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Dignity Beyond Death: The Jewish Preparation for Burial

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Dignity Beyond Death

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Dignity Beyond Death
The Jewish Preparation for Burial

By Rochel U. Berman
Urim Publications, 2005, 223 pages
ISBN: 965-7108-66-7

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 16, 2009

How should a person treat a dead body? Is there a Jewish ritual that Jews should follow? What does it accomplish? What is its origin? How do people feel while they are performing the ceremony and how do they feel afterwards? How does the fact that the procedure was done affect the family of the deceased, parents, siblings and children? How do Jews perceive death? Is it possible to discuss the subject of the preparation for burial in an interesting, sensitive and respectful manner without prompting fear?

Rochel U. Berman answers these and many other questions in her award winning volume. She received the Koret International Jewish Book Award for writing this very readable and informative book. She has the credentials for the subject she is addressing and for the sympathy and other emotions involved. She and her husband George Berman were members of a group called Chevra Kadisha, the sacred society, the Jewish men and women who attend to deceased people, for some twenty years. The two were founding members of the Westchester, New York, Chevra Kadisha. Rochel Berman narrated a Public Broadcasting Systems segment on the Jewish way of preparing the dead for burial. She holds a Masters Degree in Social Work and she was the Executive Director of the American Society for Yad Vashem, the institution in Jerusalem, Israel, that perpetuates the legacy of holocaust victims and honors their memory.

Berman describes the ritual called tahara, the purification of a body prior to burial. According to a tradition, the practice originated during the days of Moses, the giver of the Torah. The ceremony is described in the third century C.E. code of laws called the Mishnah. The practice is still observed today by many Jews of all denominations; men, women adult, child, observant and non-observant. She describes in detail clearly and with sensitivity how the purification is done, how the body is washed, by whom, when, what is said during the ceremony and how the men and women who perform the ceremony behave. Men do tahara on men and women on women.

Berman's book is filled with fascinating quotes and touching narratives that are not only informative, but which cause the volume to be very readable and poignant. Helen Cohan depicts her enduring emotion, "Imagining the grace and respect my mother was afforded in death is an ongoing source of comfort." Dr. Saul Kahn, who served as head of the men's Chevra Kadisha in New Orleans for many years, exclaimed, "In all my life, I don't think I've done anything more worthwhile than serve on the Chevra Kadisha." Varda Branfman spoke of her role in the ceremony and her comradeship with her fellow workers, "I always feel tremendously comforted by the nearness of the two women who work with me." Natalie Oppenheim saw the stateliness, dignity and holiness of the tahara, "I feel that I have been blessed with the ability to do this mitzvah (good deed). Some people have beautiful voices and others play musical instruments. I feel that being able to perform tahara is a gift from God."

Especially interesting are Berman's descriptions of how tahara was performed during the holocaust because of the many deaths and the horrendous restrictions imposed by the Nazis, responses to the U.S. World Trade Center disaster and the challenges following the terrorist attacks in Israel when body remains were scattered, and dealing with the emotions evoked by the death of young children.

Rochel Berman's book is given to many families who have lost a loved one by synagogues and friends. It can be seen prominently displayed on the table when people come to visit the mourners. This is wonderful and is as it should be. However, in many instances the book is delivered after the loved one was buried. It should have been read prior to the burial. It should be read now.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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