An Unusual Taharah and Burial by Isaac Pollak

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 ).

Hebrew Text for Hakafot
Hebrew Text for Hakafot

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 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, portrait, relaxed, informal
Isaac Pollak

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.


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Upcoming Gamliel Institute Courses

The next course scheduled for the Gamliel Institute is Course 3 – Chevrah Kadisha Education, Organization, and Leadership (EOL). It focuses on leadership, communal education, and organizational skills for creating and maintaining a Chevrah Kadisha. It will run September 3rd through December 17th 2019. Registration is $500. with a volume and clergy discount available.


Gamliel Continuing Education provides advanced programs in three 90 minute to 2 hour sessions on consecutive Wednesdays in the Spring and Fall each year. The next series will be September 4th, 11, and 18th, 2019, taught by Rabbi En Leader. The topic will be Taharah Liturgy. Tuition is $72.00.


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About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.


Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.


We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.


Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide ( Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website ( offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (


The Gamliel Institute ( is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.


The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.


We have invited those who are involved in this sacred work to submit items for this blog. Among those who have joined us are some the officers, staff, and members of Kavod v’Nichum, Administrators, Instructors, and students in the Gamliel Institute, and others who wish to participate. We welcome original submissions by the author, but reserve the right to accept or reject, publish as is, edit, or modify the submission. The author retains the copyright to the work in regard to any other publishing of that material so long as they include a notice that the work originally appeared in the Kavod vNichum blog Expired and Inspired, but Kavod v’Nichum has full rights to reproduce and use with attribution any item that it publishes as part of this blog, for the purposes of instruction, inclusion and display on our website, or as part of training materials, newsletters, or other publications we produce and distribute.