Hevra (Havurah) Kaddisha (Aram. חֶבְרָא קַדִּישָׁא; lit. “holy brotherhood”) is a term originally applied to a mutual benefit society whose services were restricted to its members, irrespective of the social, religious, or charitable purpose for which it was established (cf. Rashi to MK 27b and Tos. Ket. 17a bot.). In the Yekum Purkan prayer the phrase is used in the plural to apply either to the whole Jewish community, or to the rabbis as a whole. In a responsum Asher b. Jeḥiel refers to a ḥevra kaddisha that formed an association for gemilut ḥasadim, encompassing all charitable activities (13:12). Its regulations specified that a son could inherit the rights and privileges of his father in the ḥevra as soon as he reached his religious majority, and if the deceased member left no son the privileges devolved upon the heir, but he must be “the one who is regarded as most suitable in the eyes of the members.” The responsum which follows deals with a member of a ḥevra who married the daughter of another member and they had two sons. Both members died and the two sons both claimed membership, one on the basis of his father’s right and the other on that of his grandfather. Nowhere, however, is the purpose and aim of this ḥevra mentioned. As late as the 19th century the heads of the Lubavitch (Ḥabad) ḥasidic dynasty referred to their various groups of followers as ḥevra kaddisha. In the course of time, in the same way as the comprehensive phrase gemilut ḥasadim became restricted to one aspect of all the acts of kindness and consideration to which it originally applied, so the term ḥevra kaddisha, at least among the Ashkenazi Jews, came to apply to a brotherhood formed for one purpose only, namely, the reverential disposal of the dead in accordance with Jewish law and tradition.
The origin of this restricted use of the term can be found in a passage of the Talmud. The duty of arranging for the disposal of the dead devolved upon the entire community and when a person died the whole population had to abstain from work in order to pay their respects (cf. Jos. Apion 2.27: “All who pass by when one is buried must accompany the funeral”). On one occasion, R. Hamnuna (d. 320) came to a certain place and heard the sound of a funerary bugle. When he saw that the members of the community continued with their avocations he said, “Let them be placed under a ban.” They informed him, however, that there was a ḥavurah which occupied itself with this duty, and he permitted the others to continue their work (MK 27b). Another interesting but less certain reference is found in the minor tractate Semaḥot (chap. 12): “Thus used the ḥavurot to conduct themselves in Jerusalem. Some used to go to the house of mourning, and others to banqueting houses; some to the shevu’a ha-ben and others to gather up human bones… the early Ḥasidim gave preference to the house of mourning over the banqueting houses.”
Ḥevra kaddisha in the more restricted sense arose simultaneously in Spain and in Germany at the beginning of the 14th century, and soon was to be found in all communities. It would appear that originally the privileges were confined to the actual members of the ḥevra. The comment of Rashi to the above-mentioned passage from Mo’ed Katan – “there were associations, each one of which made itself responsible for the burial of its own members” (cf. Tos. Ket. 17a bottom) – no doubt reflects local and contemporary conditions.
The origin of the ḥevra kaddisha in the sense of a brotherhood which took upon itself the sacred duty of providing for the burial of all members of the community is not known before the 16th century. The first known was established by Eleazar Ashkenazi in Prague in 1564, and the drawing up of the formal takkanot, the regulations of the ḥevra, was effected by Judah Loew b. Bezalel, also of Prague, in the 17th century. These takkanot, which were confirmed by the Austrian government, laid it down inter alia that its services were available to all members of the community even if they were not members of the ḥevra and made no contribution toward it. They regulated such matters as the fees to be paid, the allocation of the graves, and the rules for the erection of tombstones.
Their most important duty, however, was the preparation of the corpse in accordance with the traditions and laws for the reverential disposal of the dead. Those engaged in this sacred task are called mitassekim (“those who occupy themselves”), a term already found in the Talmud (MK 24b) as well as gomelei ḥasadim (Ket. 8b), since the duty to the dead is regarded as the “only true gemilut ḥasadim.” Among the northern Sephardi Jews they are called lavadores (“washers”). Some of the societies included among their functions tending the sick, providing garments for the poor, and arranging the rites in the house of mourning.
Membership in the ḥevra kaddisha was regarded as a coveted honor, and, until recent times, was an honorary one. This is reflected in two extant documents relating to Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the Ḥabad ḥasidic dynasty. The first, written when he was a child of five, records: “today, the 16th of Kislev 5510  the child Shneur Zalman the son of Baruch was accepted as an assistant [shammash] in the ḥevra kaddisha until he reached his religious majority,” and in consideration thereof his grandfather undertook to provide a supply of planks for the synagogue and an annual contribution of 18 gulden, with the promise that he would be accepted as a full member on attaining his majority. The second document records his appointment as a full member on that date (Steinman p. 31). Sir Moses Montefiore in his diary expresses his pride in the fact that he had been elected a member of the Society of Lavadores of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London and he fulfilled his duties with meticulous care.
The institution of the ḥevra kaddisha is unique to the Jewish community. It derives from the fact that according to Jewish law no material benefit may accrue from the dead. As a result no private or commercial firm is permitted to engage in the disposal of the dead for private gain. The duty must thus become a function of the community as a whole.
The fraternal aspect of the ḥevra was observed in various ways, the most common being the annual celebration of the ḥevra on a fixed day. The date differs in many communities. The most common is the seventh day of Adar, the traditional anniversary of the death of Moses. Many communities observed other dates, such as the 15th or 20th of Kislev, whereas in Pressburg (Bratislava) it was held on Lag ba-Omer. The day begins as a fast, in expiation of any inadvertent disrespect shown to the dead, and a special order of seliḥot is recited. It concludes with a sumptuous banquet, regarded as one of the important occasions of the community at which sermons were delivered. Z. Shneour in his Shklover Mayses gives a vivid account of this annual celebration. In Pressburg, the haftarah for the Intermediate Sabbath of Passover, the subject of which is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dead bones (Ezek. 37), was reserved for members of the ḥevra.
I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 357–9; Barnett, in: JHSET, 10 (1921–23), 258–60; J. Reich, Die Geschichte der Chewra Kadischa zu Boskovice (c. 1931); Baron, Community, 1 (1942), 352–4; 2 (1942), 148, 155ff.; 3 (1942), 89–91; A.M. Hyamson, The Sephardim of England (1951), 39, 59, 82f.; E. Steinman, Mishnat Ḥabad, 1 (Be'er ha-Ḥasidut, 4; c. 1957), 31. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.R. Marcus Communal Sick-Care in the German Ghetto (19782); S.A. Goldberg Crossing the Jabbok, Illness and Death in Ashkenazi Judaism in Sixteenth-through Nineteenth Century Prague (19962).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.