Ceremony of washing a dead body before burial. This rite is performed by the members ("mit'assekim") of the "ḥebra ḳaddisha." The body is lifted from the ground, where it has been placed after death, and laid, feet toward the door, on the cleansing-table known as the "ṭaharah-board." The black cover and the old garments are removed, and a white sheet put under it, while the members assembled say a prayer for the dead, and recite, "Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment" (Zech. iii. 4). Then begins the washing. The body is thoroughly rubbed and cleansed with lukewarm water, during which process the mouth is covered so that no water may enter it. Next water is poured over the head, while Ezek. xxxvi. 25 is recited: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean." This is followed by washing each limb downward, the appropriate verses of Cant. v. 11 et seq. being repeated as the washing progresses: "His head is as the most fine gold . . . His eyes are as the eyes of doves," etc.
The position of the body is changed with the successive stages of the operation. First it lies face upward; next, upon the right and the left side; finally it is returned to its original position. After the body has been cleansed nine measures ("kab") of cold water are poured over it while it is in a partly upright position. This last operation really constitutes the ceremony of ṭaharah. The body is then thoroughly dried, care being taken to keep it covered. It is then clothed in the shroud, appropriate verses being recited. The bodies of women undergo the same process of purification at the hands of their own sex (comp. Acts ix. 37).
A more elaborate ceremony is performed over the body of a great man. The order of the "grand washing" ("reḥiẓah gedolah") for such occasion is credited to Hillel the Elder (see "Ma'abar Yabboḳ," p. 42b, end). The ceremony should be performed by two persons at least, and the water be perfumed with essence of roses, with myrtle, or with spices. Fumigation with aromatic spices is an ancient custom (II Chron. xvi. 14); the Mishnah mentions especially the myrtle in connection with ceremonies for the dead (Beẓah 6a; Ber. viii. 1). The Mishnah mentions also the practise of cleansing and anointing the body, forbidding the ceremony on the Sabbath (Shab. xxiii. 5). It appears that in the early periods the body was washed in a regular bath; and Babylon was criticized because the ceremony was not observed there, and was called "Shinar" (see Gen. xi. 2) because the Babylonians "die in filth, without a candle and without a bath" (Yer. Ber. iv. 7b; Gen. R. xxxviii. 5; see Joseph Perles, "Leichenbestaltung," p. 12). The so-called "Tombs of the Kings" in Jerusalem has a bath below the entrance to the courtyard. Other ancient tombs are similarly provided with baths.Object of Washing.
The reason assigned for the washing is the verse "As he came, so shall he go" (Eccl. v. 15, Hebr.): "When born he is washed, and when dead he is washed" ("Sefer Ḥasidim," § 560). The washing is for the purpose also of removing all impurities, that the body may not be repulsive to the attendants ("Kol Bo," p. 114). The "Kol Bo" gives as a reason for rubbing the dead with beaten eggs that eggs symbolize the perpetual wheel of life (ib.; see the caba listic view in "Ma'abar Yabboḳ," iii. 12). R. Benjamin, in his "Binyamin Ze'eb" (responsum No. 204, ed. Venice, 1539), records the testament of R. Eliezer ha-Levi ordering that his body should be cleansed carefully, including the ears and the fingers, and that his nails should be pared and his hair combed, that he may go to his rest as he was wont to go to the synagogue on Sabbath eve ("Darḳe Mosheh" on Ṭur Yoreh De'ah, 352). In ancient times the hair was cut (M. Ḳ. 8b), but now it is only washed and combed. The nails are not cut, but are cleansed with a special kind of pin.
After the ceremony the ṭaharah-board is cleansed and dried. There is a superstition that if it is turned with the upper surface downward, another person will die within three days (R. Judah he-Ḥasid, Testament, vi. 10). Those who perform the ṭaharah cleanse their hands with salt water.
In the time of R. Jacob Mölln (d. 1427) there was in Prague a separate cleansing-house ("bet ṭaharah") annexed to the cemetery ("Sefer ha-Maharil," end; "Yosef Omeẓ," p. 190a). In modern times the ṭaharah is performed in the house of the deceased. See Burial; Funeral Rites; Purity of Race.
- Modena, Ma'abar Yabboḳ, iii., §§ 11 and 12, and pp. 41a, 45b, ed. Amsterdam, 1732;
- Landshuth, Seder Biḳḳur Ḥolim, Introduction, § 22, and p. 86;
- A. P. Bender, in J. Q. R. vii. 259.