November 21, 2019

Chevrah Kadisha: A Thankless Task?

Those of us who volunteer in a chevrah kadisha, a group which, among other things, both ritually and physically prepares dead people for burial, are often told that what we are doing is a “chesed shel emet,” or a true act of lovingkindness. In fact, “Chesed Shel Emet” is even the name of the book written by Kavod v’Nichum members to teach other chevrah kadisha members all the basics of performing taharah, the ritual washing and preparation of a body.

We are often told the reason why this work is called a “true act of lovingkindness,” or even, “the truest act of lovingkindness” is because the person for whom we are performing this mitzvah cannot thank us. Although there are many mitzvot which we perform out of a sense of obligation or from the goodness of our heart, for most of them, there is always a chance that the person or people who benefit from it may find out we did it, and may thank us. In this case, however, the person is dead.

One might suggest that the work we are doing is, to some extent, done not just for the dead person her- or himself, but also for his/her relatives, who are comforted by the knowledge that their loved one’s body is being taken care of in a traditional, loving, and respectful way by the chevrah kadisha.

However, traditionally, we in the chevrah kadisha do not discuss outside our own group who performed taharah on any particular person. This level of confidentiality is strictly adhered to in the vast majority of chevrah kadisha groups in North America, and beyond. Therefore, even if the dead person’s family has an idea of who is in the chevrah kadisha, they will not know which individual members participated, and will not be able to thank us.

Some chevrah kadisha members, I am told, take the concept of not being thanked for this work one step further, and take umbrage at any attempt to thank them for it. In some groups, even an email saying, “Thank you to everyone who assisted with a taharah this year” will be met with an admonition not to say, “thank you” to this group. So, one might say, being in a chevrah kadisha is, for all practical purposes, a thankless task.

I, however, don’t think it’s as simple as all that.

Jewish tradition does not claim to know with any degree of certainty what happens after a person dies, however some believe the soul of the person hovers in the area of its body, the vessel which it called home for all the years of its life on this earth, from the time of death until the time of burial.

Many of us who have performed taharah come to feel a special connection to the person who has died as we perform this holy work. Indeed, often a sense of profound satisfaction and peace descends on us, as we view the body in the casket, laid out in his or her white tachrichim (burial shrouds), before we close the lid and declare our work is done.

Sometimes I wonder, “Where do these feelings come from?” And sometimes I imagine they are coming from the soul of the person who is hovering over the body we just cared for, and maybe, just maybe, s/he is thanking us, after all.

Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Rodef Sholom’s (Marin) Chevrah Kadisha, and she can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. Read her blog at  






Tell Anyone Else Who May Be Interested!

Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the online course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times (if there is adequate registration): from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST9-10:30 pm AST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 am PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th at 12-1:30 pm EST, and a second orientation session on Monday, January 4th at 8-9:30 pm EST (Students may attend either one). PLEASE NOTE: We will be using a new (to us) Platform for the classes, so definitely plan on attending one of the orientation sessions!  

For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy, and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course also looks at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Studies include: spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can request a 20% discount. There are also clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding to take Gamliel Institute courses. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


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Please contact us for information or assistance. or, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.






Taste of Gamliel registration is also open. Join us for a 5 part webinar with the theme The World To Come – Do You Have Your Ticket? The series will include one session each month from January to June.  Free, with a suggested $36 donation to help us defray the expenses of presenting the series.

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Be on the lookout for information about the 14th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, to be held in Lexington, MA June 5-7 2016. Register GAMLIEL STUDENT PROJECTS

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