Moshiach comes. It’s the one thing that you can give all the time without getting paid back from the individual, but when you finish, you feel accomplished. Each job is fulfilling, knowing you’ve done everything you had to do in a proper way.”
Around 25 years ago, T.S. took care of her ill father at her home until he was niftar. Throughout the time she nursed him, she felt good about having a meaningful purpose. A year after his death, she felt ready to take on something else that was as meaningful to her as that was.
T.S. asked herself what she could do that would make her feel as rewarded. Her search led her to the chevrah kaddisha. “I thought this chessed might fulfill me and give my life some meaning,” she said.
T.S. was acquainted with this particular chessed through her uncle, who was very involved in the men’s chevrah kaddisha. She was able to call him, which made it easier for her to get direction and become a member. “The first time I stood and watched until I was comfortable enough to really participate. It’s basically on-the-job training. There are manuals, and it varies in different chevrahs. Certain things are not halachah, just different customs in different places.”
It was not necessary to become immersed in widely different minhagim. “The variations from Litvish and Chassidish are only minor. Sometimes, when they needed us, we would work with the Lubavitch chevrah too. We do whatever the minhag ha’ir is.”
When she first started, T.S. had a young family at home and she had to adapt her lifestyle to the chessed. “When I first started doing it, my children were younger, in elementary school. I would go out sometimes early in the morning and was back before they would go on the school bus. I would tell them that when people are niftar and getting ready to meet Hashem, they have to look nice. That was the way I expressed it to my young children at the time, and it helped them.”
T.S. also learned to internalize how the taharos affect her by concentrating on the aspect of sensitivity toward the nifteres. “Life brings us many different challenges. I really believe we’re preparing the nifteres for the Olam Ha’emes. The utmost kavod of the meis is paramount. During each taharah, we ask for mechilah three times if we didn’t do something to the best of their kavod. After 120, we hope people would have the same sensitivity.”
That realization was brought home when, after doing taharos for many years, T.S.’s husband passed away at a relatively young age. T.S. felt her involvement with the chevrah kaddisha helped to prepare her. With her children married, she looked to find the positive by focusing on how the mitzvah “gave me something I can do to help others.”
She had special gratitude for those who did the chessed shel emes for her husband, knowing what is involved. “I thought of how amazing it is that people are available to do this and give of their time. But when I think of myself doing the mitzvah, I don’t think of it the same way. It’s just something I do to help people when they’re not here, and nobody knows I help them. It’s a good feeling, where no one knows who you are, and you’re able to prepare them for the next world.”
T.S. admits that sometimes it can be painful when she does a taharah for a younger person or someone she knows. She deals with it by separating herself from the pain. “Basically, I’m the type of person who separates myself from things. I closet things, and that’s what helps me with difficult taharos.”
Becoming desensitized is also a risk. “It definitely could happen, because like anything else, it becomes routine. But then you can see things that are terrible, like young people who died or young parents whose children need them at home. At the same time, it’s a privilege to do a taharah for an elderly person who lived many years.”
Not everyone is suited for this mitzvah, and T.S. cautions against the squeamish joining the chevrah kaddisha. She points out that not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or dentist or someone in the medical field either. She remembers how she coped in the beginning by trying to “make believe they are sleeping.” But that didn’t always work, because each body doesn’t always look so comfortable and peaceful.
Once a member, however, T.S. does not think there should be some sort of term limit to this chessed. “The rosh (lead woman) we were dealing with was an old woman, about 90. She was wonderful and a great mentor; we were able to learn so much from her. She had stamina even at her age. Obviously, the physical part of it can be stressful and physically taxing. But as long as someone is in a physical condition that can handle this and doesn’t feel it’s too much, I don’t think there should be a time limit.”
T.S. also believes there is a certain anivus that goes with doing taharos, because of the very essence of its being a chessed shel emes — a good deed done without reward. This also ties into the privacy facet of the mitzvah. “We don’t go out to the supermarket afterward and say I just did a taharah. We might be thinking things at the time, like this person must’ve had excellent care at home, but we don’t share it. That’s the way we’re instructed to conduct ourselves.”
What motivates T.S. the most is knowing her holy work is enabling a person to return her neshamah to Shamayim in the best way possible. “What we’re doing is going to make it easier for someone to go up and greet Hashem. We’re exceedingly meticulous about it and do the best we can for them on this end for their arrival at their final resting place; it’s a very comforting feeling.”
T.S. is grateful for the opportunity this mitzvah provides her. “It goes with ani ma’amin. If Hashem gives us the special koach to do this, then I’m glad I have that zechus. After caring for my father, Hashem gave me something that would be rewarding for me and at the same time be helpful and beneficial for the recipient.”
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