With the door of the room where tahara was being performed slightly ajar, a group of women began to chant. “The chanting is like a holding space — a calm, energetic, open space,” said Beth Sandweiss. “It’s a container for what happens, and you know you are in service for something larger.”
Chanting during tahara — the ritual washing of a body to prepare it for burial — is an integral part of the work of the hevra kadisha, or sacred society, at Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist congregation in Montclair.
Tahara has been practiced by Jewish communities over hundreds of years; references to it can be found in Rashi’s commentaries on the Talmud. Following an established order, with set tasks and a specific liturgy, it is one of several tasks undertaken by the hevra kadisha, whose members also guard the body from the time of death until the funeral.
While references to the sacred burial societies can be found in the Talmud, and they flourished into the 20th century, many non-Orthodox communities turned their responsibilities over to the funeral industry. But the last several decades have seen a re-emergence of the hevrot kadisha, which have been forming to reclaim the rituals. Today there are over 1,000 around the country, and recent annual hevra kadisha conferences have drawn up to 70 percent of participants from non-Orthodox backgrounds.
Locally, four hevrot kadisha have formed since 2008: Congregation Beth El in South Orange was the first, followed soon after by Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell and Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael. Bnai Keshet’s hevra kadisha, which was formed in 2013, is the only one to include chanting.
There is no specific tradition of chanting during tahara or shmira — the round-the-clock guarding of the body — in Jewish history, no ancient text to point to or rabbinic resource to consult. Nonetheless, Rabbi Ariann Weitzman of Bnai Keshet imagines it as part of an ancient practice. “It feels like it’s part of a wellspring of Jewish traditional behaviors we are rediscovering,” she said in a phone interview with NJJN.
Bnai Keshet’s is among a growing number of hevrot kadisha around the country to include chanting in their ritual practices around death and dying: during both tahara and shmira, as well as at shiva and at the bedside of an individual who is receiving hospice care.
Because there are no established guidelines, Shefa Gold, widely credited with the rising interest in Jewish chanting, has become the de facto resource, if not the only one. Her book, The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love, includes a chapter on chanting during tahara. She has also offered workshops at conferences run by Kavod v’Nichum, an organization established in 2002 to provide education and training for those creating and participating in hevrot kadisha. (Although Gold is not scheduled to present at the annual conference, to be held in June in Lexington, Mass., a session covering new practices related to tahara, including chanting, is planned.)
It’s no surprise that of the four local communities, Bnai Keshet is the one to incorporate chanting. Melissa Schaffer and Beth Sandweiss, two of the group of four who form the core of the sacred chanting circle, as it is called, trained with Gold in 2008 and have since made chanting an integral part of worship at Bnai Keshet.
Sandweiss pointed out that chanting on Shabbat or with a group is generally “about connecting to each other and having an experience of prayer, community, connection.” But chanting as part of the hevra kadisha, whether during tahara or at another point, is about something else entirely. “When you chant for a sacred reason, it is in service to another experience other than myself.”
The language of the chants reflects that concept. One that she uses translates from the Hebrew as “Please God I am your servant.” Another invokes angels on all sides to create protection for the departing soul. Many chants also mirror the work that is being done and involve evoking images of water or walking through the valley of death.
Natural thing to do
The death in 2013 of a beloved community member galvanized the congregation to form its own hevra kadisha (two previous efforts had failed) and simultaneously served as a catalyst to introduce chanting at the tahara.
Schaffer and Sandweiss had already chanted at the bedside of seriously ill people and had discussed leading chanting as part of a community hevra kadisha. Chanting during tahara seemed like a natural thing to do, they said. They described it as happening “organically.”
It helped that Deborah Zafman, who joined Bnai Keshet in 2010 and started chanting with the synagogue group, was among the founders of the hevra kadisha. She had worked with Kavod v’Nichum’s Gamliel Institute — which trains leaders in educating and advocating for the organization of bereavement committees and hevrot kadisha — and had envisioned chanting circles as part of the burial society practices.
She, together with Schaffer and Sandweiss, and a fourth Bnai Keshet member, Sharon Freedman, form the core of the sacred chanting circle.
The chanting serves two purposes. According to Schaffer, “We are trying to support the people doing [tahara], to give them strength, and to support the spirit of the person who is transitioning.” So they “try to time the chanting as best we can imagine to what is going on behind the doors.”
While the chanting is usually done outside the tahara room, occasionally someone who regularly chants is also engaged in tahara, and in that case may incorporate the chanting into the liturgy.
But in every case, Sandweiss said, the goal is never to get in the way of the ritual being performed.
Not every tahara group wants to have a group chanting, but many do find it moving. One group asked for the door to be opened so they could hear it better.
Weitzman said the chanting is “the sweetest thing I’ve ever experienced doing tahara.” She added, “The feeling in the room was that it was like a call and response.”
For Zafman, being involved with the chanting, and with the hevra kadisha, is all about “a sense of calling…, a hunger for the sacred and holiest possible experience in life. The more we relate to death in a non-frightened way, the more sacred it makes life.”