Many people think the description in this week’s parasha, Tazria, of how the High Priest should treat lepers — by evicting them from the camp of Israel with a ritual, and accepting them back with another once they’ve healed — is so archaic as to make studying it absurd. The ancient Temple where the priests held court was wiped out by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, after all. And leprosy, if that is what’s being described, has been virtually eradicated by the World Health Organization over the past 30 years.
So what if I told you that Jews are re-enacting aspects of these practices today, in virtually every city where we live?
I’m talking about tahara, the ritual washing of the dead, typically performed in Jewish mortuaries by a group called a chevra kaddisha, or sacred burial society. Tahara is not described in the Bible; it gelled as a ritual in the Middle Ages. But it is based closely on snippets of ancient practices and teachings, several of which appear in this week’s parasha.
Tahara is something near and dear to my heart, so I’d like to describe it to you, first by detailing the practice as set out in Leviticus 13, and then the ritual as we perform it today.
The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was required to inspect the wounds and rashes of the Israelite people, being ever watchful for a condition called tzara’at. Most English Bibles translate this as leprosy, but tzara’at is a temporary, scaly skin condition, while leprosy, now called Hansen’s disease, is a permanent, disabling loss of nerve function, now treatable with medication.
Whatever it was, once the High Priest identified tzara’at on a person, he conducted a ritual that marked the sufferer as tamei (ritually impure). Their head and lip were uncovered, their clothing torn, and they were to call out, “Tamei! Tamei!” before leaving the camp.
The priest visited them every seven days to see if the condition had cleared up. When it did, the priest declared the person tahor (ritually pure) and performed an animal sacrifice with blood anointing that would have been quite familiar to him; it echoed the ritual that put him in office.
Ritual impurity (tuma) is a concept that remains with Judaism today, although it is not universally practiced. It is contracted via exposure to death, disease and bodily emissions, and makes one ineligible to join the community in worship or have relations with one’s spouse. The cure in biblical times was animal sacrifice; today, we use a mikveh.
A corpse is the ultimate source of ritual impurity, but tahara transforms it — and the soul that remains attached to it until burial — into something pure and holy. It prepares the meit (decedent) to meet the Holy One in the World to Come. This is the beauty of the tahara ritual.
First, like the priest inspecting for tzara’at, the tahara providers fastidiously inspect and wash the meit. As Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk taught: In Leviticus 13:3, we should not read “when the priest sees it (the disease),” but rather, “when the priest sees him,” (the sick person). The priest examined the whole person, seeking to see that which was healthy about them, not just their affliction. As the meit is washed, words of admiration for their beauty are said, citing the Song of Songs.
Next, the meit is purified, with a dunk in a special mikveh, or with buckets of cold water poured head to toe. Like the inverse of the leper calling out “tamei,” the tahara providers repeatedly say “tahor hu” or “tahara hi” — he or she is pure — as they dunk or pour.
The meit is dried, then dressed in simple white garments designed to resemble those of the High Priest and is placed in a pine casket. Final touches may include tying knots shaped like a name of God, wrapping in a tallit, daubing with wine, sprinkling with earth from Israel and more blessings.
The simple shrouding and casket follow the talmudic teachings of Rabban Gamliel, who disdained ostentatious funerals out of respect for the feelings of the poor. The meit is now free of all worldly imperfections. She or he is radiant.
If you don’t believe that the soul sticks around after death, awaiting preparation for the afterlife, Olam Haba’ah, then here’s another way to see tahara. This ritual honors the beauty of a life lived, and the wishes of the living for their loved one. It ties the meit to the Jewish community and its priorities in death as in life: justice, simplicity, connection and holy intention.
And if it surprises you to think that you, too, might wash the dead, consider this dictum, which appears in the Declaration of Jewish Commitment used for conversions by the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California: “May nothing Jewish ever be foreign to me.”