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Grandma Rachel, What is Taharah?

by Shirley Coles

The time was two years after my father died; the place, Grandma Rachel's kitchen. I was now about twelve years old. My mother was still at work on that September afternoon. After a lifetime of being a housewife, she had had to learn to work outside of home. She would return a little after five, tired, and likely wanting to be silent. I could not ask her the question I had in mind for so long.

Recently, Grandma Rachel's older sister passed away. During the family planning for Aunt Rose's funeral, my antennae picked up bits and pieces of conversation, one of which was the word "tahara". No sooner had I heard it, I remembered having heard it before, when the family was mourning my father. A very, very young child will ask questions without hesitation; a ten year old may sense when it is appropriate or not. I did not ask thenů.but now at twelve, I wanted to know.

From four to five in the afternoons, after milk and cookies, on those days when I didn't go out to play or have lots of homework to do, we would sit across from each other at the long family kitchen table. We would play gin rummy, or talk. She was my friend; she was the only adult in the crowded household who would listen and understand and answer my questions and, if I wanted something to be a secret, she never told anyone.

"Grandma, what is taharah? I asked. "I heard you and Momma and Aunt Molly talking about it when Aunt Rose died, and I also heard it long ago." She moved her body deeper into her chair, took a long look at me, heaved a sigh and I knew she was about to tell me something important. "Tsureleh, I'm so sorry all of us forget sometimes to explain things. This is good, very good that you ask me this." This is what she told me.

"Jewish people believe that each of us is made up of body and soul. We can see body, but we cannot see soul. But the soul is really who we are. When someone dies, the two parts are separated and, after the burial of the body, the soul goes to Heaven with God forever." I struggled to understand and learn, and I kept very quiet. "So, because the body is the home of the precious soul, we treat it with great respect. Now comes tahara, the holy washing and preparation for the burial. It is very beautiful."

"To be one of the people who do this is a great honor. They do God's work, guarding, washing and dressing the body, and offering prayers for the soul. The body is never left alone until burial. The neshama (soul) is at peace."

Now I must tell you that Grandma Rachel's English was halting; it was mixed with Yiddish. Since I understood both, her teaching was clear and tender; it's etched in my memory as I have told it. When she leaned back and heaved yet another sigh, I asked the question that had been dormant but troubling for so long. "Grandma, is that what happened with my father? Did holy people keep his body and soul company and guarded like you said? Did they wash and dress him and say prayers for him? Did his neshama go to God and Heaven at peace so he would not be afraid?"

Grandma Rachel held out her arms to me. "Come over here, Tsureleh. Come." I moved around the table and she cradled me in her soft lap while I shed tears that had been held back for far too long. Now I could be at peace as well.


from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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