Body And Soul

Minutes after the Hitler de jour detonates 30 pounds of TNT packed with nails on an Israeli street, the chevra kadisha burial society appears on the scene, climbing the trees and scraping the stucco for loose blood, fingers, legs, and even a head-a severed head that is catapulted by the force of the blast several stories high through the rain, landing in a thud in its own pool of blood on a balcony near the bus route, as one head did last Sunday in Jerusalem.

Somewhere in America, just about whenever another wonderchild visiting Israel is sacrificed to Moloch, a phone rings in Kew Gardens, Queens, as it did last week; a chevra kaddisha from the town of the dead child is calling Rabbi Elchonon Zohn.

He is the director of the Chevra Kadisha of the Vaad HaRabonim of Queens, and the acknowledged authority on how to prepare the most damaged of bodies for burial.

We'll spare the family by not saying the town where these calls have come from, but we won't spare you, dear reader. If Rabbi Zohn has to hear the questions, so do you. This is what Jewish history sounds like:

The out-of-state chevra tells Rabbi Zohn that they are expecting the body of the dead young person, but how should the body be prepared for burial?

How can we do a tahara-the ritual washing and preparation of the body-if the body is returned to the United States in pieces?

What if the body-the person-is little more than burns and ooze, blood and bones, which is often the case these days, for one does not exit an exploding bus looking like the pictures from the yearbook and family albums that are reprinted in the newspaper.

Rabbi Zohn explains, "We won't wash the bones that are protruding, but maybe we can wash around it. We can't wash and dress the body as we normally would, if that would further damage the body. When there is tremendous physical trauma, we follow what customs we can follow. Earth from Israel and broken pottery are placed in the casket with the body. Different parts of the body are buried together."

"There are some chevras that use a mixture of egg white and vinegar, applied to the forehead, which was an old way of identifying the body of a Jew, when a body had to be transported and sometimes switched by non-Jews to perpetuate a blood libel. The vinegar has a strong smell, and the egg is sticky, so by either feel or smell, Jews could tell if the body was switched."

"We will dress the body," says Rabbi Zohn, "at least symbolically, with the shrouds atop the body."

Jews are buried in shrouds, a full set of clothing, white linen sewn by hand, including a hat, shirt, pants, jacket, a belt and a tallis for a man, plus a final sheet that wraps the person.

"We will first place the sheet in the casket, place the body over the sheet, and then cover the body with the shrouds over the place where it normally would go," the pants laid atop the legs, for example, "if we are unable to place the broken legs into the pants. So we simply cover the legs, so at least the shrouds are there. We might dress just the lower half of the body, or just the top half, if that is all that is possible."

Rabbi Zohn says "There is a custom that if a person is killed violently, particularly if he or she was killed because he or she was a Jew, than that person is buried as he or she was found, Sometimes we won't even take off the victim's clothes. The belief is that when this person appears before God in such a horrifying state, it may arouse compassion from on high and hasten the end of the exile."

Rabbi Zohn, 44, has directed the Queens chevra kadisha since 1971. At the time, most Jews did not get a tahara because of indifference rather than injury. Twenty-five years ago only 2 percent of Queens Jews received tahara; now it is near 40 percent.

Unlike the voluntary chevra kadishas associated with synagogues, which usually service only synagogue members, the chevra of the Queens Vaad HaRabonim, or rabbinical council, services all Jews, as many as 2,500 a year, says Rabbi Zohn, as well as providing the "watcher" or consulting for as many as 500 other cases. Before, those Jews that wanted a tahara and were not a member of those shuls with a chevra kadisha were transported to Brooklyn.

Rabbi Zohn points out that he may be the only rabbi working full-time, "double-time," with a chevra kadisha. Each month, he and the 150 men and women in the Queens burial society study a different aspect of Jewish burial. That, and having served or supervised more than 10,000 burials, including the victims of brutal murders and severe car accidents, has made him something of a reluctant expert. He prepared one victim of the explosion of Pan Am flight 103, and was consulted on the burial of another passenger.

And now comes the increasingly frequent phone calls from other chevra kadishas who never before have handled bodies so broken.

Even before last week's slow-motion Holocaust began to unfold, it had been a busy time for Rabbi Zohn and chevra kadisha societies in Israel. The Tuesday before the bombings was Zayin Adar, the seventh day of the Jewish month of Adar, the yahrtzeit of Moses. It is the day that chevra kadishas fast to beg forgiveness for any unintentional spiritual lapses in the performance of their duty. The fast is followed by a communa dinner and study.

Zayin Adar, explains Rabbi Zohn, was chosen as the special day for the chevra kadisha in cognizance of the fact that it was Moses who took the responsibility of carrying Joseph's bones out of Egypt. And it was it God alone who performed the tahara for Moses on a Zayin Adar long ago.

The thing to remember, says Rabbi Zohn, is that "the neshama [soul] is present in the room during the tahara. We don't ear or drink in the presence of the body. We don't study Torah in the presence of the body. Those who wear tzitzis out, will not do so in the presence of the body. The neshama is very much there and very much aware of what is happening. We don't want to hurt the person any more by doing anything the soul can no longer do. Even speaking is seen as disrespectful."

The bodies keep coming. One by one they are carried by the chevra kadisha into a room where the dead are addressed by their Hebrew name and asked forgiveness for any indignity . Straw is placed on the floor and covered with a sheet. The feet are placed facing the floor. Buckets are filled with lukewarm water and poured over the limbs. First they wash the head, then the right upper half of the body, the right lower half, the right leg, the left arm, the left lower half, the left leg. Water is not poured into the mouth or the nostrils.

This is what was done, in that exact order, last week in Teaneck and West Hartford, and 56 other times, one by one, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The bloodied clothes are placed in the casket, by the feet.

And as the broken glass is cleaned away from the street young men in Jerusalem and West Hartford and Tel Aviv are each being dressed in a white kittle, as if for a wedding. In the Other World or in another incarnation, say the mystics, they will have the wedding they were meant to have, reunited with the soulmates.

And in that other place they will each break a glass to remember the city of the broken glass, where the stones seem to be bleeding, where Heaven and earth once kissed.

Back to Burial Index