Magi, Myrrh, Messiah….. and …Tahara?

Tucked between the familiar refrain of the popular Christmas carol “We Three Kings” lies a lesser known verse alluding to the future death of the newborn baby Jesus.

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star…
Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb…
  O star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light…
Fast forward with me if you will from the scene of the Magi to the scene at the cross from the Gospel of John:

…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-40)

Myrrh and aloes, mentioned together in John’s account of Jesus’ burial (above), are plant materials known for their aromas and medicinal benefits. Myrrh, which is a resin, in particular has fixative and antiseptic properties, and thus, is useful when applied to a decaying body. The amount recorded, 75 lbs, is excessive for traditional use, and may point to the great love Joseph and Nicodemus felt for Jesus, like that of Mary as she poured a bottle of expensive perfume on the Messiah’s feet before his arrest. More likely, however, is that since Jesus died the day before the Sabbath (the Jewish holy day when no work is to be done), there was no time to ritually wash and dress his body for burial. The tomb was nearby, so his body was placed there with plenty of myrrh, aloes and spices to last until the first day of the week when the women came to wash and anoint him. Much to their surprise, however, the tomb was empty for he had risen.

Myrrh Resin

While I don’t know of any modern preparations involving myrrh or spices, even today Orthodox Judaism prescribes that a body be buried as quickly as possible. Modern vascular embalming techniques and cremation are typically forbidden in Jewish culture, and in many cases the deceased is buried within 24 hours of death. This guideline is set not only for practical and sanitary considerations, but also as a measure of respect for the deceased. Unnecessary incisions into the body are not permitted, and if autopsy or embalming is required for some reason, all blood or fluids removed from the body at any point must be kept with the body for burial (this also includes bandages, clothing, bedding and other items that may have come in contact with blood or fluids).

In Orthodox Jewish communities today, the sacred act of washing and preparing a body for burial is done by a special group of volunteers known as the Chevra Kadisha. There is a ritual washing, known as the Tahara, in which the body is cleansed from head to toe, right to left, front to back and dressed in white burial clothes. Men and women prepare bodies of members of their own sex. Noise is kept to a minimum and speech is permitted only for reciting prayers or psalms or for simple instructions or short stories. Many Jews believe that the spirit of a body does not fully leave it until a few hours after death, so during the Tahara, members of the Chevra Kadisha are careful to never cross over the top of the body as to not disturb the soul. Tahara is not performed on the Sabbath, neither is burial, and refrigeration of the body is permitted in these cases. The Chevra Kadisha also traditionally provides one member, or Shomer, to stand as guard for the body until burial. Those who participate in such rituals refer to Tahara as a spiritual practice, orienting them with the deeper elements of the Jewish faith, and they regard the duty as a privilege.

As mentioned in a previous post, simplicity and dignity are hallmarks of the Jewish faith. It remains tradition that bodies are dressed in modest white garments and buried in plain wooden boxes without nails, each to draw attention away from displays of wealth and to emphasize equality. Small amounts of dirt from the Holy Land are sprinkled over different parts of the body and caskets remain closed once the body is placed inside. As much as it is possible in modern cemeteries, caskets are buried in a way which allows maximum amount of contact with earth; sometimes meaning that a vault is put upside down over a casket.

Whatever your personal response to this religious group, it is difficult to ignore the high level of responsibility the Jewish community takes on for the care and burial of the dead and for the care of the mourning family. You’ll be hard pressed to find such dedication anywhere else, but it is surprisingly difficult to find consistent or thorough resources which evaluate and shed light on the fullness of significance involved in such sacred tasks. The lack of modern literary and oral guides about death and dying within Jewish culture, especially when compared with present-day knowledge of the rich traditions of Biblical times, is almost absurd. Presumably, this void is linked to the darkness and bewilderment of the shadow created by the Holocaust, a time when death was so heart-breakingly prevalent for Jews. Also, many of these sacred rituals are performed only within the context of Orthodox Judaism, not in all Jewish circles, so the reach is limited. Wherever explanation seems to be lacking for individual customs, however, it seems the community makes up for it in a deep respect for life and for death. As the mystery and uncertainty surrounding some of the lesser understood rituals continues to be disentangled, the foundations of the faith are increasingly strengthened and views of the afterlife are increasingly challenged. It is encouraging that awareness and curiosity about death customs continues to surface within the Jewish community; through it all, a clear focus is kept on maintaining honor in all circumstances and the deep veins of tradition continue to bring structure and purpose to the difficult process of grief.

For more information about Tahara, Chevra Kadisha, and other Jewish terms, visit the following web resources:

I highly recommend watching this PBS Special on Tahara:

Stay tuned for more discussion about Jewish funeral services and grieving practices next month!

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