Preburial cleansing called holy act, ultimate mitzvah

When Alameda resident Carole Israel volunteered to participate in her first tahara — the traditional washing of a body before burial — she approached the experience with trepidation.

For one thing, she had never before seen a dead body. What's more, she didn't know precisely what she would be asked to do when helping to perform the rite.

But once she began the task of purifying the body of the deceased woman, she found herself filled less with fear than with a deep sense of spirituality and holiness.

"I came away with a strong feeling of enlightenment," Israel said. "I felt more alive and excited about life than almost any other time."

At a workshop on tahara at Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel Sunday morning, a number of people who have performed the rite expressed similar thoughts. Speaking to an audience of more than 40, they described the experience as the ultimate mitzvah, or good deed, a chance to ensure that every member of the community is treated with equal dignity and respect as he or she passes on.

The deceased person "is not going to thank you," Israel said. "It's one of the few times you can give love unconditionally."

A number of speakers at the workshop, in fact, described tahara as an act of love. "It's an event based on giving and honor," said Patrick Feigelson, who belongs to Oakland's Congregation Beth Jacob and is a member of the East Bay's Orthodox chevra kadisha: This community burial society takes care of preparing bodies for interment.

"It's hard to describe with words. You have to experience it."

The purification of the dead body takes place in a special room at the mortuary, in silence, with the ultimate respect for the deceased as an individual. Men perform the rite on other men, women on women. When the cleansing is complete, the body is adorned in tachrichim, or shrouds, placed in a casket and guarded around the clock until burial.

In addition to educating people on tahara, Sunday's three-hour workshop was aimed at encouraging more East Bay volunteers to perform the rite. Ideally, a minimum of four should be present at the ritual. The society needs an ample number of volunteers to ensure that enough will be available at any given time.

Those who spoke at the workshop acknowledged that recruiting tahara volunteers is not always easy. It is difficult work and an unmistakable confrontation with mortality. In addition, volunteers are often asked to perform the task at odd hours of the day or night.

As inconvenient as that may be, "there's no choice," Feigelson said. "We have to take care of our community."

A follow-up, hands-on session on tahara will be conducted Sunday, Sept. 8 at Colonial Chapel in Oakland. Reservations are required. For information, call Susan Somerville at (510) 547-8268 or Congregation Beth Israel at (510) 843-5246.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.