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Taharah in Light of COVID-19 Pandemic

Rabbi Safman will soon be publishing a rabbinical ruling on the Jewish ritual of Taharah, washing of the body (meit or meitah) prior to burial. This communication is to let you know that our Chevra Kadisha has determined that at this time, it is neither safe nor ethical to perform Taharah.

Taharah is an important Jewish practice that we do not lightly suspend. During the month of March, our Chevra Kadisha has been attending weekly Zoom webinars organized by Kavod v’Nichum (the national organization) to determine if there is a safe and ethical means of conducting Taharah during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have to assume that every meit or meitah may have the infection, no matter what the cause of death. Kavod v’Nichum has brought in medical and infectious disease experts to study this issue.  This organization has identified a number of concerns associated with this practice during this time:

  • When we leave our homes go out to the funeral home to do a taharah, we break the social compact that asks that all unnecessary travel and gathering be eliminated.
  • Spread of the virus is most dangerous among individuals, hence social distancing is in place. We are unable to protect the metaharim from each other in this way, before, during and after the taharah.
  • Some taharah teams are not taking our PPE (personal protective equipment) recommendations seriously, or not having watchers (who make sure PPE is put on and taken off properly) or are not regularly practicing putting on and taking off PPE.
  • PPE is currently in short supply in many areas and hence we are ethically asked to not use these for taharot, and to instead prioritize this important equipment for medical purposes.

As of March 24, 2020, until further notice, our Chevra Kadisha has decided to follow the guidelines of the Kavod v’Nichum as follows:

Considering the concerns identified above, we] believe that to do taharah at this time is actually an increase to the possibility of risk of viral exposure – the opposite of pikuach nefesh. It is recognized that we’ve lived and done taharot through other contagious disease outbreaks, and we continue to live with MRSA, Staph, C. diff, Hep B&C, and more. The current situation is different because we are not only concerned about transmission from the decedent but also from each other. This requires immediate action until this outbreak is under control.

Our panel of experts now strongly recommends that during these periods of widespread transmission of COVID-19, and especially when communities are told to limit personal exposure, Chevrah Kadisha groups should not do any form of taharot.

Furthermore, any form of Taharah at this time would require everyone to wear full personal protection equipment, which is in very short supply at this time. Thus, our Chevra Kadisha believes that it would be unethical to use this critical personal protection equipment for Taharah when it is so desperately needed by the medical community.

Thus, it is with great regret that Congregation Beth El is suspending the practice of Taharah until the rabbi and the Chevra Kadisha determine that it is safe to do so.

Kathleen McFadden, President

Mon, June 1 2020 9 Sivan 5780