Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taharah IV: Clothed in Righteousness

["Behold the couch of Solomon. Sixty mighty men surround it, of the mighty men of Israel" A taharah table]

This is the fourth entry in our study of the liturgy for the ritual of body purification:

Having undergone ablution [1] the body is ready to be dressed (ha-l'bashah) in burial shrouds. The tradition as it currently stands is to use tachrichim, a white three-piece bio-degradable outfit of pants, blouse, and head covering [2] followed with a winding sheet (sovev). The Tachrichim are meant to resemble the garments of the priesthood. In fact, some of the items are known by the same terms as the priest's outfit - mitznefet (miter), michnasayim (breeches), and kittel (robe). This continues the motif of earlier liturgy that death is in essence an elevation to a higher status, that the deceased is being readied to enter the mikdash ha-maalah, the "Temple on High." Again, mimicking the dream-vision of Zechariah 3, the Chevra Kadisha serves as the angelic entourage attending to the newly elevated "priest."

As the corpse is being so dressed, the following liturgy is recited:

I will greatly rejoice, my soul shall be joyful in my God, for
God has clothed me with the garments of salvation; God
has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a
bridegroom puts on priestly glory and as the bride adorns
herself with jewels (Isaiah 61:10).
And I said, “Let them set a pure headdress upon his head,”
and they set the pure headdress upon his head, and they
clothed him with garments, and the angel of Adonai stood by
(Zechariah 3:5).
For as the earth brings forth her growth, and as the garden
causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so
Adonai will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth
before all the nations
(Isaiah 61:11).
And Adonai will guide you continually and satisfy your soul
in time of drought, and make strong your bones, and you shall be
like a watered garden and like a spring of water whose waters
never fail (Isaiah 58:11).

The uplifting, upbeat images catalogued here are quite striking, even discordant - the deceased is compared to a bride/groom on the wedding day (with the implication of God being the complimentary partner); to the High Priest undergoing coronation; to a seed [about to be 'sown' in the earth!] that will spring forth in new life; and to a garden with a perpetual spring, which, what ever the fate of the individual growths, collectively will never wither or dry up. The Chevra Kadisha simultaneously defies and embraces, and verbally redefines death with tropes of joy, empowerment, fertility, purity, and eternal life.

It is an exquisite act of dialectic interplay between reality and hope. Through speaking this liturgy before the speechless corpse and the valley of the shadow of death is inverted into a high place of hope. Performing magic with words, the Jews of the holy fellowship construct hope from the stuff of tragedy, sending both the death and the living on to renewed life.

[1] Many douse the body in water while it is on the taharah table, others actually use a mikveh, submerging the body in a built-in ritual pool. There is controversy over which is preferable - having handled a few bodies, I find bringing the water to the dead somewhat more dignified.

[2] For those families who insist on the western custom of burying their loved one in fine street clothing, a kittel sometimes will be put over the suit/dress.


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