The Taharah from Hell that Earned Me Heaven by Isaac Pollak
About 2 decades ago there was a man in our community who was in his early forties. He had a heart attack while taking a bath and died. Nothing unique or unusual, except that this person weighed over 400 pounds, and we just absolutely could not get him out of the bathtub.
The Medical Examiner, the police department, and finally the fire department were called in. The fire department was able to remove a window and use a hoist to extract the body. As if that was not enough, then the family (a brother) demanded an autopsy. Needless to say there was minimal Kavod Hamet.
Let’s start with talking about shrouds/Tachrichim. The extra, extra -large (XXL) size we had on hand didn’t come close to being a fit. He died on Friday, with a Sunday morning graveside funeral planned, leaving no possibility of ordering XXXL+ size shrouds. We called around to other funeral homes – no luck. So we improvised – we went across to a CVS pharmacy, purchased 2 sewing kits, took 2 sets of regular shrouds, ripped them open, and our Taharah group sewed together two sets to make one very large set of Tachrichim.
I was the best tailor: being a wild kid, I often ripped shirts and pants, and my mother in exasperation finally taught me how to sew, and told me next time I rip my pants I would just have to sew it up myself. I became quite proficient at it – which stood me in good stead in this case.
Now, let’s talk about a Taharah on a 400 pound person who had an autopsy and whose skull was sloppily reattached. Needless to say, nothing went well.
The Taharah table threatened to collapse, and groaned under the weight. The body could barely be contained on the table and a few times literally almost rolled off on top of us. We had a crew of eight, but this wasn’t enough. Three of us bent our backs as a support so when the deceased was rolled over to wash and get him dressed we acted as a supplement to the table, extending the table width with our backs.
I was the strongest of the group so I did quite a bit of the heavy lifting.
Almost three hours later the Taharah was complete – but no coffin was big enough, so the family purchased an elaborate $10,000+ extra large coffin from the showroom. We got the man into the casket, closed it, and left.
This all transpired a week before Purim, and after I left the funeral home I recalled from the Megilla that Mordechai told Ester (Megillat Ester 4:14) that perhaps “this is your reason for being” as Ester was picked to be the new wife of King Ahasuerus, thus being in a position to save the Jews of Persia.
I have always told my kids that we are defined by what we do for others. Perhaps this was my “reason for being,” my one defining moment in life where I was instrumental in having a deceased meet their maker in the traditional manner.
Not to brag, but I have completed 18 marathons, 52 100-mile bike races, and 9 triathlons – and nothing has ever exhausted me as did this Taharah. I went home showered and slept 11 hours.
But the story goes on. As I was engaged in the Taharah, and afterwards, I deeply resented this person just for being fodder for worms, for not being able to control his food intake, and for making it so incredibly difficult for us to do our job. I was wrong to feel this way.
Now, every year on the Seventh day of Adar I fast, recite Psalms, recall the deceased and remember the names of all those for whom we did a Taharah in the previous 12 months. But this person I remember every year as part of my atonement for resenting him at the time.
Yes – his Taharah frustrated and exhausted me like nothing else ever did, but in that very fact he also gave me my defining moment of being.
Robert Frost wrote a beautiful poem titled “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It concludes:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
The poet is enchanted by the esthetic beauty of the scene, the soft silence of the falling snow, the dark dignity of the tall trees. Oh, he would like to stay here in this timeless moment, but he knows that life has an ethical dimension as well, and this demands action, not just contemplation. He has promises to keep; he has duties toward the world.
And so do we in our CK work.
Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning ritual. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses.
Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is August 16th, featuring Gary Goldberg on “You Want It Darker. The Public Performance of the Personal Death Awareness Practice of the Late Great Leonard Cohen… featuring Hazzan Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar HaShomayim Mens Choir”. This should be a really interesting topic! Don’t miss it!
Taste of Gamliel Series
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Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of Gamliel Continuing Education Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar.
The next course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin.
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The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Dan Fendel and Edna Stewart, with guest instructors.
Registration is open – click here.
The course planned for Winter 2019 is Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah.
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Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.