Responsa in a Moment, Vol. 16, No. 2
What are the sources and halakhic requirements for the Tohorah ritual?
Yoreh Deah 352:4
By Rabbi David Golinkin
Question: What are the sources for the Tohorah ritual [=the ritual of washing the dead before burial]? What are the halakhic requirements?(1)
Responsum: Two of the Rishonim [=medieval halakhic authorities] emphasized that the Tohorah and the other preparations for burial are customs. Maimonides writes (Hilkhot Eivel 4:1): “The custom of the Jewish people regarding the dead and burial is as follows …”.
Sefer Kol Bo (Provence, ca. 1300; Hilkhot Eivel, Lvov, 1860, fol. 85c = ed. David Avraham, Part 7, Jerusalem, 2002, col. 76) and the parallel passage in Sefer Orhot Hayyim (Part 2, ed. Schlesinger, Berlin, 1899, p. 571 with minor variations) open the section regarding Tohorah with a similar sentence: “And this is the custom which all of the Jewish people are accustomed regarding the dead and burial…”.
I. The Period of the Tannaim (until 200CE)
Indeed, washing and anointing the dead are not mentioned in the Bible (see De Vaux in the Bibliography below). These customs are first mentioned incidentally in two Tannaitic sources. The first source is Mishnah Shabbat 23:5:
One may perform all the needs of the dead [on Shabbat], one may anoint and wash him, provided they do not move a limb (and cf. the partial quotation in Ruth Rabbah 3:2, ed. Vilna, fol. 6b).
In other words, we can derive from this mishnah that one anoints the dead in oil and washes him in water, but there is no explanation as to how this was done. Prof. Buchler explained in his article on the subject that the anointing with oil was intended to cleanse the body of dirt, and the rinsing came to wash away the oil.
The second source is tractate Semahot 1:1-3 (ed. Higger, pp. 97-98):
A dying person is considered alive in every respect… one may not move him, one may not wash him, one may not lay him down, neither on the sand nor on the salt, until the moment he dies…
Here, too, we hear of the washing of the dead without any detail as to how this was done.(2)
Since washing and anointing the dead are not mentioned in the Bible, the question arises as to what is the source of these customs during the period of the Tannaim. It’s reasonable to assume that the Sages were influenced in this case by the Hellenistic world; there too the dead were bathed in water and anointed in oil mixed with spices.(3)
II. The Period of the Amoraim
There is one source from the Amoraic period that explicitly mentions purifying the dead.(4) We are told in Vayikra Rabbah (34:10, ed. Margaliot, p. 794 = Ruth Rabbah 5:9, ed. Vilna 10b) that Rabbi Yohanan (d. 279 CE) and Resh Lakish went down to bathe in the baths of Tiberias and met a poor man who asked for alms. They said: When we return, we will give you alms. When they returned, they found him dead. They said:Since we did not treat him [properly] alive, let us treat him in his death. “As they were washing him,(5) they found a purse with 500 dinars hanging around his neck.” Here, too, we learn that they would wash the dead before burial, but we do not learn how they were washed.
III. The Period of the Geonim (ca. 500-1000 CE)
We do not hear much about the Tohorah ritual during the Geonic period.(6) Nevertheless, an important testimony of Rabbi Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (Sura, 997-1013) has been preserved for us in his commentary on Genesis 50, 2:
And [this verse about Joseph embalming Jacob] included the mention of the takhrikhim [=shrouds], which is something that is inevitable when it is possible. And all this will not be done until after the washing and cleansing. And washing the dead has no specific measure from which one should not detract nor add — but one washes and cleans [the dead], and it is also according to their success in obtaining water, and to what extent the body should be cleaned, according to the different conditions of the body. And if one of the bodies had sticky dirt, coagulated blood — it should be cleaned with boiling water, as it says (II Samuel 20:12): “And Amasa lay in the middle of the road drenched in his blood” and it says (ibid.): “And he covered him with a garment”.(7)
According to its simple meaning, the verse in Genesis is referring to embalming according to ancient Egyptian practice, not to takhrikhim. On the other hand, we learn from this passage that washing the dead in the time of the Geonim had no specific measure, and that it depended on the ability to obtain water. We also learn that they used boiling water solely to clean sticky dirt or coagulated blood.
