The Israel Museum in Jerusalem is running a special exhibition titled, “Dressed for Eternity: Jewish Shrouds through the Ages”. The exhibit features tachrichim: the special shrouds that are traditionally used by Jews to bury their dead and which, according to the Talmud, will be their clothes when they are resurrected.
“This exhibition of shrouds is the direct continuation of previous displays showcasing items of clothing and fashion in Jewish culture.,” the museum explains on its website. “As is the case with the clothes of the living, the story of the changing form of shrouds exemplifies the transition from traditional costume unique to each community, toward unification.”
“This landmark exhibition provides a rare glimpse into the ancient ritual of dressing for death in Judaism. Since rabbinic times, it has been the accepted practice in Judaism to bury the deceased in garments specifically meant for that purpose, i.e., shrouds. This final garment, which accompanies the deceased to their graves, may be viewed as a single-use item. However, the intense engagement with this item of clothing in Jewish sources, beginning with rabbinic literature, reflects the traditional view according to which the last garment is also a ceremonial ‘dress for eternity,’ or at least until the Resurrection of the Dead. Moreover, articles originally used for a wedding or in childbirth were eventually included in an individual’s shrouds.”
The exhibit includes more than 10,000 garments, some available for public viewing for the first time. They include a first-century BCE shroud in remarkable condition found in Ein Gedi as well as garments dating to later centuries from numerous communities across the world. There are also examples of contemporary artistic interpretations. available for public viewing for the first time.
Jewish tradition is quite specific regarding shrouds. The body is dressed after undergoing a Tahara (ritual purification). Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews were buried in the garments they were wont to wear during life. Today, the tachrichim are made of plain white linen cloth as per a section of the Talmud (Moed Katan) in which it is written that the wealthy had a custom of holding exorbitant funerals which included dressing the deceased in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford, thereby embarrassing the poor.
“The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away,” the Talmud wrote. This continued until Rabban Gamliel, about fifty years after the destruction of the Temple, who “waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments.”
“And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments,” the Talmud wrote. “Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments [tzerada] that cost only a dinar.”
Another section of the Talmud explains that when the resurrection of the dead occurs after the arrival of the Messiah, people will wear whatever they wore at the time of burial. Rabbi Yochanan asked that he be buried in neutral colors so that if he would be punished for his sins, he would not stand out among his fellow penitents who would be wearing black, and if he would be rewarded for his good deeds, he would not stand out among the righteous who would be dressed in white. Rabbi Yirmiyah instructed: “Dress me in white shrouds that are sewn properly. Dress me in what I would wear during my life. Put shoes on my feet, a stick in my hand, and place me on my side, so that when Moshiach comes, I will be ready to greet him.”
White garments are also reminiscent of the white linen garments worn on Yom Kippur by the High Priest who ordinarily wore colorful clothing containing gold and precious gems.
Regardless of gender, the tachrichim includes a shirt, pants, a head covering, and a belt. cut and sewn together with large stitches. In addition to tachrichim, some men are wrapped in the prayer shawl, or tallit, with the fringes removed to demonstrate that the person is no longer bound by the religious obligations of the living. The ends of the thread are left unknotted and the garment is intended to last only until the body has decayed. Linen disintegrates quickly, some explain, allowing the soul to quickly divest itself from its earthly trappings and ascend to heaven. Tachrichim swaddle the entire body, including the face, so that the deceased are both clothed and protected against the gaze of other people.