Handled with Holiness

Published in The Jewish Press on December 1, 2023

 If a Jew is found who has been killed, he is to be buried exactly how he was found, without shrouds. They do not even remove his shoes.

Such is the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 364). Unfortunately, the rabbinate of the IDF has had to employ this halacha hundreds of times over in the last several weeks.

They are situated in Machane Shura, an army base near Ramle, which acts as the central command for the IDF Rabbinate. While the Rabbinate’s most common activities involve ensuring kosher food for the military, enabling Shabbat observance on army bases, and providing spiritual support for soldiers, since this war began their energies as well as those of many reservists have been focused on the unfathomable number of casualties. On our synagogue’s recent mission to Israel, we visited Shura, where a few of their rabbis, led by Rabbis Binyamin Zimmerman and Bentzi Mann, described the entire process.

When IDF soldiers die while serving, the medic taking care of them is relieved of his duty in the matter and they become the rabbinate’s responsibility. The rabbi ensures k’vod hameit, that the deceased’s body is treated honorably as it is carried from one place to another. Bodies of fallen soldiers are all brought to Shura. Due to the unprecedented number of murdered civilians on October 7, the IDF rabbinate took responsibility for many of them as well. Rabbi Mann described the horrifying scene on that first day, truckloads of bodies brought to Shura. He expressed how he can no longer look at a Yotvata chocolate milk truck the same way again as those trucks were used to transport the bodies. “Instead of plastic Yotvata bags, I see bags of bodies; instead of shoko, I see blood.”

The bodies are brought into the “Ma’anach,” which stands for Mercaz Isuf Netunei Halalim, or the Center for Gathering Data about the Slain. There, the body is identified – friends of the fallen soldiers might identify the body; in the most extreme cases, DNA is collected so that the soldier can be identified properly. This is a task in which there is no room for error, as only once a soldier is identified without any doubt is the family notified.

The Chevra Kadisha then prepares the body for burial. The custom is that when someone is killed al kiddush Hashem – because they are Jewish – a traditional tahara (cleansing) is not performed and the body is not dressed in shrouds. Instead, the Chevra Kadisha bandages wounds and prepares the soldier’s body in the casket exactly how the body was found. Civilians murdered on October 7 were also buried in their clothes. They are simply wrapped in a sheet over their clothes. One of the rabbis at Shura explained that they sanctified themselves through their death and need no further purification. Their blood and the clothing in which they died are left to awaken G-d’s attribute of mercy.

Finally, the family of the fallen soldier is invited to the Chadar Preidah, or “Farewell Room.” In the center of the room is a low, dark wooden table, and benches line the perimeter of the room. All of the lighting focuses the visitor’s attention onto that table. The open casket is placed on it, and the soldier’s family is invited to say their final farewell to their son, daughter, sister, or brother. The family may spend as much time as they wish in this room – “five minutes or five hours” in the words of Rabbi Mann. Some families are advised not to come for this farewell due to the severity of the body’s condition – “better you should remember him the way you last saw him at home,” they tell the family. But the choice of whether to come is the family’s alone. When the family leaves the room, preparations begin for the funeral.

When we left this room, Rabbi Zimmerman took us into the IDF’s room of Sifrei Torah. He explained that every unit wants a Sefer Torah with them as they go out to battle. So much so that the IDF has several reservists working as sofrim to fix invalid scrolls so that there will be enough kosher ones to be taken into the field by the soldiers. Some Torah scrolls were damaged by Hamas on October 7 and are now in this room as well. Their destruction of the Torah scrolls is no accident – the Torah represents the values for which the Jewish people stand. For that reason, soldiers want the Torah in the battlefield. “It serves a very important purpose in the war,” said Rabbi Zimmerman.

We are fortunate to have an army that places those values before them. May our values, our people, the Torah, and goodness prevail over evil in the world, and may our brave fighting men and women be victorious and return safely to their families.


Popular posts from this blog

Simchat Torah?

A Long Way from the Wonder Pot

Should we still recite the Prayer for the State of Israel if we disagree with its government?