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Chevra Kadisha

The term “Chevra Kadisha”, Holy Brotherhood, came to apply to a society formed for the reverential disposal of the dead in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Originally, the privileges were only for the actual members. Even until the 14th Century, there are comments from Rashi indicating that there were many such societies responsible for only its own members. The first Chevra Kadisha to provide for the burial of all members of the community was established by Eleazar Ashkenazi in Prague in 1564 and confirmed by the Austrian government. They regulated the matter of fees to be paid, the allocation of graves and rules for the erection of tombstones. Their most important duty was the preparation of the corpse. Some of the societies also provided for tending the sick, providing clothes for the poor and arranging the rites in the house of mourning.

Membership in the Chevra Kadisha was regarded as a coveted honour. Two documents in Jewish history reflect this. The first refers to the founder of the Chabad Chassidic dynasty, Shneur Zalman of Lyady, when he was five years old. Today, the 16th of Kislev 5510 (1750), the child Shneur Zalman, the son of Baruch, was accepted as an assistant (shammash) until he reaches his religious majority’. His grandfather, in consideration of the honour, provided planks for the Synagogue and an annual contribution. The second document later records the boy’s election as a full member.

Sir Moses Montefiore, in his diary, expresses pride in being elected as a member of the Sephardic Chevra in London, UK and it is reported that he fulfilled his duties with meticulous care. The institution of Chevra Kadisha is unique to the Jewish Community and derives from the Jewish tradition and law that no material benefit may accrue from the dead. The fraternal aspect of the Chevra was observed in various ways and most commonly being an annual celebration day, traditionally the 7th of Adar, being the anniversary of the death of Moses. The day began as a fast, in expiation of any inadvertent disrespect show to the dead. It concludes with a sumptuous banquet, regarded as on of the important occasions of the community at which sermons were delivered.