Before setting up a Hevra Kadisha, the Masorti Movement would like to know: What are the sources for the tohorah ritual? What are the halakhic requirements for this ritual?
1) Washing the dead and anointing them with oil are not mentioned in the Bible. They are mentioned incidentally in the Mishnah (Shabbat 23:5) and in Masekhet Semahot (1:1-3) without any explanation as to how this was done. Since they are not mentioned in the Bible, it appears they were borrowed from the Hellenistic world where the dead were washed and anointed with oil.
2) In the Amoraic period, we learn from Leviticus Rabbah (34:10) that Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish once washed a dead person in Tiberias, but, again, the midrash does not explain how this was done.
3) In the Geonic period, Rabbi Samuel ben Hophni Gaon (d. 1013) of Sura says that there is washing and cleaning but “there is no set measure to which one should not add or detract” for it all depends on how much water is available. He adds that if there is caked-on blood, one should use hot water to remove it.
4) In the period of the Rishonim, tohorah is mentioned briefly by Rashi, Tosafot, the Mordechai, Maimonides and Sefer Hassidim. The last source says: “the person washing the dead should be careful not to leave any dirt on the body”.
There are five major sources for the tohorah ritual in the period of the Rishonim:
a) R. Eliezer of Mainz (d. 1236) quotes Rabbi Judah the Pious (d. 1217) that one brings water and heats it up and washes the entire body, the limbs, the face and the head. Then one anoints the head with a mixture of eggs and wine.
b) Orhot Haim and Sefer Kol Bo (Provence, early 14th century) say that the body is washed in order to remove the dirt so that the people will not abhor carrying the body to the cemetery. The head is anointed with beaten eggs as a sign so that the gravediggers will know that the deceased is Jewish and eggs were chosen because they indicate the cycle of life. This description was quoted by the Rema in the Darkei Moshe to Yoreh Deah 352 and in the Shulhan Arukh ibid., 352:4.
c) In another place, Orhot Haim and Sefer Kol Bo add that in Narbonne they used to bury Jews even on the first day of Yom Tov and “to heat up the water for washing the body is also permissible” even though washing the body is only a “custom”.
d) The fourth source is the Testament of Rabbi Eliezer Halevi who died in Mainz in 1357. This otherwise unknown Jew told his sons to wash between his fingers and toes and “his rear” and to wash his hair and comb it and cut his nails so that he should come clean and pure to his eternal rest just as he came to the synagogue every Shabbat. This passage was copied by Binyamin Ze’ev, No. 204 and from there by the Darkei Moshe mentioned above.
e) The last medieval source for the tohorah ritual was the work called “Perek Mishnat Hamet” – and its later versions – which was apparently written by the mystic Joseph Della Reina who lived in Spain just before the Expulsion. In all of these works, the dead person is washed many times (up to 42 in one version!) accompanied by the recitation of ten blessings. Each washing is done alternately in cold or hot or lukewarm water and sometimes carbonate of soda or soap or myrtle are added to the water.
5) The Aharonim were very much influenced by the latter source, but they added that after the detailed washing of the body one should pour “nine kav” (9 x 2.4 liters) of cold water on the deceased which is “the main tohorah”. But this “main” part is missing from most of the above sources. It is only mentioned in the fourth version of “Perek Mishnat Hamet” and it is clear from there that it is an attempt to imitate the washing of a “ba’al keri” which was done with a minimum of “nine kav”. In any case, this is not “the main tohorah” but a late custom.
Lastly, many Aharonim demand an “internal examination” of the body in which feces and dirt are cleaned out of the rectum using soap, water and rags. This surprising custom may have been hinted at in the Testament of R. Eliezer Halevi mentioned above, but it is not explicitly mentioned by any of the sources above. Rabbi Abraham Danzig explicitly rejected this custom as a breach of “kevod hamet” and recommended simply cleaning the anus. This is the custom we should follow.
In conclusion, the halakhah demands “washing the dead” and no more. The Hevra Kadisha of the Masorti Movement should adopt a simple and dignified tohorah. The goal should be to wash the entire body, limbs, face and head in order not to leave any dirt on the body. The hevra kadisha must prepare enough buckets of water in order to wash the entire body. Then the eldest member asks forgiveness from the deceased by name. If the body is dirty or full of blood, it should be cleaned with the help of towels and water. Then buckets of water should be poured on all parts of the body. Then the body should be dried with clean towels or sheets and dressed in the takhrikhim. During the tohorah, appropriate verses should be recited from among the many verses which exist in the various rituals. May God “destroy death forever…and wipe the tears away from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
Rabbi David Golinkin