As we leyn Parshas Vayechi, upon which there is great attention paid to Jewish end of life matters, such as halachic living wills, preventing cremation among the unaffiliated, and encouraging traditional kevuras Yisroel, there is an important issue that has largely gone unaddressed: the kashrus of taharos that are routinely being performed. We are familiar with the fact that traditional Jewish burial involves the deceased being prepared through tahara performed by a chevra Kadisha, a sacred society, a process involving rechitza, washing, purification (tahara) through immersion of the body in a mikvah or through the pouring of Tisha kavin of water, and lastly, dressing in tachrichim and casketing (in chutz la’aretz; the custom in Israel is not to use a casket). There is little attention sadly placed to the crisis of taharos performed without adherence to halachic standards; the tragedy is that while the ability of Orthodox Jews to dissuade secular, assimilated, and unaffiliated Jews from cremation is arguably limited, due to the social, religious and familial chasm between us, an area where we can impact kavod hameis is ensuring that taharos are performed properly, in accordance with the highest halachic standards.
Unfortunately, in America, the chevra Kadisha is often treated as a for-profit business, led by individuals whose motivation is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. The objective is not kavod hameis, but rather, maximizing profit. In the NYC metropolitan area, while there are many chevros associated with shuls and non-for-profit chevros which perform their duties l’shem mitzvah, unfortunately, others do not perform the sacred duties of taharas hameis as a chesed shel emes, and instead, perform such duties for-profit.
We are introduced to the concept of chesed shel emes in our parsha this week. Yaakov lives the final 17 years of his life in Mitzrayim and asks Yosef to take an oath that he will ensure that he will be buried in Canaan. The death of Yaakov represents the end of an era for the Jewish People, as the patriarchal age comes to a close and a new generation will begin with his demise. Yaakov uses the last moments of his life as an opportunity to set his affairs in order, to transmit his final messages, teachings and instructions to his sons. We would think that a parsha called “Vayechi,” literally “And he lived,” would refer to how Yaakov lived his life, yet instead, we are presented with the events leading up to and following his death: he blesses his children and grandchildren, breathes his last breath, and is buried by his sons in the Ma’arat haMachpelah, the Machpelah Cave in Chevron, all followed by the death of his beloved son and chosen successor Yosef. When Yaakov asks Yosef to not let him be buried in Mitzrayim, and instead, entreats him to “deal with me kindly and truly,” (Bereshit 47:29), we learn that attending to the matters of burial and care for the deceased serve as a reflection of our belief in the eternity of the soul itself. Rashi, on the verse, comments, based on midrash, that the chesed we do with the dead is a chesed shel emet, a kindness of truth– an ultimate kindness- because we do not expect anything in return. We are acting kindly towards a person who cannot repay us in any tangible sense.
While it is technically mutar for a chevra Kadisha to charge for its services (Nitei Gavriel, Hilchos Aveilus 42:3, writes “m’dina mutar l’anshei haChevra Kadisha litol schar b’ad avodatam,” citing the Tashbetz, chelek gimel, seif yud gimel, as well as the Teshuvos Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim 128), the time-honored practice of klal Yisroel is that they do not charge for their services, as it is implicit in the name Chevra Kadisha that their work is one of chesed: “Ach haminhag hu la’asot b’chinam, v’laken nikrat chevra zo b’shem gemilut chesed shel emet,” citing the Drashos Chasam Sofer, chelek alef, daf kuf chaf gimel (likewise, Hadras Kodesh, amud 46, b’roshei tevot shel emet hem: einam mitzpim tishlom (gmul): the chevra Kadisha are those who do not expect payment, as the “emet” in chesed shel emet can be understood as an acronym for those who do not expect payment as a reward). While it is not inherently prohibited to accept payment, when the sacred tasks of the chevra Kadisha are reduced to a for-profit business, the focus becomes one of maximizing profit, rather than maintaining a focus on the mitzvah itself. As Rabbi Elchonon Zohn writes:
“Prevalent in many other communities was the Chevra comprised of those people who could not make it in the business world, who found a way of making a dollar by doing a job no one else would do. They commercialized the Chevra. Their motivation was not really the respect for the work they were doing, and if necessitated by time or convenience, the Tahara would be done quickly, without sensitivity, without any real standard of excellence. Their purpose was served as long as it was done and they were paid, and the service was provided to the basic satisfaction of all.”
