About three weeks ago I was asked to participate in a Taharah for a 42 year old whose family has been long term members of Congregation Shearith Israel, often called The Spanish Portuguese Synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan, the first synagogue in the US established in 1654 in New Amsterdam. (before it was called New York).
They call me from time to time when they need help.
They do their Taharahs a bit differently (I told the Rabbi that they follow the procedures when the Taharah was done on the kitchen table, and it sadly lacks Kovod Hamais, to no avail) but just the same they follow the basic liturgy as set forth in the Maavar Yabbok.
What was different was that they inserted a single rose in the coffin before putting the lid on. Now, I have done at least a half dozen Taharahs with them, and this was the first time I saw this. When I questioned it they told me he was their long time Baal Tokeah- Shofar blower – (Tokeang is their official name ) and that is why he was accorded this singular honor, and it’s not granted to just any congregant.
When I questioned it they told me it was a tradition and they don’t know why, but they added that ideally it should be a Myrtle branch but as Myrtle wasn’t readily available they use any pleasant smelling flower.
As many of you know I am textually based and “tradition” as a reason doesn’t work for me.
Lo and behold, I did find a textual source for this strange custom.
The Tractate Niddah 37:A, 37:B recites the following
A battle regarding a certain law of menstruation – raged between the Sages Shila bar Avina and Rabbi Asi. There was such a sharp difference of opinion as to the final ruling of their departed master, the Sage Rav, that their dispute resulted in Heaven decreeing the premature death of both.
They both died the same time at the same day and at their joint funeral a most interesting thing happened. The Talmud relates that it was customary to place a hadas, a myrtle branch (same as is used with the Lulav on Succoth) on the bier of the deceased. The Hadas on one of the biers mysteriously lifted from its place and alighted on the other bier while the hadas on that bier jumped across to take its place.
The onlookers were amazed but they quickly comprehended that the Rabbis are making peace with each other.
But why the Hadas among others? – explains the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Edeles- 16th century Ukraine, who wrote a major commentary on the Talmud), that righteous persons are compared to myrtle leaves (based on the Tractate Megilla 13:A, Zechariah 1:8). The rapprochement of these two saintly sages was therefore signaled to the living via the Haddasim.
A midrash relates that Haddasim are similar in shape to the human eye, and the pleasant smelling myrtle symbolizes that one should use sight to objectively see the good in his fellow man.
I am still puzzled why a myrtle branch is placed in the coffin of a Shofar Blower, but at least there is a basis for this custom.
At the funeral; (as told to me by the Rosh Matahar):
The coffin was removed from the hearse ,laid on the ground and 7 circuits were made around the coffin- at every circuit a single long shofar note was sounded, the prayers below were said in unison( the first prayer after the first circuit and so on) after every circuit , in a mournful Slichot ( penitential psalms usually recited before Rosh Hashanah) tune used for over 400 years at the Synagogue – and at the last circuit all four long and short blasts were sounded ( T- a long blast, S- three short blasts ,T- nine staccato blasts ,T – one long blast ).
The head of the Chevrah Kadisha at the synagogue told me that it was unusual for them to do so, but the synagogue was moved by his untimely passing and wanted to honor him with something special as he was their official (Tokeang) shofar blower, they thought that it was an appropriate honor.
At the Shiva house entrance, a person was standing there with a bunch of roses asking all those who entered to recite the prayer on smelling pleasant flowers in honor of the deceased.
Reciting a brachah (Blessing asking permission and/or thanksgiving before partaking of any food or enjoying God bounty) in the house of the deceased in honor of the deceased is quite common in Sephardic communities and brings merit to the deceased.
There are many reasons for the 7 circuits- email me firstname.lastname@example.org for numerous additional sources or see among others
Ø Gesher HaChaim by Rabbi Yechiel M Tucazinsky 1871-1955 first published in 1983 – an authoritative work on the Laws of Mourning Chapter 15
Ø MaVaar Yabbuk- Order of Circuits -37
At funerals in Squaretown (the village populated by Skeverere Hassidim, about 30 miles north of New York City) they do 7 silent hakafot and throw coins on a plate that rests on the coffin after every circuit, as told to me by members of their Chevrah Kadisha, and as well I have a source for this.
Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning rituals. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses. He has offered blogs on a variety of topics to Expired And Inspired periodically.