Preparing for the inevitable
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Preparing for the inevitable

Local chevrei kadisha bring in national expert in Jewish approach to death

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn
Rabbi Elchonon Zohn

We’re all gonna die.

That’s a sentiment that has been expressed in song by musicians as varied as the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist known as Slash, and the folk rocker Taylor Goldsmith from the band Dawes. Or, as Shel Silverstein put it, “Eliminate everything fatty or fried / And you get real healthy, but you’re still gonna die.”

Rabbi Elchonon Zohn strongly agrees with that settlement.

And he wants you to be prepared.

Rabbi Zohn is the president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha and director of the Queens Chevra Kadisha. A chevra kadisha — Aramaic for sacred society — is the group responsible for preparing dead bodies for burial in the traditional Jewish fashion. On Sunday, the four chevrei kadisha serving Teaneck’s Orthodox synagogues are hosting Rabbi Zohn as a keynote speaker for a study day devoted to end-of-life issues, as well as refresher lessons for the chevra kadisha volunteers.

As Rabbi Zohn sees it, you should start thinking about your inevitable death as you turn 18. “Every person over the age of 18 should have a living will and therefore a halachic living will,” he said. “There are issues dealing with end-of-life medical preparedness.

“These are things that people very often don’t think about. We’re encouraging them to do so. We encourage living wills, which designate not only a person to make medical decisions, but a rabbi that person will reach out to when questions arise as to the appropriate medical decisions to make from a halachic perspective. We offer a card that people carry like a credit card that lists the proxy and the rabbi to call and all kinds of statements that are important to know in a medical emergency,” he said.

Other end-of-life issues come along later, but “certainly, once they’re married and raising a family, planning for your burial and beyond is an appropriate thing to do.”

These include making a will, which Rabbi Zohn said “has to be written within halachic guidelines.

“From a Torah perspective, the male children inherit and the eldest child receives a double portion. If someone wishes to distribute their estate differently there are ways to do it, but it needs to be done in accordance with Jewish law. Without a will, it sometimes ends up in court or a beit din and can sometimes tear families apart.”

In addition to making sure that you have a grave prepared for yourself, Rabbi Zohn would like to encourage people to spread the word among their family, friends, and acquaintances about traditional Jewish burial practices and “encourage them to make those decisions appropriately.”

A growing issue is the rise of popularity of cremation, which Rabbi Zohn strongly condemns.

“Besides the fact that burial is very much a biblical requirement, it’s a matter of respect,” he said. “The things we respect, the things we treasure, that are valuable, we bury. Things that are not valuable, we burn. We burn the trash.

“We believe in an afterlife. We bury people because we believe the body will be resurrected, hopefully. Many Jews believe those are Catholic concepts, but they’re not.

“Burial in a family plot is part of continuity. Judaism is built on traditions that are handed down from parents to children. The fact we are part of a chain going back to Abraham is a very important part of our faith, our value system. Burial is part of that. The custom is to be buried where your parents are. We look at the monuments of our forebears and the fact that they were good people encourages us to be the same. Our belief is that a cemetery is a place where the souls of those who departed continue to have a presence. There’s a sense of comfort we offer our forebears when we visit the grave where they lie.

“Cremation is a denial of the concept of resurrection. Compare the closure of a family being at the cemetery, saying goodbye to the loved one, being able to come back and visit the grave, to a memorial service with ashes. There’s nothing of any significance of that person in the ashes. Ashes are the remnants of the total eradication of what existed.”

Cremation also clashes with Jewish historical memory.

“Jews have always been burned as a way of destroying them,” Rabbi Zohn said. “Going back to Abraham, who was thrown into a furnace.” According to midrash, Abraham was thrown into one because he denied the local religion; he survived unscathed because God was with him.

“This is something that was completely taboo, but because it’s grown popular culturally, it’s unfortunately being adopted by Jews,” Rabbi Zohn said.


Who: Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, president, National Association of Chevra Kadisha

What: Preparing for the Inevitable

When: Sunday, February 11, 9 a.m.

Where: Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, 641 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

Admission: Free, but  advance registration is appreciated.

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