Performing taharah on someone who has departed is one of the greatest kindnesses one can perform. But how does one fulfill this mitzvah when the deceased passed away from a highly-contagious disease like the new coronavirus?
To learn the answer to this question, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Yitzhak Gelbstein, head of the General Chevra Kadisha Society in Jerusalem.
The Jewish Press: Is it true that you’ve been involved in burying Jews from abroad who died from the coronavirus?
Rabbi Gelbstein: Yes, and everything is carried out according to the special requirements of the Israel Ministry of Health.
The first and foremost concern is the health of the chevra kadisha staff, who have been equipped with special protective clothing, gloves, boots, and face guards. At first, when the virus began to spread, the Health Department banned us [in advance] from conducting taharah for fear of contagion, but on our insistence, an understanding was reached allowing us to proceed.
Yitzhak Vatknin, Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs; Rabbi Yaacov Litzman, Health Minister; and epidemic specialists from the Department of Health attended several meetings with me and other chevra kadisha officials to work out all of the details to insure both the safety of our workers and uphold the great respect Judaism holds for the dead.
Is this first time the Chevra Kadisha Society has encountered a pandemic of this proportion?
Unfortunately, epidemics have broken out in the past, and the chevra kadisha has a long history, in many Jewish communities – both in the Land of Israel and in our wanderings in galut – of quiet and dedicated service, always with an exalted respect for the dead.
To deal with the current epidemic, we have set up four special regional facilities to deal with the necessary ritual procedures in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beer Sheva. All our teams receive special training, and all burials must be accompanied by a security expert from the Health Department.
Did you participate in the burial of Aryeh Even, 88, who died from the coronavirus last week – the only Israeli, thank G-d, to have died from the disease in Israel thus far?
How did it differ from an ordinary funeral?
The family did not appear at the taharah facility. They were present in the eulogy hall in smaller numbers than usual, according to the regulations of the Health Department.
Our people carried the stretcher with the deceased on it. Others followed at the proper distance. The funeral at Har HaMenuchot was outside as per orders from the Health Department. There was a proper minyan. Kaddish was recited.
May we not have to bury a coronavirus victim again.