Unfortunately, in many parts of NYC and NJ, this unfortunate reality is still true. Rather than shmira and tahara being provided by misaskim who are “einam mitzpim tishlom gmul,” the providers of such services are instead motivated by maximizing personal profit, with the directors of such operations collecting as much as 40 percent for themselves as profit. There are so-called chevros providing shmira in Manhattan, for example, charging families $150 per 8-hour shift of shmira, and the businessman owning the chevra collects $50 for himself! Nowhere is this commercialization of the chevra Kadisha seen as a positive in any halachic sources. Even the sources which permit the chevra Kadisha seeking remuneration for their services only allow the provision of schar tircha and “schar batalah;” i.e. the individuals performing the shmira and tahara themselves are allowed compensation for their time, travel, and for supplies utilized in the tahara process, but there is no provision for a third party to make money from arranging such services. Indeed, a fundamental principle of performing a mitzvah is that one is not to charge for their services (Bechoros 29a: Just as I [Hashem, teach you Torah and] do not charge so should you [emulate me and perform Mitzvos] without charge). Nevertheless, the Gemara paskens that while one may not charge for performing a Mitzva, they may collect Schar Batalah (the amount he could have earned by working during that time) and Schar Tircha (compensation for the effort and trouble required to perform the mitzva, including any necessary travel). Thus, while it is acceptable for a shomer to receive compensation for the time he commits to performing shmira, and while metaherim are entitled to compensation for their time, travel, and supplies used in performing the tahara (which are not provided by the funeral home), it is not acceptable for exorbitant rates to be charged of families in order to enrich the so-called chevra “directors.”
Thus, the precise situation is that individuals make profit from being involved in shmira and tahara, and the standards of both are lacking, due to the absence of independent third-party oversight, as well as the total lack of adherence to halachic standards which define a kosher tahara: the number of metaherim involved, the timing of the tahara, and the thoroughness of the tahara itself. When the focus is on the bottom line, halachic standards suffer and are treated as an afterthought. Rabbi Sidney Applbaum, zt”l, who was commissioned by the Orthodox Union to “find ways to combat the flagrant violations of Jewish law in the funeral practices and to counter the gross exploitation of bereaved families,” found that “in the larger Jewish communities such as New York, Chicago, etc. where a Tahara is performed in the main by paid Chevra Kadisha, we are well acquainted with the fact that some of these Chevra Kadisha are not performing this religious ritual in accordance with Halacha. In most every case, the number of men or women that are used for the Tahara are not sufficient to perform the Tahara properly. Furthermore, there is much ignorance as well as violations of Halacha.”
As an Orthodox rabbi who has worked in the field of chevra Kadisha for the past 5 years, I can personally attest to the fact that the reality described by Rabbis Zohn and Applbaum is sadly still the status quo in much of the greater NYC metropolitan area. While the Vaad of Queens, numerous congregation-based chevros Kadisha associated with Orthodox shuls, and communal chevros, such as those in Stamford, Highland Park, NJ, Westchester County, Passaic-Clifton, NJ, and Monsey, generally perform taharos in accordance with halachic requirements, the paid chevra Kadisha outfits, for-profit businesses, utilized to perform taharos in Manhattan, The Bronx, Staten Island, Mount Kisco, and throughout much of New Jersey (in chapels in Hackensack, Fair Lawn, Somerville, Livingston, Manalapan, and Ocean and in smaller chapels) generally do not perform taharos in accordance with halachic standards, which will be explored below. The reason why such malfeasance continues is merely due to the ignorance of the broader community: i.e. even rabbis are not aware of the reality in the ground because they do not probe the current reality to ensure halachic conformity, nor are they even aware of the halachic requirements in many cases. The vast majority of rabbinical ordination programs do not delve into the mekoros and metzius of tahara, as there is only tangential reference to the practice in Yoreh Deah 352:4. As Rabbi Zohn noted, quite ominously, “These are topics that most people may not care about.” In addition, in many locales, whereas those affiliated with a shul will be entitled to a proper tahara provided by the shul’s chevra Kadisha (which sends 4 metaherim, operates under the halachic guidance of a qualified rav, ensures that the metaherim are raui l’tahara, befitting to perform the tahara, performs the tahara b’zmano (at the proper time), performs the rechitza thoroughly, and so on), those deceased who would like a tahara but were not affiliated with a shul that had a chevra Kadisha of their own will be subject to a paid tahara that is often performed in a subpar manner, without any regard for the halachic standards of 4 metaherim, thoroughness, and the performance of the tahara at the proper time. This creates an ugly reality by which people who weren’t fortunate enough to belong to a shul with its own chevra (often, people who attended Chabad houses, or Reform/Conservative or even some Orthodox shuls that do not have their own chevra Kadisha) are the recipients of unkosher taharos, unbeknownst to their family or rabbi. This is a flagrant violation of the principle that all Jews are to be the beneficiaries of kavod hameis and receive a kosher tahara, regardless of their observance or affiliation.
