I was just about 10 years old when I learned how Judaism treats people after their death.
Typical 10-year-olds don’t spend time thinking about such topics. But I was born in Israel, and as a teen growing up right after the Oslo Accords, news about terror attacks and suicide bombings — including one in my hometown! — was a part of my life.
I remember learning about an organization named Zaka. After each terror attack, they would show up at the scene, spending hours combing through the entire area. Their goal was to ensure that each part of the bodies of the victims received the proper burial.
In my young mind, I realized how emotionally grueling this task might be. It must be something of high importance if it is worth that effort, I thought to myself. This left a deep impression on me.
Years later, I had the honor of volunteering at Chevra Kadisha, the Holy Society, a group that prepares bodies for burial. I witnessed firsthand the deep respect and profound holiness attributed to this task.
I often think about the stark difference between the Western approach to our bodies and the Jewish one, both during life and afterward.
When it is alive, the Western world sees the body as high priority. Just think about the billions of dollars pouring into industries focused on making bodies look ‘beautiful” — whatever the current fashion of beauty is — from cosmetics and beauty products to plastic surgeries, diets, and everything in between.
Now, caring for the body is very important in Judaism. G-d commands us to care for our bodies and take our health seriously. But the focus is on health and wellness, not the body itself.
In the words of Maimonides: “… maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of (serving) G-d — for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill — therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.’
And what about treating the body after death? The Western approach is too practical. The body is dead and there must be a way to dispose of it. It might be cremation, burial, or other methods. Considerations of costs and convenience often determine what happens to the body after its death.
The Jewish way, on the other hand, treats the body as sacred. Every element of the body’s preparation is steeped in tradition and meaning. Before the burial, a process called Tahara — purification — takes place, and the body is dressed in special shrouds. And it is of utmost importance to bury it and not use any other method.
Yes, the body is not alive anymore, but during its lifetime, it was a vessel to a holy soul; it accomplished many good things and deserves to be treated with respect and holiness.
Just two weeks ago, two IDF soldiers — including the son of the former IDF chief of staff — lost their lives as they were on a mission to rescue the bodies of a few hostages held by Hamas. The mssion was undertaken not only to provide the grieving families with graves they could visit; it was also because of the great importance and holiness of the bodies of the victims.
May we know no more terror attacks; may we and our loved ones all enjoy long and healthy lives. And yet, when the time comes, let’s remember to honor the body with the Jewish traditions.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi of Chabad of Hackensack. He welcomes any questions you have on this topic (or any topic!) at rabbi@ChabadHackensack.com or 201-503-3770.