||A beautiful book of liturgies and customs for a Hevra Kaddisha, probably in an established German city. Written by a fine hand, the work offers all prayers and rules for the Teharah (cleansing) of the deceased. Hevra-Kaddisha (lit. holy brotherhood), a term originally applied to a mutual benefit society, but now, at least among the Ashkenazi Jews, referring 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 havurah 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 Semahot (chap. 12): "Thus used the havurot 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 (see Circumcision, Folklore), and others to gather up human bones.... the early Hasidim gave preference to the house of mourning over the banqueting houses." Hevra 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 hevra. 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 hevra 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 hevra, 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 hevra 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 hasadim (Ket. 8b), since the duty to the dead is regarded as the "only true gemilut hasadim." 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 hevra kaddisha was regarded as a coveted honor, and, until recent times, was an honorary one. This is reflected in two extant documents relating to R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the Habad hasidic 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 hevra 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 hevra 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.