I note emphatically, that within the halacha, there are a range of acceptable practices and minhagim that can be utilized within the realm of tahara. For instance, whether we use a mikvah or pour Tisha kavin from three buckets for the actual tahara is a legitimate machlokes haposkim, however, the manner in which the Tisha kavin are poured is a matter of halacha, and sadly, we have seen this done improperly (the Aruch haShulchan YD 352:4, Chochmas Adam 157:8, and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 197:2, for instance, all pasken that the Tisha kavin should be poured “me’umad,” with the niftar in a standing position, the Kitzur writing: Dehaynu shema’amidin et hamet al hakarka o al gabei kash veshofechin hamayim al rosho sheyeredo al kol gufo, the deceased is placed in a standing position on the ground, or on straw, and the water is poured on his head, so that it runs down his entire body.)
Nonetheless, whether a chevra Kadisha uses a mikveh (as Yaskil Avdi 4:24 suggests) or pours 9 kavin (as Igros Moshe states emphatically in 3 teshuvos, YD 3:135-137, that there is no need for immersion in a mikveh, and that a mikvah should not be constructed for use in taharas hameis, as this will cause the cost of Jewish funerals to increase), is a matter of minhag, not halacha. Likewise, the order in which the tachrichim are put on, the number of times we tie the bands on the kittel, michnasayim, or tunic, or the number of times we twist the bendalech or gartel, are all subject to differences according to the established minhag of the chevra Kadisha; however, the chevra Kadisha must have a set minhag and it is essential that the metaherim not deviate from that minhag (indeed, Beis Lechem Yehuda YD 352:2 says that the chevra may not deviate from legitimate minhagei hamakom, and there is a great danger in doing so. Rav Shlomo Kluger, in his responsa HaElef Lecha Shlomo YD 305, says that “anybody who deviates from he established practices of [tending to] the deceased, even in the slightest regard, poses great danger, and it is incumbent upon us to arouse the spirit of the creator in order to cease death forever.”)
The purpose of this excursus is not to chastise legitimate differences in practice, but rather, to draw attention to the systemic failure to adhere to basic halachic requirements and kavod hameis in the performance of tahara by the for-profit chevros operating in the NYC metropolitan area, specifically in the areas of the number of metaherim performing the tahara, the time when the tahara is performed, the thoroughness with which the rechitza is performed, and the like. There are also serious questions about the fitness of those engaged by these outfits to perform these rituals. These matters are NOT matters of minhag; these are crucial halachic issues concerning kavod hameis, the quality and nature of rechitzas hameis, which is Oral Torah-mandated, and also involving monetary integrity.
