Chaim Steinmetz, spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, tells a story about the time he was asked to perform a tahara – the ritual washing and cleansing of a recently deceased body before burial – at the same time as the Super Bowl. Steinmetz vacillated between fulfilling his duty as part of the chevra kadisha and missing the big game. He ultimately chose to do the tahara, even though he missed the first half of the Super Bowl.
A chevra kadisha – which translates literally to “holy brotherhood” – is an organization responsible for caring for the deceased. Members of these organizations supervise the body (an ancient Jewish custom to protect it from outside elements), cleanse it in a ritual bath, and oversee the burial. Ira Weinstock, a history professor at Touro College, says that the first known chevra kadisha was “probably Moshe and the Jews who carried the body of Joseph out of Egypt and through the desert, to bury it in Israel.”
Historians trace the first formal chevra kadisha back to the fourth century, according to Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. Authors Israel Abrahams and Cecil Roth quote the Talmud in Mo’ed Katan, which states that Rabi Chamnuna – who died in 320 CE – was in the town of Daro when he heard a horn sound, indicating that someone had just died. When he asked why the people around him continued to go about their business without stopping to attend to the deceased, he was told that there was an organization that deals with these matters.
According to the Aukland Chevra Kadisha’s website, the first formal organization that functions as most do today was formed in Prague in 1564. Nine years later, rules and procedures were implemented. The Aukland Chevra Kadisha, located in New Zealand, says that Jews began to immigrate there in the 1830s, and while burials took place for decades after, the first formal chevra kadisha in New Zealand was founded in 1906.
While chevrei kadisha had formed in other parts of the world much earlier, many were part of an umbrella organization, and not separate entities. In The Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914, author Marsha Rozenblit writes that in 1852, the Jewish community of Austria had set up the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde – which translates literally to “Israelite Community” – to administer the various needs of the people. This included “the establishment and maintenance of synagogues, supervision of such religious concerns as kosher meat, ritual baths, Passover matzah … [and] a burial society.”
An article in an 1889 edition of Jewish Quarterly Review entitled “Letters from Austria” similarly lauds the community’s involvement in its chevra kadisha. “Most communities, it must be acknowledged, recognize the holiness of these duties, and assign a prominent place among their charities to the Chevra Kadisha,” writes the author, whose name is not given. The writer goes on to discuss the greatness of the chevra kadisha of Budapest, which performed not only the duties in which all the others are involved, but had opened “an Infirmary and a Home for the Aged Needy.”
With the influx of Jews into the United States during the mid-19th century, chevrei kadisha began forming by the dozens. Today, there are about 40 chevrei kadisha in New York State alone, and hundreds throughout the country. But among the best known is the Hebrew Free Burial Association. According to The HFBA’s website, the organization started in the 1888. Back then, when people died and did not have money for a cemetery plot, they were buried in a mass grave, sometimes after having spent up to a month in a morgue. The HFBA wanted Jews to have dignified, as well as prompt, burials in keeping with the tradition of burying a Jewish body as soon after the death as possible. The organization still exists today, and according to its website, has buried 60,000 Jews according to halacha.