Sunday, October 26, 2014

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Ebola and Jewish Burial

Jewish burial, per Jewish religious law, follows a particular process for handling of the remains and the actual burial.  In very very brief, the approach is:

1. The body is a holy vessel and is to be treated with respect and care.

2. We return to the dust, and bodies are therefore to be buried in dirt, in the ground. 

3. The neshama (soul) has an attachment to the body, and in most cases cannot proceed on it’s way until the body is buried.  Being in the physical world but unable to interact is considered unpleasant, therefore burial should be as fast as possible – and in Israel is often within 24 hours (secular governmental procedures outside of Israel may make Jewish burials take 48-72 hours).

In practical procedures of Jewish burial…

- A special group with religious Jewish communities is responsible for burials and ritualistic body preparations.  It is called the “chevra kadisha”. -

A. The body is cleansed, meaning washed in a ritualistic fashion.  If facilities exist, it’s dipped in a ritual bath.  This is called a “tahara”.

B. It is dressed in a coarse white garment.

C. It is guarded until burial.

D. It is buried directly in the dirt.  In Israel this means no casket.  In the US, a plain wooden casket with holes to allow dirt to enter, or popping / misaligning the lid on placement in the grave, is the approach.

What about Ebola and Jewish burial?

A commentor asked, on my article about Ebola, “Though one hopes (heaven forbid) that Eloba doesn't effect us, what can Jews do if an outbreak prevents Jews from doing Tahara let alone forbid families of the deceased from burying the bodies as well as being unable to prevent authorities from cremating those who dead from in an outbreak?”

I responded, “A very interesting halachic question. I expanded the question: what are the halachic burial considerations if a guf has become physically dangerous to handle? Examples might be (G-d forbid) a guf with chemical exposure, significant deterioration or damage making a tahara not feasible (such as a death due to war), or as in the question where the guf may harbor an infectious agent?”

I sent a query to a few rabbonim who might have knowledge.  Rabbi Ari Enkin, a contributor to the Torah Musings site, replied…

“In such a case: human life takes precedence, and taharas would not be performed (if deemed dangerous). On a related note -- taharas are not performed on certain disaster/murder victims (Akiva adds, or on soldiers with significant body damage from war).  I can also make the argument that even cremation would be acceptable, but we do see that Ebola victims are buried as normal in Africa (Akiva adds, with the burial party in isolation suites and the body completely sealed layers of isolation bags). There has been no call to cremate.”

1 comment:

  1. The Muslim ritual washing of the dead is spreading Ebola in West Africa. I watched a documentary that also stated this fact and showed some statistics how cases crop up after funerals. Muslims do not ritually watch the dead like we do. They press on the abdomen of the deceased in an attempt to clear the body of waste, then they wash the body. This is very dangerous because the body is very infectious at this time. The mainstream news has not mentioned anything about this.

    Thank G-d for kashrut!:


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