Number of Metaherim and Thoroughness of Rechitza
One of the primary violations of most of the paid chevra Kadisha organizations is that very routinely, they perform taharos by two or even one individual, rather than sending at least three or four metaherim to perform the tahara. The reasons for this, quite blatantly, have to do with economics: if the “owner” of the chevra only has to pay two individuals, he enjoys a greater profit than if he had to pay four metaherim. His concern is not for kavod hameis, nor is he of the mindset of “einam mitzpim tishlom (gmul),” but rather with how much money he can make off the niftar. When only two metaherim are utilized, a proper tahara cannot be performed. During the process of rechitza, washing, which is halachically the most important component of the entire tahara (as the requirement to wash the deceased as a condition of kavod hameis is mentioned as early as the Mishnah, Shabbos 151a , as well as in the Rambam, Hilchos Evel 4:1, and the Beis Yosef YD 352:6– Medichin oto kedei leha’avir zuhamato shelo yakutzu ha’am betiltulo: We wash the body to remove any filth (possibly fecal matter) so that those who carry the body are not nauseated), it is necessary to have two individuals hold the niftar on its side, one at the shoulder blade, another at the pelvis, while the back is washed with one individual pouring the water from a small kli, such as a pitcher, and another doing chafifa with a washcloth. When only two individuals are performing a tahara, kavod hameis suffers because the niftar cannot be handled in the respectable manner during rechitza as described. Likewise, during the pouring of Tisha kavin (3 buckets) in the actual tahara, when only one or two metaherim are involved, they cannot pour the water in the proper manner, which is to pour the water at once as a cascade down the body beginning from the head. Indeed, some are accustomed to have ten people involved in the tahara and at the very least not less than 3-4 people. The Nitei Gavriel (whose over 31 encyclopedic volumes on all aspects of halacha are revered throughout the Torah world, and who signed my Yoreh Yoreh semicha) writes, Hilchos Aveilus 40:14, “Yesh shekatvu d’l’chatchila tov sheyehei esreh anashim Ulechol hapachot gimel o daled anashim oskim b’tahara.” Some say l’chatchila, there should be 10 metaherim, but at the very least, 3 or 4 people should be involved in the tahara. In addition, the sefer Tahara Manual of Practices, p. 44, brings the following: while we ordinarily do not delay a funeral, a funeral should be postponed in order to ensure that the deceased receive a proper tahara, with the requisite number of metaherim (b’shem HaRav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, and HaRav Tuvia Goldstein, zt”l). A “minimal tahara” that is performed by “just two members of a chevra Kadisha, using a shower, not saying prayers, and not following all the customs” does not “truly honor the deceased.” HaRav Tuvia Goldstein zt”l “suggested that a tahara performed by two people is not a tahara” and that it is such a matter of kavod hameis that we should postpone a levaya until a proper tahara with more than 2 metaherim can be arranged.
Sadly, the taharos performed for profit are generally performed by two people (generally no more than three), the tefillos are not recited (at least not aloud and in a dignified manner; one chevra Kadisha in the Metrowest region of NJ run by a Chabad rabbi not only uses only two metaherim, but also does not recite the tefillos in the proper sequence, instead reciting them all at once at the onset of the tahara. Another chevra operating in Hackensack and Manalapan/Ocean does not even recite the tefillos at all and was observed performing a tahara in 14.5 minutes). Indeed, the HaElef Lecha Shlomo YD 305 writes that the chevra Kadisha must recite the verses which are cited in the work Ma’avar Yabok, and we are not concerned for the presence of excrement for the recitation of the prayers, as “since the deceased is externally clean, it would be permitted to recite verses [in his presence], for we have held in accordance [with the view] that one may recite the shema [prayer] even in front of excrement which is contained in glass whilst externally visible, for [the law] pertains only to the excrement being covered, and all the more so should this apply in [our] case whereby the excrement is externally inconspicuous, for a person always recites the shema and prayers whilst having excrement within his innards, based on an account of general human conduct.” There is no excuse for these outfits to not recite the tefillot, except for the desire to finish the tahara in a rushed manner, lacking the necessary reverence, which requires a thorough and generous allotment of time. This lack of kavod hameis has even led to the wrong deceased being placed in the wrong casket: Janet Kay z”l, was improperly tagged by a for-profit chevra Kadisha during a so-called tahara, resulting in the deceased being wrongly interred! Such reckless operators cause Chillul HaShem and sadly are allowed to continue their abuses without any consequences.
