Does a funeral arranger (who is in constant contact with the deceased, caskets, etc) remain in a state of permanent uncleanness? Are there certain practices or principles that ought to be observed from a Jewish perspective as regards shaking other people's hands, handling food etc, or is regular washing of the hands acceptable?
Judaism views burying the dead as a supreme mitzvah. While in some societies gravediggers and undertakers are viewed with distaste, membership in the local chevra kadisha, or burial society (lit. “holy fellowship”), is a position of great distinction in any Jewish community. There are no social disabilities attached to any such function, and it is a privilege and honor to know people who are willing to engage in chesed shel emet, acts of true loving kindness.
It is true that Jewish law assigns a high degree of tum’ah, which can be imperfectly translated as “ritual impurity”, to those who come in contact with corpses. When the Temple was extant, this meant that chevra kadisha members were often unable to enter the Temple or eat certain kinds of food-taxes given to kohanim (members of the hereditary Jewish priesthood). However, this simply added to their stature, as everyone respected their willingness to surrender their own opportunities for spiritual gratification for the sake of chesed shel emet.
The major consequence of this law nowadays is that kohanim may not be members of a chevra kadisha, although they are required to incur tum’ah at the burial of their close relatives. It should be noted that the type of tum’ah incurred by contact with (or other types of association, such as being under the same roof as) corpses can only be removed by a ritual involving the ashes of a “red heifer”, which have not been available for more than a thousand years. Jewish law therefore generally presumes that all Jews nowadays have acquired this tum’ah whether or not they are professionally involved with burial.
The chevra kadisha is generally a volunteer society, however. As with any mitzvah that becomes professionalized, such as firefighting or teaching Torah, there is a risk that it will be done with indifference or corrupted by greed. One should be overjoyed to shake the hands of funeral arrangers who genuinely consider the honor of the dead, and the honor and needs of the living; one should refrain from shaking the hands of funeral arrangers who take advantage of emotional distress to create needless expenses and the like, but not because of tum’ah.
I concur with the responses of both my Orthodox and my Reform colleagues on this matter. It is a zechut, a privilege, to work with dedicated people who take care of the needs of the deceased with care and with respect. Although there is a custom to wash hands upon leaving a cemetery, there is no prohibition of shaking hands with anyone who is present at the cemetery even prior to the ritual hand washing. The customary ritual washing of hands upon leaving the cemetery reinforces the fact that Judaism and Torah regard life as a holy gift from God - a gift which is to be cherished and appreciated, even in the face of death. When confronted with death, our task is to take care of the deceased with respect and to be of comfort and support to one another and particularly to the mourners.
Since the category of ritual impurity has minimal currency in liberal Judaism, I must admit to "sneaking a look" at the response of my Orthodox colleague. I could not agree more with his comments. Yet, with or without cause, such rarely stops a rabbi from adding a word or two.
Specifically, my experience confirms that those who tend to the needs of our dead (and do so with devotion and sincerity) are engaged in sacred work that deserves our admiration, not opprobrium. As a congregational rabbi, I have had the responsibility and, yes, the privilege to work with such persons. Those encounters only add to this conviction. Rather than shunning these individuals, we should do all possible to assure that they are acknowledged as genuine mitzvah heroes.
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