IV. The Period of the Rishonim
In the period of the Rishonim, Tohorah is mentioned tangentially by Rashi, Tosafot and the Mordechai,(8) and in greater detail in three additional sources:
1. Maimonides, as mentioned above, dealt with our topic in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Eivel 4:1):
They close the eyes of the dead, and if his mouth opened, they tie his cheeks, and they stop up his orifices after washing him, and they anoint him with types of spices, and they cut his hair,(9) and they dress him in takhrikhim …
2. Tohorah is also alluded to in Sefer Hassidim, attributed to Rabbi Judah the Pious (Ashkenaz, d. 1217; ed. Margaliot, paragraph 560 = ed. Wistinetzky, paragraph 1058):
There are tzaddikim who, when they request to die, wash their hands and recite the psalm [Psalm 29:1]… Therefore, they wash their hands, “just as he came, so must he go” (Ecclesiastes 5:15) — when he is born, they wash him, and when he dies, they wash him.
It’s possible that the end of the paragraph is referring back to the handwashing mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph, but it’s also possible that it’s referring to the Tohorah ritual.
3. Another paragraph in Sefer Hassidim mentions the Tohorah ritual in a clearer fashion (ed. Margaliot, paragraph 732 = ed. Wistinetzky, paragraph 330): “A person who washes the dead should be careful not to leave dirt on his [own] body…”. This source hints that the washing must be thorough, but we still don’t know any details about the washing.
However, there are five main sources for the Tohorah ritual in the period of the Rishonim, two from Ashkenaz, two from Provence, and one from Spain:
1. Rabbi Elazar of Worms (d. 1236) deals with our topic in his Sefer Harokeah, end of paragraph 316, where he cites the custom in the name of Sefer Hakavod by his teacher, the above-mentioned Rabbi Judah the Pious:
They bring water and heat it, and they wash his entire body and limbs and face and head. And then they take eggs and wine(10) and beat them together and wash his head.
There follows a detailed description of the takhrikhim and Rabbi Elazar concludes: “Copied from Sefer Hakavod which was written by the great man, Rabbi Judah the Pious zatzal“.
This source is the first to give the order of the Tohorah in detail: hot water, washing the whole body, the face and the head, and washing the head with eggs mixed with wine. This source was later quoted in the nineteenth century by Rabbi Avraham Danzig in Hokhmat Adam 157:8.
2. Sefer Orhot Hayyim and its “brother” Sefer Kol Bo (Provence, ca. 1300) quoted above, deal with our topic in the Laws of Mourning. Here is the version found in Orhot Hayyim:
And the custom of the Jewish people regarding the dead and burial… and they wash him to remove the dirt so that the people will not avoid carrying him. And they smear his head with eggs beaten in their shells. And this is an ancient custom as a sign, since they would transport him outside the city for burial, so that the gravediggers should know that he was Jewish. And the reason for eggs, [to symbolize] that [death] is a wheel which comes full circle. And after the washing, they stop up his orifices and they dress him in sewn linen takhrikhim…
As in Sefer Harokeah, here too we hear about washing the dead with water in order to remove the dirt and about smearing the head with beaten eggs. The author of Orhot Hayyim also adds reasons for smearing the head with eggs, the first a bit forced, and the second more likely. This description was later quoted Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his Darkei Moshe to Tur Yoreh Deah 352 in the name of Sefer Kol Bo, and in brief in the Rema to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 352:4.