The rechitza itself is to be done thoroughly and completely, methodically; the Shu”t Binyamin Zev (204), from the responsa of Binyamin Ze’ev ben Mattathias of Arta (1539), brings from the Tza’avah (Ethical Will) of Rabbi Eliezer haLevi (d. Mainz, 1327), that the deceased should be washed and groomed before burial in the same manner as the living prepare themselves on Erev Shabbat to enter into Shabbat: “I very much asked to be purified slowly and in purity and cleanliness between the fingers and toes as well as between my backside. And they should wash and comb my hair with a comb just as living people do, and they should cut the nails of my hands and feet so that I will come pure and clean to [eternal] rest, as I went to the synagogue every Shabbat, with washed hair and cut nails and combed hair, after going to the bathroom. So should they do for me before my eternal rest.”
R’ Moshe Isserles, in his Darkhei Moshe (YD 352:2), brings this as halakha, that the rechitza (washing) component of the taharah is to be performed thoroughly: Vechatav be’Binyamin Ze’ev 204, miTzavva’at R Eliezer haLevi shyyemaharu bematun uvetahorah uvinkiyut bein ha’etzba’ot yadayim veraglayim uvein ha’oznayim vichupu rosho visarekuhu kederech hachayim veyiteluhu tziparenei yadav veraglav kedei sheyavo betahorah limnuchah kemo shehayah ragil leilech beshabbat- they are to wash him thoroughly, between the fingers of the hands and the toes, and the ears, and comb his hair and cut his nails, in the manner of the living, who prepare in this manner as they enter Shabbos. Indeed, given that the rechitza is addressed by the Mishna, the Rambam, Beis Yosef, etc., m’ikar hadin, it is the most important component of the tahara and must be performed with seriousness and thoroughness. The necessary supplies must be available, including Monsel’s solution, which is a blood coagulant, blue chux, webril, tegaderm, and the like, which are necessary to ensuring that the rechitza is done thoroughly, that the deceased is cleansed of all filth, and that all chatzitzot, such as tubes, lines, IVs, bandages, and the like are removed, and that bleeding and purging be controlled.
Sadly, I have seen these chevros leave in lines and tubes, bury niftarim with all types of chatzitzos intact, and even use plastic, rather than treating wounds gently and thoroughly! Indeed, Gesher haChaim 9:4 brings that prior to the tahara itself (the immersion in a mikvah or pouring of tisha kavin), all chatzitzos, such as bandages, are to be removed. Indeed, given that the tahara is learned from Tevilas Ezra, the immersion of a Baal Keri (Tashbetz Katan 447 brings from the Knesses haGedolah YD 352:1 that when the neshama departs from the body it sees the face of the Shechina, and out of fear, it releases semen and contaminates the body, thus requiring Tevilas Ezra, so that the soul not be embarrassed, for through this tumah, the soul also becomes sullied, and becomes imprinted with some sort of stain, and through this, we purify it in order to purify the soul that it not be embarrassed before others), and that some poskim holds a chatzitzah invalidates the immersion of a Baal Keri (Eishel Avraham Tinyana [Butchach] 88; Amudei Eish Kuntres Beis Tefila 12; opinion of the gadol brought in Minchas Chinuch 180:4), we attempt to remove all chatzitzos, except where doing so would cause blood to ooze out (Nitei Gavriel 44:10- Ein l’hotzi min haguf tzinorot refuah o tachboshot im hasartam tigrom linzilat dam- we do not remove from the body tubes for healing or bandages if removing them will cause the leaking of blood; where doing so would not cause linzilat dam, we would remove them). They commonly ask funeral homes for plastic embalming underwear, sleeves, and stockings to dress the deceased in underneath the tachrichim, despite the fact that plastic does not decompose readily, thus impeding the natural process of decompsition by which the body returns to the earth. In addition, they have been seen wrapping wounds in saran wrap, rather than using Monsel’s, tegaderm, non-plastic surgical tape, cotton, and the like! I have seen that these chevros do not keep any of these supplies on hand, presumably to maxmize profit and minimize expense, even as the quality of the tahara suffers and kavod hameis is compromised.
