My first taharah took place on a late night in the middle of busy workweek. At the Jewish funeral parlor, the most experienced woman in the Chevrah Kadisha explained the order of taharah activities and reviewed our booklet of prayers. We were five women, which, she said, made washing and moving the meitah (body) easier.
Moving to the back of the funeral parlor, we passed a man reading psalms, serving as shomer. As we walked towards the taharah room, there were four other open caskets in a large hallway, each filled with a covered body. I thought about how lonely they looked, grateful for the shomer’s steady prayers.
The next room held the meitah. We washed our hands in the sink in silence. The meitah lay on a tilted blue table with a hole at one end to allow the water we would use to flow into a porcelain commode. She was wrapped like a neat package in a hospital sheet with tiny yellow flowers. I went to find the personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by the funeral home. I work around hospitals and understand ‘standard precautions’ and the importance of using protective equipment to stay safe around potential infection hazards. A meitah is no more or less contagious than a random undiagnosed patient in an emergency room who one would help shower and wash. But in healthcare, we assume all body fluids are contagious. I looked for the PPE, for full disposable gowns and gloves. There weren’t enough, and the gloves did not fit. I stopped and searched through every cabinet and closet in the mortuary room until I found additional equipment. I placed them on a side table next to a new cardboard box with linen shrouds. We all put on protective gear. Holding the prayer booklet, our team leader read liturgy in Hebrew and English from the Song of Songs. We began.
Two women unwrapped the body and cut off a hospital gown and plastic ID bracelet. Her name had been Roslyn. She was elderly and petite. She’d had her hair done and her nails were newly polished. Yet her skin was bright orange-yellow and there was gauze in her mouth. She had multiple bandages, perhaps from a chest tube or mastectomy. Despite that, she was fastidiously clean. We washed her with white towels, changing them frequently. We ran out of towels and cut up a sheet. We rinsed, dried and combed her hair and removed the polish from her nails.
When it was time to wash her back, three women rolled the meitah forward and two patted her dry on the other side. In moving her, the gauze came out of her mouth and a large quantity of red liquid splashed out. Blood is sacred and must buried with the meitah. We placed those towels in the bottom of her casket, trying to move her as little as possible on the table. It was difficult to contain the seeping and a relief when cleaning was done.
The taharah water-pouring ritual is simple, exquisitely choreographed, and vibrates with the holy presence of NOW. Two large stainless steel buckets and two pitchers are used to pour. We hold a clean sheet over the table like a wedding chuppah, facing away from the meitah so as not to dishonor her modesty. The person pouring water starts at the head and works her way down. We take turns with pitchers as the stream of water must not cease until all buckets are empty. As we pour, we say Tahora Hi (‘She is pure’). I had just sung those very words as part of my morning blessings: Elohai Neshamah Shenatata Bi Tahora Hi – ‘My God, the soul you place in me, She is pure.’ I was moved to tears by the rhythmic choreography of water and holiness we created for the meitah. It felt like there was something much bigger than all of us in the room.
It was time to dry and dress the meitah in new linen clothing – a blouse, trousers, a long kittel, and a bonnet, with sashes tied ritually into knots the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, signifying the protective aspect of God. But moving her in any way resulted in dark fluids coming out of her mouth. We couldn’t keep the linens clean, and all blood must be buried with the meitah. The collection of towels in the casket grew as we worked slowly to ready the meitah for burial.
I guessed her orange-yellow skin meant she might have jaundice, liver failure, perhaps hepatitis. Blood-borne hepatitis pathogens are highly contagious and hardy, living for up to seven days in dried blood and even longer in fluids; according to the Centers for Disease Control, one assumes all blood is contaminated with hepatitis, HIV, and more. I felt concerned for our safety. One member of our team got blood on the prayer booklet and she handled it later without gloves, placing it back in her purse when we were through. Another woman put her hands in her pockets and smoothed down her hair with soiled gloves on. Another got blood on her shirtsleeve. Someone else took off soiled gloves, put them on a side table, moved them, and then put her purse in the exact same spot. The floor was wet and we all stepped through puddles. I wondered if anyone knew how to properly sanitize their belongings when they got home.
We still had to place the meitah in her coffin. Moving her was awkward but not difficult. We lifted together, using a clean sheet. Gently, we placed her on the linen shroud in the casket, and she bled once again. We wrapped her in wide linen corners and took turns sprinkling her body with soil from Israel; placed crockery over her eyes and mouth, and prepared to close the ritual with more prayer.
We each spoke to Roslyn by name, apologizing for inadvertent mistakes and unintentional disrespect, anything that may have embarrassed or discomforted her during taharah. I told her how beautiful she was, and found myself again in tears. We continued to praise her with liturgy from the Song of Songs. Our team leader placed the top of the pine casket over the base, fitting wooden plugs into holes to keep it closed. We were almost done. I removed my protective gear and washed my hands in silence. Together we rolled her casket down the hall to the chapel for the next morning’s service. The shomer sat just outside the door, reading his book of psalms.
I felt replenished by the loving holiness of the ritual and conflicted about safety concerns at the same time. I would say YES to taharah again and again, always grateful to participate in such a holy and gorgeous mitzvah. But next time I would bring my own protective equipment, a few pairs of gloves and a gown and a splash-mask just in case. Next time I would bring a separate pair of shoes that I would wipe down and take off before going home in a clean, different pair. Next time I might even wear two pairs of gloves if any body fluids were involved. Whenever I am called to taharah I try to talk about infection control, protective equipment, good hygiene, ritual precautions, and safety with the loving, generous and sensitive Chevrah Kaddisha members who perform this most sacred work. I am deeply grateful to merge secular and holy service for those who perform this mitzvah with love.
>Some names and details have been changed to protect the honor of the meitah.
Kohenet Ellie Barbarash, MS, CPEA, is a member of the P’nai Or Jewish Renewal Congregation of Philadelphia, Congregation Mishkan Shalom, and the Reconstructionist Chevrah Kadisha in Philadelphia. She studies with the “>Kavod v‘Nichum and is co-authoring a series of safety brochures about Taharah that will be available soon.
For more than three decades, Ellie Barbarash has been advocating for safer workplaces in municipal, manufacturing, utility, and healthcare environments. She is the Healthcare Occupational Safety Center Project Coordinator for the Philadelphia Healthcare Union District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. She holds an M.S. in Environmental and Occupational Safety, and board certification as a Professional Environmental Auditor in occupational safety and health. Her current passion is healthcare worker safety, education and empowerment.
Ordained as a Kohenet in 2009, she is working towards additional ordination in 2016 as an Interfaith Minister. Her non-fiction writing has been published in Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Friends, Scribed, Off Our Backs, and
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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES
Starting in January: Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual Practice. Tuesdays, (Orientation session on January 5th, classes start the 6th) – March 24th 2015
Starting in January: Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. Wednesdays, January 7th (Orientation session on January 5th, classes start on the 7th) – March 25th 2015
Beginning in March: Chevrah Kadisha: International Perspectives. Open to Gamliel Students who have (or are on track to) successfully completed the five prior courses. This course includes the Travel/Study Mission to New York, Prague, and Israel that will take place in April-May. Registration is limited. Contact us IMMEDIATELY for information or to register.
Be on the lookout for information on A Taste of Gamliel – a five session series on the subject of concepts of the soul, with guest teachers including Rabbis Burt Visotsky, Elie Spitz, Goldie Milgram, and Jonathan Omer-Man, spanning January to June.
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