3. Elsewhere in Orhat Hayyim (and in Sefer Kol Bo) there is another mention of our topic, as part of a discussion of a custom of the Jews of Narbonne to carry Jews for burial even on the first day of Yom Tov:
And they also wash [the body]… and to heat the water for washing is also permissible… since there is a need related to Yom Tov or to a mitzvah. And there is, for the main custom of washing [the dead] from [days of] old is for the honor of the dead, that the people should not abhor his smell and they would then avoid bringing him [to burial], and therefore they were accustomed to clean him and to purify him of all filth… (Orhot Hayyim, Part 1, Florence, 1750, Hilkhot Yom Tov, end of paragraph 25, fol. 86b-c = Kol Bo, ed. Lvov, 1860, Hilkhot Yom Tov, paragraph 58, fols. 19a-b = ed. David Avraham, Vol. 3, col. 294)
The explanation for the Tohorah and its purpose in this passage are similar to those in the previous passage. The novelty is that although they believed in Provence that purity was a “custom”, they still allowed water to be heated for it on Yom Tov out of respect for the dead.
4. The fourth source from the period of the Rishonim is the Ethical Will of Rabbi Eliezer Halevi. He died in Mainz in 1357 and left an Ethical Will in which he instructed his sons exactly how to perform the Tohorah ritual on him:
I very much asked to be purified slowly and in purity and cleanliness between the fingers and toes as well as between my backside. And they should wash and comb my hair with a comb just as living people do, and they should cut the nails of my hands and feet so that I will come pure and clean to [eternal] rest, as I went to the synagogue every Shabbat, with washed hair and cut nails and combed hair, after going to the bathroom. So should they do for me before my eternal rest. And they should give a poor person a good wage that he should do all of this slowly without haste, if it’s difficult for the [usual] purifiers to do so (Israel Abrahams, ed., Hebrew Ethical Wills, Vol. 2, Philadelphia, 1927, p. 217).
This paragraph was later copied in Responsa Binyamin Ze’ev by Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev of Arta, No. 204 (Venice, 1539), and from there in the above-mentioned Darkei Moshe and Shulhan Arukh.
This source is the first to mention customs that appear regularly later on: hair washing, combing the hair, and cutting the nails. Rabbi Eliezer may be the first to hint at an “internal examination,” a custom subsequently adopted in certain circles, as will be seen below.
5. The fifth source for the Tohorah, which has greatly influenced the ritual until today, is a unique work known as (A) Perek Mishnat Hamet, probably written by the Kabbalist Joseph della Reina who lived in Spain ca. 1418-1472.(11) This work was later reworked in four additional works: (B) Inyan Rehitzat Hamet; (C) Seder Rehitzah Gedolah Shetikein Hillel Hazaken; (D) Sod Rehitzah Gedolah Shetikein Hillel Hazaken; (E) Seder Rehitzat Hamet Al Derekh Hillel Hazaken a”h. (12) Parts of these works were absorbed into popular books such as Rabbi Aharon Berekhia of Modena’s Ma’avar Yabok and Lehem Hapanim on Yoreh De’ah,(13) which subsequently influenced most of the books dealing with the laws of mourning and Tohorah until today.(14) There are many differences between the five versions, but they all contain Many washings of the dead (up to 42 in version D!), accompanied by a minimum of ten special blessings (sic). Moreover, in each washing, hot or lukewarm or cold water is used, alternately, and in some, water is mixed with sodium carbonate or soap or myrtle leaves.
V. The Period of the Aharonim (ca. 1550 ff.)
The Aharonim, as mentioned, were greatly influenced by the five above-mentioned works. Nevertheless, they added their own innovations. They ruled that that after washing the specific parts of the body, one must pour nine kabin [=11-12.5 liters] of cold water on the body and this is “the main Tohorah”.(15) However, this “main Tohorah” is missing from most of the above sources. It appears only in versions C, D, and E of Perek Mishnat Hamet (see Benayahu, pp. 344, 349, 351). In version C, it says at the end of the washing order:
And they sit him up and throw a lot of water at the same time on his entire body and say: “And I will sprinkle pure water upon you” (Ezekiel 36:25)… and it was said: “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you” (Leviticus 16:30)…
In version D, it says at the end of “The Secret of the Washing”:
Then he will take the vessel of the great Tevilah [=baptism], which is the 42nd vessel, with water only, nine kabin and they should throw the water upon him and baptize him and this is his Tevilah. And he should say: “When my Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and from Jerusalem’s midst has rinsed out her infamy, in a spirit of judgement and a spirit of purging” (Isaiah 4: 4).