In addition, the chevra Kadisha must have access to warm water; I have seen one of the for-profit chevros do a tahara in a facility that did not have hot water working in the prep room! This chevra is negligent in not ensuring that the funeral home rectify the situation, as the requirement is that warm water be used for the rechitza in order to cleanse the niftar properly. Indeed, this requirement is seen as early as the era of the geonim: Rabbi Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (Sura, 997-1013), in his commentary to Bereshis 50:2, writes: And [this verse about Joseph embalming Jacob] included the mention of the tachrichim [=shrouds], which is something that is inevitable when it is possible. And all this will not be done until after the washing and cleansing. And washing the dead has no specific measure from which one should not detract nor add — but one washes and cleans [the dead], and it is also according to their success in obtaining water, and to what extent the body should be cleaned, according to the different conditions of the body. And if one of the bodies had sticky dirt, coagulated blood — it should be cleaned with boiling water, as it says (II Samuel 20:12): “And Amasa lay in the middle of the road drenched in his blood” and it says (ibid.): “And he covered him with a garment.” We see from this early source that hot water is needed for rechitza, for removing filth and excrement and dried blood, and subsequently, the Sefer haRokeach 316, brings in the name of his rebbe, the Sefer haKavod of R’ Yehuda haChasid: “They bring water and heat it, and they wash his entire body and limbs and face and head.”
Fitness to Perform Tahara
Another area where there is a lack of halachic adherence pertains to the question of who may perform a tahara. The members of the chevra Kadisha are to be people of high moral and ethical fabric, yirei shamayim, Shomrei torah u’mitzvos: “hataharah v’hahalbasha yihyu rak al yad Shomrei torah u’mitzvot; b’zman hazeh, nahagu lirhatzo al yad anashim yirei HaShem m’munim al zot.” The tahara and dressing are to be done only by Shomrei torah u’mitzvos, and nowadays, we are accustomed to only wash the deceased by those who are superior in their yiras shamayim, in this matter (Nitei Gavriel 40:1, bringing the Shu”T Shevet Yehuda, YD 352:4 and the Shu”T Zichron Yehuda OC 185). Thus, it is common that reliable chevros (such as the Chicago Rabbinical Council) require that prospective metaherim and shomrim provide Orthodox rabbinical references. In addition, one such chevra is directed by an individual who was found in US Bankruptcy Court to be guilty of physically assaulting a certain Ms. Jean Francois, in the course of willfully violating an automatic stay, and also was found to provide testimony of “doubtful credibility.” Shoving a woman is forbidden by halacha, short of pikuach nefesh concerns, and yet the owner of such a “chevra” engages in such behavior, resulting in the court awarding the victim of his assault $50,000 in damages. The same individual was also recently sued for causing damages through negligence in a property they owned. This is directly at odds with the requirement that those involved in chevra Kadisha be “anashim mikovdim baalei shalom u’midot tovot,” as the Nitei Gavriel 42:2 brings from the Hadras Kodesh, 3a. Members of the chevra Kadisha must be honorable, frum (shomer torah u’mitzvos), yirei shamayim, with peaceful and good character traits; assaulting others and causing damage to others is not in line with these requirements, obviously.
I have seen with my own eyes that these chevros routinely send women to perform taharos who wear pants, do not cover their hair, and who dress in a manner that is not tzanua; in 40:12, the Nitei Gavriel writes, “v’hanashim hamitaskot b’tahara yilbeshu bigdei tzniut vayichsu sha’ar roshan.” This is a gross violation of halacha which requires that the women engaged to perform taharos conduct themselves in accordance with the halachos of tznius and kisui harosh.
In addition, these chevros, out of flippant disregard for the halacha, will engage single men who were never before married to perform taharos (notably, the Vaad of Queens will not hire single men as metaherim; when I need to engage metaherim, I ask for a picture of the kesuba or proof of divorce, in addition to an Orthodox rabbinical reference). A single man who never got married is to abstain from doing the tahara: penuy shelo nasa isha l’chatchila ein lo l’hitasek b’tahara (Nitei Gavriel 41:7), brought from the Shu”T Machaneh Chaim, Choshen Mishpat, siman yud”alef (one of the poskei hador of his age, revered as the “Ungarisher Reb Chaim,” R’ Chaim Sofer). Unfortunately, the chevros I am rebuking will routinely hire never-married men to perform taharos, despite the halachic objection to such, presumably because it is more convenient for them to use whoever they have on hand, rather than to assemble a proper chevra.
