Should the body of a person who dies from AIDS or some other contagious disease be ritually washed prior to burial?
There is no reason to deny the deceased the Tohorah, provided accepted precautionary procedures are followed.
The custom of ritually washing the deceased before burial is already mentioned in the Mishnah. Its purpose is to preserve human dignity even in death and to ensure that the mortal remains of a Jew are free from dirt, which is sometimes a natural accompaniment to death and dying. Even if we were to claim that this ritual should be denied to grievous sinners, we must be aware that death from AIDS can not be seen as an inevitable indication of a sinful lifestyle. Unfortunately, death may have been caused by something as innocent as a blood transfusion or been contracted from a spouse. Furthermore, in this age in which there is no Sanhedrin with all its judicial procedures, even observed sexual promiscuity must be judged by God and not by man. The dignity of all human beings must be preserved in death, for all are reflections of the same divine image.
Despite the deceased’s right to tohorah, it might have to be waived if it should seriously endanger the members of the Hevra Kadisha performing the ritual washing. Our halakhic sources are very clear on the duty of every Jew to refrain from exposing himself to avoidable mortal danger even to perform a mitzvah, and tohorah is only an ancient custom.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles mentions a custom of waiving mourning rites during an outbreak of plague because of the fear of contagion, but it is clear that he does not approve and, in any case, he is referring to mourning rites, not to burial rites.
One American rabbi is on record as saying that a Hevra Kadisha has the right to refuse tohorah to AIDS victims because of the danger of contagion. His is a lone voice of exaggeration. A more measured halakhic response from a British rabbi states that available medical knowledge indicates that the danger may be minimalized and that, provided that accepted precautionary and protective measures be properly taken, there is no reason to assume any danger to the members of the Hevra Kadisha.
Accepted medical practice requires the following “barrier precautions”: rubber gloves, a coat or robe, a facemask and goggles to cover the eyes. Skin that comes into contact with bodily excretions of the deceased must be washed immediately after removing the barrier precautions. Members of the Hevra Kadisha who have open skin wounds should refrain from taking part in the tohorah. After completion of the ceremony, all equipment must be sterilized in a solution of sodium hypochlorite and water.
Rabbi Simchah Roth