Death and Jewish ritual in the time of coronavirus
Coronavirus 2020

Death and Jewish ritual in the time of coronavirus

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Almost immediately after Covid-19 took a stranglehold on our world, Jewish mourners lost the physical presence of friends and family during burial and shiva, which are now conducted via phone and video conferencing. Less talked about is how the coronavirus is stripping away tahara, one of Judaism’s most private but sanctified practice, that of ritually preparing the body of a beloved member of the community for burial.

The question now facing chevrot kadisha, holy burial societies, around the country: to tahara or not to tahara?

There is no consensus on whether this essential Jewish practice should be suspended in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two national groups have taken up the question in the last few days and made different recommendations. In Israel, tahara was banned and then reinstated. And multiple local rabbis, using nearly identical language, have said the situation is “too fluid to comment.”

“It’s changing every single day,” said Louis Urban of Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston. “I just got off the phone with a family. And I was very, very honest with them and said the longer it takes us to make our mind up, the chances are things are going to change again.”

Tahara is the ritual washing of a deceased, usually by four members of the community wearing protective clothing. Afterward they wrap the body in white ritual garments known as tachrichim, the shroud, and place some earth, often from Israel, on the eyelids.

“The family’s anguish, above and beyond the loss of a loved one, of just having to do this remotely and far away, is something so unfathomable and so sad and so difficult, that it just adds an additional layer of sorrow on top of pre-existing sorrow,” said Rabbi Mendel Solomon of Ahavath Torah: Chabad at Short Hills, who is grappling with the loss of so many of the rituals around death. “Judaism gives us so much insight into being extra-sensitive and compassionate and caring toward our loved ones.”

During a March 8 webinar that attracted over 300 participants, Kavod v’Nichum, a Maryland-based organization that provides resources, education, and training to Jewish communities regarding end-of-life issues, offered information and safeguards for the practice of tahara, at the time indicating that, despite the nascent crisis, they believed tahara would continue. However, Kavod v’Nichum’s experts met again on March 22 and reached a different conclusion, advising groups to suspend the practice.

Among their panel of experts is Dr. Joel Ackelsberg, a member of the chevra kadisha at B’nai Keshet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair, who is also a medical epidemiologist in the New York City Health Department.

“Everything has changed,” he told NJJN. At the time of the webinar, “we were just looking at this strictly from an infection-prevention perspective. We really thought that members of our team would be able to conduct tahara safely by using the personal protective equipment that we were recommending, and that included gloves and a gown and a face shield.”

Instead of their concerns being about conferring the proper respect for the meit, or deceased, they are primarily focused on the health of the people performing tahara.

“It was so much more important to do what we could to prevent anyone from possible risk in doing a tahara than… the imperative of kavod hameit or hameita, honoring the person who has died,” said Ackelsberg. “We’re really struggling with this.”

The ritual washing involved in tahara involves not only coming into contact with the deceased, but also with one another, which has become a much bigger issue since March 8, according to Ackelsberg, who said it is hard to maintain six feet of distance among practitioners in the tahara room.

“We are not only concerned about transmission from the decedent but also from each other,” reads the new guidance, posted March 24. “Our panel of experts now strongly recommends that during these periods of widespread transmission of COVID-19, and especially when communities are told to limit personal exposure, Chevrah Kadisha groups should not do any form of taharot.”

In a telephone conversation with NJJN, David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, said, “There’s a lot of issues around the live people who are doing this work.” New concerns regarding transmission among the tahara participants include an inability to maintain a safe distance from one another, not wearing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and not having so-called “watchers” to ensure PPE is put on and removed correctly, as well as the scarcity of PPE. 

One silver lining is that by suspending tahara, the chevra kadisha has been able to donate their protective equipment, including face shields, to hospitals, where there are severe shortages. (Kavod v’Nichum has also asked groups to sew face masks, which hospitals are requesting from their local communities.)

Zinner pointed out that the recommendation to hold off on tahara is tentative and will be reevaluated once they have more information. And that could be “tomorrow, or next week. Who knows?” he said.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), the umbrella body for Orthodox groups led by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, has not suspended the practice, though they have placed significant strictures on those performing tahara. However, NASCK groups usually use professionals to perform tahara, while Kavod v’Nichum groups tend to be volunteers from liberal congregations.

Under the new protocols Zohn issued, personal protective equipment, including full-length disposable gown covering arms, gloves, face masks, and face shields, are now mandatory (shoe covers are optional for non-open shoes). Most tahara teams already adhere to these requirements, but not always.

Guidelines have also been instituted to minimize the risk of splashing, another area of concern raised by Ackelsberg. But Zohn noted that the biggest risk to members of the chevra comes from other people, and that’s where the biggest changes are in his new protocols. “The goal is to work quickly, efficiently, and as separately as possible to minimize the time chevra members are in close proximity,” Zohn wrote in a note to his followers, adding, “These guidelines are very difficult for me to recommend and distribute. In so many ways, they contradict what I have taught for many years … I believe it is appropriate to feel pained that we are abbreviating procedures that give kavod to the meis [honor to the deceased], even though this has become

Despite guidelines from NASCK, Solomon told NJJN he would follow the guidance of the respective funeral homes: If they would prepare the body, he will perform tahara, if not he won’t. So far, the funeral homes are making decisions on a case-by-case basis. And in a worst-case scenario, Solomon said, he would just place the shroud and some earth on top of the deceased.

The most important provision, according to the bulk of those NJJN spoke with, is to ensure the safety of those performing this and other mitzvot and Jewish end-of-life rituals. “The mitzvah is important but is secondary to safeguarding the living person,” Solomon said.

Unlike the shuttering of virtually all synagogues during the crisis, suspending tahara is not unprecedented, nor is it the first time the Jewish community has had to contemplate managing rituals around death and mourning in the face of disease and plague. According to Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, who refers to the principle of pikuach nefesh or saving a life, “Pikuach nefesh is a central principle for tahara, and in the case of danger — from coronavirus, AIDS, etc., tahara is sometimes foregone and the chevra kadisha begs the pardon of the deceased.”

The related mitzvah of shmira, or guarding the body, is slightly different. For situations where one person, who often gets paid for this work, is watching over the body for an eight-hour shift, Ackelsberg said, “You just have to disinfect it and sit there.” But in communities like his own, at Bnai Keshet, where volunteers take two-hour shifts, it’s more complicated, as it involves constantly disinfecting, and also because people are less willing to leave their homes. So putting together a team of a dozen individuals, and sometimes twice that number, to last until the funeral would prove especially challenging.

Many say the work of the chevra kadisha doesn’t have to be all or nothing. At least one group in Boston, which said bodies are being delivered to funeral homes and kept in body bags, are having just two people go in, sprinkle the bag with water, place the shroud and the earth on the body, and recite the blessings. Another group that has suspended tahara is planning to go to the cemetery between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a traditional time to visit the resting place of loved ones, and sprinkle water and say prayers at the grave for each person that did not receive proper tahara.

In the end, though, whether tahara and shmira happen, are the easy part.

“We can bury someone without a tahara if medically necessary to safeguard ourselves,” Solomon said. “But not having a proper funeral or proper interment or proper Kaddish being said, with families not being able to grieve — it’s just beyond. It’s beyond anything that we could have ever imagined.”

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