Even more shockingly, these chevros will often utilize non-Jews to assist in aspects of the tahara, or will engage men to assist in women’s taharos, both of which are abject violations of halacha. It is considered a grievous breach of halacha for a non-Jew to handle a niftar: v’asur l’hitasek bazeh al yad nochri (Nitei Gavriel 40:1, bringing the Yam Shel Shlomo, Beitzah 1:10). Likewise, “lo yiga nochri b’met b’sha’at hatahara, o achar kach b’sha’ah shenosnim oto.” A goy is not to touch the deceased at all, not at the time of the tahara, and not at the time when they carry the niftar out. While one of the chevra directors once quipped to me that he thought it was “narishkeit” that a goy should not touch a niftar, the Nitei Gavriel learns that this is brought in a teshuva of the Radbaz (2:507), where he discusses the permissibility of performing a tahara for one who was niftar on Yom Tov Rishon, and whether a non-Jew should be utilized. The Radbaz is adamant that even on Yom Tov Rishon, a Jew is to be involved in the entire process, and it is not to be done through a gentile even if he is available. There are even sources which say that a goy is not to look at the niftar: “asur l’haniach et ha’akum lirot et hamet,” Nitei Gavriel 40:3, as brought from the Sefer Chasidim 533, and the Beis Lechem Yehuda YD 362 and Rebbi Akiva Eiger YD 362.
Despite the halacha, these chevros routinely enlist the assistance of non-Jewish funeral home staff in lifting and maneuvering the niftar, as well as in casketing the niftar, presumably because they do not send 4 metaherim to perform the tahara. I have heard of one such chevra in Central New Jersey even enlisting the aid of non-Jewish funeral workers and drivers in the rechitza process. This is a shameful breach of halacha, from what we have cited above. In addition, the same chevros have been seen sending men to perform taharos on women! They have men assist women with several tasks during the tahara, such as turning the niftar and casketing the niftar, and some have even sent women to perform men’s taharos because they lack women metaherim to get the taharos done. This is a breach of one of the most fundamental halachos concerning taharas hameis brought in the Shulchan Aruch itself, YD 352:3- Ha’ish eino korech umekasher ha’ishah aval ha’ishah korechet umekasheret ha’ish- that a man may not perform a tahara for a woman, but if necessary, a woman may perform for a man; the Shach adds that this is because we are concerned that men will have obscene, erotic thoughts, whereas we are not concerned for women having such thoughts towards men. A similar yesod is brought in the halachos of bikur cholim, YD 335:10- that in the case of those suffering with bowel diseases, a man must not attend upon the woman, but a woman may attend upon the man; in such cases attendance by a man upon a wowan leads to obscene thoughts and licentiousness. In the reverse case the passion is not as strong and hence permissible. There is absolutely no heter for a man to attend to a woman’s tahara, although these chevros have been caught sending men to assist with women’s taharos, and at least in one incident known to the author, have sent men to do a woman’s tahara outright, in a chapel in Bergen County on a night where there it was snowing a number of years ago.
Timing of the Tahara
We have seen also that these for-profit chevros prioritize their own convenience in terms of when the taharos are performed; the tahara is to be performed as close to the levaya as possible, as the purpose is to minimize odor so that people do not shy away from the mitzvah of levayas hameis, as the Beis Yosef explains, and also, because we follow the normative halachic principles of tevilah as much as possible, the tahara is to be performed so that the pouring of Tisha kavin or tevilah b’mikvah occurs after shkiah (sundown) the evening before, not any earlier. We have seen the for-profit chevros send metaherim to perform taharos before shkiah, at 4pm in the summer, 2pm in the winter, and at whichever times suit their own convenience. In addition, we have seen taharos performed days in advance of the funeral; if the metaherim go and perform a tahara on a Monday for someone being buried Tuesday, and there is another niftar there being buried on Wednesday or Thursday, for instance, they will “get them all done” while they are already there, to suit their own convenience, so they don’t have to come back the following day, when the tahara should be done, to avoid paying gas and tolls, etc. (despite the high rates being charged anyways). This is an absolute bizayon to the niftarim, and is a degradation of halacha, as the Chasam Sofer YD 328 paskens explicitly that the tahara is to be performed as close to the levaya as possible; he writes that the lashon of the Mishna, Shabbat 151a, the Rambam, Tur, and Shulchan Aruch indicates that the tahara should be done immediately prior to the burial. Indeed, the Nitei Gavriel 39:4 writes, “hatahara tihyeh smucha l’kevurah kol d’efshar, v’al kol panim l’chatchila lo yoter migimel sha’ot kodem hakevurah;” the tahara is to take place as close to the burial as possible, ideally, no more than 3 hours prior to the burial. Unfortunately, we see the for-profit chevros doing the opposite of what the poskim and seforim kedoshim pasken on almost every halachic issue mentioned: not using unmarried men, timing the tevilah properly, removing chatzitzos, performing a thorough rechitza, utilizing a sufficient number of metaherim, not using non-Jews, not using women for a men’s tahara, reciting the tefillos, utilizing modest women, and people who are yirei shamayim and of good middos.
