We write a lot about Jewish cemeteries on JHE — but mainly about the physical aspects: matzevot; memorials; epitaphs; Ceremonial Halls/Tahara houses. We tend to focus on art, architecture, and history — though also, at times, about some of the people interred.
Aside from Holocaust victims, soldiers who fell in battle, and other exceptions, the vast majority of the millions interred in the Jewish cemeteries over the centuries underwent (and undergo) funerals carried out under the ritual care of the Chevra Kadisha, or burial society.
But what is the process of burying a person in Jewish tradition? What happens in the Tahara house — or happened in those that survive, often abandoned, today? What are the rituals connected with Jewish death and mourning?
There are, of course, books and web sites that discuss this.
With this post, we want to draw attention to a new publication on the subject by Sally Berkovic, the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
Sally is a member of a Chevra Kadisha, and her 36-page essay “takes readers inside” a sometimes mysterious world — but also reflects, in a personal way, about the meanings of the rituals and their place in the entirety of Jewish life.
Click the link to read it online or download it — for free — as a PDF . Jewish cemeteries are often known as a House of Life, and the insights provide a living context to the stones.
Today, many Ceremonial Halls/Tahara Houses in abandoned Jewish cemeteries around Europe in places where there is no Jewish community stand empty, or in ruins.
But a number have been restored and can be visited, and several now host museums or permanent exhibitions, or are used as cultural spaces.
In Gliwice, Poland, for example, where the huge, red-brick, neo-Gothic building opened in 2016 as the Upper Silesian Jews House of Remembrance.
Or in Rijeka, Croatia, were the recently restored Tahara House will be used as a cultural space.
The Ceremonial Hall at the historic Jewish cemetery in Bzenec, in southeast Moravia near the border with Slovakia, will be used as a center for exhibitions and cultural events.
The bestknown (and most-visited) Ceremonial Hall is probably that in Prague, where the Ceremonial Hall next to the historic Old Jewish Cemetery is part of the Prague Jewish Museum and hosts an exhibit on death and burial traditions.
It highlights the history of the Prague Burial Society, founded by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi in 1564.
On display is a unique 15-part series of paintings from the 1770s that details the customs and ceremonies associated with death and burial. The exhibit also displays the silver ritual objects that were used in connection with this. Watch a video about it: