A chevra kadisha (Hevra kadishah) (Aramaic: חברא קדישא, Ḥebh'ra Qaddisha "holy society") is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse, and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial. It is usually referred to as a burial society in English.
The task of the chevra kadisha is considered a laudable one, as tending to the dead is a favour that the recipient cannot return, making it devoid of ulterior motives. Its work is therefore referred to as a chesed shel emet (a good deed of truth), paraphrased from Genesis 47:30 (where Jacob asks his son Joseph, "do me a 'true' favor" and Joseph promises his father to bury him in the burial place of his ancestors).
At the heart of the society's function is the ritual of tahara, or purification. The body is first thoroughly cleansed of dirt, body fluids and solids, and anything else that may be on the skin, and then it is ritually purified by immersion in, or a continuous flow of, water from the head over the entire body. Tahara may refer to either the entire process, or to the ritual purification. Once the body is purified, the body is dressed in tachrichim, or shrouds, of white pure muslin or linen garments made up of ten pieces for a male and twelve for a female, which are identical for each Jew and which symbolically recalls the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Once the body is dressed, the casket is closed. When being buried in Israel, however, a casket is not used.
The society may also provide shomrim, or watchers, to guard the body from theft, rodents, or desecration until burial. In some communities this is done by people close to the departed or by paid shomrim hired by the funeral home. At one time, the danger of theft of the body was very real; in modern times it has become a way of honoring the deceased.
A specific task for the burial society is tending to the dead who have no immediate next-of-kin. These are termed a meit mitzvah (a mitzvah corpse), as tending to a meit mitzvah overrides virtually any other positive commandment (mitzvat aseh) of Torah law, an indication of the high premium the Torah puts on the honor of the dead.
Many burial societies hold one or two annual fast days and organise regular study sessions to remain up-to-date with the relevant articles of Jewish law. In addition, most burial societies also support families during the shiv'ah (traditional week of mourning) by arranging prayer services, meals and other facilities.
While burial societies were, in Europe, generally a community function, in America it has become far more common for societies to be organized by each synagogue. However, not every synagogue has such a society.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, chevra kadisha societies were formed as landsmanshaft fraternal societies in the United States. Some landsmanshaftn were burial societies while others were "independent" groups split off from the chevras. There were 20,000 such landsmanshaftn in the U.S. at one time.
- Weisser, Michael R., A Brotherhood of Memory: Jewish Landsmanshaftn in the New World, Cornell University Press, 1985, ISBN 0-8014-9676-4, p. 13-14
- "With Demise of Jewish Burial Societies, Resting Places Are in Turmoil," The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/nyregion/03bury.html
- Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness, Rabbi Stuart Kelman, October, 2000, EKS Publishing Co., ISBN 0-939144-33-6.
- A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions,Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman, 1981, 2003, KTAV Publishing House, ISBN 0-88125-787-7.
- Tahara Manual of Practices including Halacha Decisions of Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, Rabbi Mosha Epstein, 1995, 2000, 2005.
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