In conclusion, we would hope that the emphasis on kavod hameis which permeates our communal discussions surrounding Parshas Vayechi would lead to a discussion concerning the necessity to ensure that taharos are performed in accordance with halacha. There has been an unspeakable inertia and apathy on behalf of our rabbis and leaders, who have ignored this issue for far too long, blindly trusting kavod hameis to non-Jewish or non-frum funeral directors, who are not in a position to evaluate the fitness of a chevra kadisha, relegating the care of our loved ones to the anonymous, ephemeral for-profit chevra kadisha that operates without external rabbinic oversight or halachic authority, left to its own devices, free to do as they please without a peep from anyone. We have attributed a chezkas kashrus to individuals who do not have one, to people who are blinded by profit, as these chevros rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, year after year. The lack of oversight over what occurs in the tahara room must come to an end. I suggest, as did Rabbi Applbaum zt”l, that a system of mashgichim be employed, in a broad sense (he urged a mashgiach, hired by the OU to supervise Shmira, tahara and other ritual practices). Rabbis should not hesitate to go themselves, or to send reliable representatives into the funeral homes when they know a tahara is taking place or when they know a shomer is supposed to be there. In doing so, there will be accountability and an element of mirsas, fear, created by yotzei venichnas inspections, random, unannounced drop-ins by rabbis and their representatives, male and female, as the circumstances require, to ensure that halachic requirements are being upheld. I know of no other way to prevent taharos being done by 2 people, rushed, completed in 15-20 minutes, in which kavod hameis, a thorough rechitza, removing chatzitzos, and the like are all absent. Just as we do not blindly trust kosher restaurant owners or mashgichim to ensure kashrus on their own, but instead, have a system of oversight on top of oversight, the same is desperately and urgently needed in the chevra kadisha sector to ensure that our loved ones are being attended to in accordance with halacha. We must act to prevent the rampant abuses which plague this industry by ending the attitude of blind trust which pervades the current atmosphere. Chazal tell us that even though every frum Jew has a chezkas kashrus, we still say Kabdeihu veChashdeihu- we must be suspicious, especially where money is concerned. When people are making hundreds of thousands of dollars by performing taharos and shmira, we must be vigilant in ensuring they are providing such services in accordance with the many texts brought in this excursus.
Sadly, we see that many of the for-profit chevros in the NYC metropolitan region explicitly do the opposite of what the time-hallowed seforim bring on a host of issues including the thoroughness of the tahara, the fitness of metaherim, the time of the tahara, using warm water, using non-Jews for taharos and men for women’s taharos, and the like. Unfortunately, such abuses take place unbeknownst to the rabbis, the families, and the community, as a whole, due to the fact that there is little education or awareness surrounding proper tahara practices and the halachic requirements for a Chevra Kadisha. I urge that there be education as to these standards, that an effective system of oversight be enacted, and that we hold these chevros accountable for their actions. Sir William Ewart Gladstone once quipped: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.” Chochmah ba’goyim ta’amin. May we actualize the wisdom in these words as we strive for kavod hameis and true chesed shel emes, as Yaakov Avinu so desired, and as the Ribbono shel Olam desires of us.