views updated


TOHORAH (Heb. טָהֳרָה; "cleansing," "purification"), the ceremony of washing the dead before burial, performed by mit'assekim ("attendants"), members of the *ḥevra kaddisha. The body is laid on a special tohorah board, the feet toward the door to indicate the escape of the impurity. While the body is undressed, thoroughly rubbed and cleansed with lukewarm water, the mit'assekim recite biblical verses (Zech. 3:4; Ezek. 36:25; Song 5:11, etc.). Then the head and the front part of the body are rubbed with a beaten egg, a symbol of the perpetual wheel of life. (This part of the ceremony is only observed nowadays in very Orthodox circles.) Thereafter, "nine measures" (9 "kav," 4½ gallons) of water are poured over the body while it is held in an upright position. This process is the essential part of the tohorah ceremony. The body is then thoroughly dried and dressed in shrouds. The tohorah rite for great rabbis and scholars, called reḥiẓah gedolah ("great washing"), is more elaborate. "Nine measures" of water are used several times: the body may even be immersed in a mikveh ("ritual bath"). This custom, however, was strongly opposed by leading rabbis because it discouraged women from attending the mikveh. In addition to the washing of the body, the hair is combed and the fingernails and toenails are cut (Sh. Ar., yd 352:4). The basis for tohorah is in Ecclesiastes 5:15, "as he came, so shall he go" (meaning: as when man is born, he is washed, so too when he dies, he is washed; Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by R. Margaliot (1957), no. 560). The ceremony of tohorah, as well as all other burial details, is not mentioned in the Bible. At the burial of kings, however, sweet odorous spices were used (ii Chron. 16:14) and the Tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem have a bath below the entrance to the courtyard, which may have been built either for cleansing the dead or for the ritual use of priests. Tohorah was observed in mishnaic times, as can be derived from the statement that limited washing and anointing of the body is permitted on the Sabbath (Shab. 23:5). Talmudic literature mentions the cleansing of the body with myrtle and the cutting of the hair of the deceased (cf. Beẓah 6a; mk 8b). Tohorah for women is performed by the female members of the ḥevra kaddisha. After tohorah, the attendants clean their hands with salted water. Most traditional cemeteries have a special annex to the cemetery called bet tohorah ("cleansing house"). In recent times, however, tohorah is generally performed at the mortuary of hospitals (or by the undertaker). *Reform Judaism has discarded the ritual of tohorah.


S. Baer, Toẓe'ot Ḥayyim (Heb. and Ger., 1900), 99–102 (Heb. pt.); J.M. Tukaczinsky, Gesher ha-Ḥayyim, 1 (19602), 94–100; M. Lamm, Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (1969), 6–7, 242–5; H. Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life (1964), 38–39.