Death is the great equalizer, and once people have passed away it is irrelevant how wealthy, popular or influential they were or were not. Jewish burial customs are particularly sensitive to this issue, as testified to by the burial custom of the modest shroud.

A Jewish burial shroud is known as tachrichim, a plural word since the shroud is actually made of several garments. Tachrichim means to bind or wrap, since the body of the deceased is wrapped in these shrouds. The universal use of tachrichim stems from the era of the sages.

In ancient times, the expense involved in burying the dead was often harder (financially) on the relatives than the death itself, so they would abandon the body and run away–“until Rabban Gamliel came and adopted a [simple style] burial. Per his instructions, when he died he was carried out in simple garments of linen, and [then] all the people followed his example and carried [the dead] in garments of linen. Said Rabbi Papa: And now it is the general practice [to carry out the dead] even in coarse cloth worth [only one] zuz” (Ketubot 8b). Since that time, it has been the accepted custom throughout the world for Jews to be buried in a simple, white linen or muslin shroud. There are no buttons, zippers or fasteners and no pockets, since nothing goes with the deceased into the next world. The shroud consists of a shirt (kutonet), pants (mich’na’sa’yim), belt (avnet) and head covering (mitz’nephet). For some, a long jacket (kittel, such as the one worn at the Passover seder or on Yom Kippur) and/or prayer shawl (tallit) are included as well. These garments reflect the dress clothing of the High Priest, and are symbolic of the honor that is paid to the deceased.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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