And in version E, it says at the end of the “Order of the Washing”:
He should throw upon him a large vessel of cold water from head to toe and say: “And I will sprinkle pure water upon you” (Ezekiel 36:25)… “And your guilt will be removed and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).
It seems clear from a comparison of these different versions that originally they threw a lot of water on the body without a fixed measure. The requirement of 9 kabin in version D apparently stemmed from an attempt to imitate the bathing of a Ba’al Keri [= a man who had a nocturnal emission] which was done with a minimum amount of 9 kabin of water.(16) But it’s difficult to understand their reasoning. After all, 9 kabin of water were meant to purify a man from his impurity. But can we purify the dead from their impurity?! Apparently, the term “Tohorah/purity” led to an association with the purity of the Ba’al Keri. In any case, there is no “main Tohorah” here but rather a late custom from the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries.
Similarly, many Aharonim require an “internal examination” of the body in which they attempt to empty the bowels of the deceased. A lengthy description of this procedure can be found, for example, in Rabbi Tukichinsky’s Gesher Hahayyim (p. 97), which is considered the most authoritative source in matters of mourning in Eretz Yisrael.
This strange custom may have been hinted at in the will of R. Eliezer Halevi above, but it is not explicitly mentioned in any of the above sources. Moreover, it’s contrary to the cardinal halakhic principle of Kevod Hamet, Respect for the Dead, and it may transgress the prohibition of Nivul Hamet, of defilement of the dead. Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Danzig had already expressed opposition to a similar custom at the beginning of the nineteenth century:
And it seems to me that they should clean the anus well… and what they said that they should push [his stomach] to expel excrement, it’s not mentioned in any book to do this and it’s a heretical opinion and has no basis, and Kevod Hamet is mentioned in the Torah and the Talmud and all the Poskim [=halakhic authorities] and therefore, they should avoid this…(17)
Therefore, it’s forbidden to follow this late custom and it’s enough to clean the anus as recommended by Rabbi Danzig.
VI. Summary and Practical Halakhah
It is crystal clear from all the above sources that Jewish law requires “washing the dead” and nothing else. There is no Talmudic or Geonic source that explains how to conduct the Tohorah for the dead. In the period of the Rishonim, they began to add additional customs, such as smearing the head with a mixture of eggs and wine or combing the hair and cutting the nails. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Kabbalists invented a well-developed and complicated washing order that includes many washings, blessings, verses and various cleaning materials. Finally, the Aharonim added the requirement of “the main Tohorah” of 9 kabin and the strange custom of internal examination.
I believe, therefore, that a Hevra Kadisha (burial society) should “renew our days as of old” (Eikhah 5:21) and “restore the crown to its former glory” (Yoma 69b) by adopting a simple and dignified Tohorah ritual.(18) The goal should be to “wash all of his body and limbs and face and head” (Sefer Harokeah) so as not to “leave any filth on his flesh” (Sefer Hassidim). The following list is not exhaustive. For more details, see guides to Tohorah such as those by Rabbis Goldin, Lamm, Goodman, Weiss and Kelman:
a. Buckets should be prepared with a sufficient amount of water to wash the entire body.
b. The oldest or most distinguished member of the Hevra Kadisha should ask forgiveness from the deceased by name.
c. If there is blood and dirt on the body, it should be cleaned with towels and water.
d. Then the buckets of water should be poured one after the other on all parts of the body.
e. Finally, the body should be dried with towels or sheets and clothed in the takhrikhim.
