Hevra Kadisha Guide

The Or Zarua Hevra Kadisha (Holy Society) was established in 1993. Its purpose is to assist members of the Congregation at the difficult time of death.

This guide reflects the Jewish traditions concerning respect and dignity for the deceased and the consolation of the mourners. All laws and procedures apply equally to men and women. The members of our Hevra Kadisha perform their duties, described below, without any personal or private gain.

The first thing to do in the event of a death is to call Rabbi Bolton. He is available to guide you in making your arrangements, to advise you on all aspects of Jewish law and philosophy pertaining to death and mourning, and to address the ethical dilemmas that you may encounter.

Services which the Hevra Kadisha offers to the members of Congregation Or Zarua:

  • Shomrim (Watchers) – Volunteers to watch the body of the deceased in the funeral chapel.
  • Tahara (Purification) – Tahara (purification of the body) and dressing the deceased in takhrikhim (shrouds) by members trained to perform these duties, showing proper respect for the dead.
  • Seudat Havra’ah – A condolence meal is delivered to the mourner’s home.
  • Shiva – The Hevra Kadisha ensures that there is a minyan in the house of mourning for daily services, and provides siddurim, kipot, tallitot and mourners low chairs as needed.

More detailed definitions of the Hebrew terms in the above table, and other terms related to mourning, follow. Please note that all gender references are meant for men and women alike.

SHOMRIM (Watchers)

From the time the deceased is brought to the funeral home until the beginning of the funeral, the deceased is not to be left alone. A shomer sits beside the coffin and recites from the Book of Psalms. Either men or women may be shomrim regardless of the gender of the deceased. The Hevra Kadisha provides shomrim throughout this time.

TAHARA (Purification)

Before the funeral, the deceased is washed, cleansed and ritually purified, so that, in a symbolic way, he or she leaves the world in the same condition as he entered it.

Only individuals of the same gender perform the tahara for the deceased. The members of the Hevra Kadisha who perform this mitzvah are trained in the proper procedures to be followed and perform their duties with utmost concern and respect for preserving the dignity and honor of the deceased.


The deceased is dressed in linen garments, the same basic garments worn by the High Priest in Temple times on Yom Kippur. He is not altered with cosmetics or dressed in a suit, dress, or any other conventional clothing. Jewish tradition impresses upon us that whether rich or poor, we are all equal before God. Our merit will not be based upon our material possessions, but only upon our deeds. Each of us should symbolically meet our Maker dressed as if we were the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

ARON (Coffin)

For many people the purchase of a coffin for a loved one can be a very difficult decision. In addition, the choice is being made at an emotionally difficult time for the survivors.

Jewish tradition prefers burial to take place in a plain pine box with minimal ornamentation. That way, all is returned to nature and, as the soul returns to God, the coffin, body, and shrouds are reunited with the earth, out of whose substance all life is continually made. You should feel comfortable expressing your preference for this type of coffin when you make funeral arrangements. Congregation Or Zarua provides an embroidered cloth cover to be placed over the coffin during the services.


Mourners consist of the following people:

  1. Children of the deceased
  2. Spouse of deceased
  3. Brother or half‑brother of the deceased
  4. Sister or half-sister of the deceased
  5. Parents of the deceased

KRI’AH (Rending of Garment)<

Immediately prior to the funeral, as an expression of grief, a cut or tear is made in the clothing of the mourner. Mourners are not expected to wear special or new attire. Old clothes are perfectly acceptable. In fact one can change into old, plain garments for this act. The tradition of rending one’s garments is a heritage that has its origins in Biblical times.

K’VURAH (Burial)

Since the deceased is no longer part of the living world, and no longer has control over his appearance or how he wants to present himself to the public, it is considered a matter of disrespect to keep the coffin open for “viewing” by mourners and friends. The coffin should remain closed after the deceased has been placed in it.

When God informed Adam that he was going to die, He said to him, “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), and later we read (Ecclesiastes 12:7), “The dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it.” Jewish law is explicit: a member of the Jewish community must be buried promptly after his death, and burial means exactly that the body must be placed in the ground. It is also traditional to add a small amount of earth from Israel.

Embalming, cremation, concrete vaults, and above‑ground burial in a mausoleum are contrary to Jewish law and equivalent to leaving the body unburied. From a Jewish standpoint, leaving a body unburied is a matter of great discourtesy and irreverence. While these prohibitions have always reflected the Judaic emphasis on returning the body gently and carefully to nature, it is especially important after the Holocaust to discourage cremation.