f. During the Tohorah, appropriate verses should be recited from among the many verses that exist in the various customs.(19)
May we one day see the fulfillment of the verse “He will destroy death forever. May my Lord God wipe the tears away from all faces” (Isaiah 25: 8).(20)
3 Adar I 5782
Avraham — הרב דוד אברהם, ספר כל בו, חלק שביעי, ירושלים, תשס”ב, טורים ע”ו-ע”ח בהערות
Benayahu — מאיר בניהו, מעמדות ומושבות, ספר הזכרון להרב יצחק נסים, סדר שישי, ירושלים, תשמ”ה
Bergman — משה ברגמן, זיבולא בתרייתא גחש”א, מנהגי ירושלים משעת גסיסה עד אחר הקבורה, ירושלים, תש”א
Blumner – Hugo Blumner, The Home Life of the Ancient Greeks, London, Paris and Melbourne, 1893, p. 245
Buchler — אברהם ביכלר, “פירוש המשנה שבת פרק כ”ג, ה’ — עושין כל צרכי המת סכין ומדיחין אותו”, ספר היובל לפרופיסור שמואל קרויס, ירושלים, תרצ”ז, עמ’ 54-36, עם סיכום בעמ’ 48
Danzig — הרב אברהם דנציג, חכמת אדם, הנהגת חברא קדישא (בסוף הספר) סעיף ז’
De Vaux — Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. 1, New York and Toronto, 1965, p. 56
Eisenstein – J.D. Eisenstein, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, p. 668
Eliav – פרופ’ ירון צבי אליאב, מטוב טבריה 10 (אייר תשנ”ה), עמ’ 25-24
Felder – Rabbi Aaron Felder, Yesodei Smochos, revised edition, New York, 1976, pp. 29-31
Ginzberg — הרב פרופ’ לוי גינצבורג, פירושים וחדושים בירושלמי, חלק ג’, ניו יורק, תש”א, עמ’ 65-64
Goldin — Hyman Goldin, Hamadrikh: The Rabbi’s Guide, revised edition, New York, 1956, pp. 118-122 (Hebrew and English)
Goodman — Rabbi Arnold Goodman, A Plain Pine Box, New York, 1981, pp. 74-77
Greenwald — הרב יקותיאל גרינוואלד, כל בו על אבלות, ירושלים-ניו יורק, תשל”ג, עמ’ 86
Hirshman — פרופ’ מנחם הירשמן, מדרש קהלת רבה א’-ו’, ירושלים, תשע”ז, עמ’ 341
Hoffmann — הרב דוד צבי הופמן, מלמד להועיל, חלק ב’, פרנקפורט ען מיין, תרפ”ז, סימן ק”י
Kelman — Rabbi Stuart Kelman, Chesed Shel Emet: The Truest Act of Kindness, Berkeley, California, 2000; third edition with Dan Fandel, 2013
Lamm — Rabbi Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, New York, 1969, pp. 242-245
Landshuth — אליעזר לאנדסהוטה, סדר בקור חולים מעבר יבק וספר החיים, בערלין, תרכ”ז, עמ’ 33
Lieberman — הרב פרופ’ שאול ליברמן, הערות לויקרא רבה, מהד’ ראובן מרגליות, מהד’ ג’, ניו יורק וירושלים, תשנ”ג, עמ’ תתפ”ב
Ma’avar Yabok — הרב אהרן ברכיה ממודינא, ספר מעבר יבק, ווילנא, תרנ”ו
Perles — J. Perles, MGWJ 10 (1861), p. 353
Rabinowicz – Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowicz, A Guide to Life, Northvale, New Jersey, 1989, p. 29
Seder Rehitzat Hamet — סדר רחיצת המת כפי מנהג ק”ק ספרדים שארית ישראל בנו יארק, נו יארק, 1913
Seyffert — Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1891, pp. 101, 103
Smith — William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Second Edition, London, 1865, pp. 554, 558;
Tukichinsky — הרב יחיאל מיכל טוקצינסקי, גשר החיים, מהד’ ב’, ירושלים, תש”ך, עמ’ צ”ד-ק
Weiss – Rabbi Abner Weiss, Death and Bereavement: A Halakhic Guide, New York and Hoboken, 1991, pp. 55-59, 210-214
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.