The grave is filled with earth before Kaddish is recited. Sharing the task of filling the grave is considered a privilege and duty. It is a way of saying a “last good bye” to the deceased, and the participants are joining in their last act of care and loving kindness for the departed.

SE’UDAT HAVRA’AH (Meal of Condolence)

This is the first meal the mourners eat upon their return from the cemetery. It includes hard‑boiled eggs, their roundness symbolizing the continuous nature of life.

SHIVAH (The First Week of Mourning)

Seven days, starting immediately after the burial and ending on the morning of the seventh day, are set aside as a period of intense mourning when the mourners stay at home, abstaining from their normal activities and accepting visitors who come to offer consolation. Traditionally, the mourners sit on special low chairs. In addition, mourners are enjoined to refrain from personal grooming, wearing new clothes or conjugal relations. It is customary for mourners to wear slippers rather than normal footwear.

In memory of the deceased a special candle, provided by the funeral chapel, remains lit for the period of the shiva.

Who should visit the house of mourning? (Nichum Aveilim)

One cannot overestimate the importance of these visits, even when the mourner is not known personally by the visitor. The individuals sitting shivah are members of our Congregation and need our encouragement and support during their time of heartache and pain. When you conclude your visit, Jewish tradition offers a phrase to be spoken to each mourner: “May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The original Hebrew is:

Ha-Makom y’nakhem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar avelei Tziyon Virushalayim. The phrase reaffirms the connection of each Jew to Klal Yisrael, all the people of Israel, as it extends a hand of comfort to the mourner.


Daily services with a minyan are held during the Shivah period in the house of the mourner so that the mourner may recite Kaddish, demonstrating respect and honor for the deceased. Mourners should not act as hosts during Shiva. This is the time for the community to comfort them. For members of the Congregation it is a privilege and obligation to be part of the minyan in the house of mourning. Our community is strengthened by each of us participating in these minyanim to the fullest extent possible so that the mourner is assured of the opportunity to recite kaddish during shivah.

Recitation of Kaddish continues after Shivah concludes. For a parent, kaddish is recited for 11 months; for other relatives, for one month.

TZEDAKAH (Charity)

Tzedakah is one of the traditional ways a Jew can give a meaningful, enduring tribute to the memory of the deceased. Making a contribution in the deceased name to the synagogue or to an organization, school, hospital, or other charity, especially one in which the deceased had an interest, is a sign of respect and praise and is an effective, positive way to keep his or her memory alive.

Additional Reading

  1. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm. Jonathan David Publisher, Middle Village, NY, 2000 (Revised edition)
  2.  Jewish Insight on Death and Mourning, Jack Riemer, Editor. Schocken, 1995
  3.  Death and Bereavement, Rabbi Abner Weiss. Ktav, Hoboken, NJ, 1991
  4. To Begin Again, Rabbi Naomi Levy. Ballantine Books, 1998
  5. Living When a Loved One Has Died, Rabbi Earl Grollman. Houghton Miffin, 1997

Funeral Arrangements

Plaza Jewish Community Chapel
630 Amsterdam Avenue (at 91st Street), NYC
Tel: 212-769-4400; 800-227-3974


Riverside Memorial Chapel
180 West 76th Street (at Amsterdam Avenue), NYC
Tel: 212-362-6600; 800-448-1939; 800-262-6609

You will need to initially contact the funeral chapel by phone to make arrangements for bringing the deceased to the chapel. It is important to find out the possible funeral times and to clear a time with the Rabbi. Please refer to the above section “ARON ” as a guide for the purchase of the coffin.

When you go to the funeral home to make arrangements, you will need the following information:

  1. Name of deceased and Hebrew name
  2. Social Security number
  3. Next of kin (only one person)
  4. Date and place of birth of the deceased
  5. Parents’ names including maiden name of mother
  6. Occupation of deceased before retirement
  7. Relevant information, if the deceased was a veteran
  8. Name of cemetery. The chapel will ask you for a deed

Complete payment for the funeral is expected upon completion of the funeral arrangements. You can pay by personal check. A portion can usually be paid by credit card, after discussion with the chapel.

You will be asked, by the chapel, how many death certificates they should order for you. Keep in mind that quite a few will be needed as they must be presented for every legal transaction, i.e. probate of will, bank accounts, stock and bond accounts, insurance, etc.

There are many individual issues and special concerns that have not been touched upon in this guide. We urge you to discuss these matters with the Rabbi.

The Hevra Kadisha is a cornerstone of Jewish life and community.  We welcome you to join the Hevra Kadisha and to participate in any (or all) of the four services provided, as described in this guide.

May we all be blessed with happiness in our homes, to do honor to our friends and community, and to share good health for many years to come.