ḤEBRA ḲADDISHA (more correctly Ḥabura):

Name for a charitable society which cares for the sick, especially for the dying, and buries the dead. The name "ḥebra ḳaddisha" (holy society) seems to have been used originally for congregations and religious societies generally. The old prayer for the welfare of the congregation ("Yeḳum Purḳan"), which is still recited in Ashkenazic synagogues on Sabbath morning, includes the prayer for teachers and masters forming "holy associations," i.e., academies ("ḥaburata ḳaddishata"), both in Palestine and in Babylonia. This prayer, the date of which is uncertain, must have been written in Babylonia before the eleventh century. In Lemberg about 1700 there was a Holy Society of Morning Watchers, men who attended vigils every day (Buber, "Anshe Shem," p. 217, Cracow, 1895). In Moisling, near Lübeck, about the same time, there was a Ḥebra Ḳaddisha Talmud Torah, whose object was the study of religious literature (Carlebach,"Gesch. der Juden in Lübeck," p.29, Lübeck, n.d.). In Remagen there is a society for the promotion of manual labor among the Jewish youth, founded in 1837, and called "Chebroh Kadischoh" ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1903, No. 42). Zalman Fischhof, in his "Zemirot Yisrael," Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1711, calls Judah he-Ḥasid the "leader of the entire ḥebra ḳaddisha" (S. T. Rabbinowitz, in "Keneset Yisrael," i 77).

Historical Development.

Since ancient times the burial of the dead has been regarded by the Jews as a religious duty of the highest importance (see Burial). That organized societies on the lines of the modern ḥebra ḳaddisha existed in remote times would appear to be indicated in the following Talmudic passage. Rab Hamnuna arrived at a certain place and heard that some one had died. Observing that the people of the city continued to follow their occupations, notwithstanding the fact that the duty of burying the dead took precedence of everything else, he threatened them with excommunication; but when they explained that there were burial societies in the city, he said that under such conditions work is permitted (M. Ḳ. 27b). Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud declares that when the body is handed over to the carriers of the dead the relatives may break their fast, which begins at the moment of the death (Yer. Ber. iii. 1). On the basis of this decision the codes since Naḥmanides (13th cent.) have formulated the law that in places where officials are charged with the burying of the dead the relatives have done their duty as soon as the body has been delivered to the officials (Naḥmanides, "Torat ha-Adam, Ṭur Yoreh De'ah," 341, 343, 383; comp. Shulḥan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, ad loc.).

Oldest Mention.

Another Talmudic passage (Shab. 106a) says that if a member of a society ("ḥaburah") dies, all the members of that society shall mourn. It is doubtful, however, whether these societies were organized for the special purpose of taking care of the dead. The context, and the absence of all laws regulating such societies, tend to lead to the supposition that these ḥaburot were fraternities dating from the time of the Essenes (Philo, ed. Mangey, ii. 632; Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., ii. 563; See Ḥaber). The oldest mention of societies for burying the dead is found in a responsum (No. 75) of Nissim ben Reuben of Barcelona (14th cent.), who discusses a case in which legacies were left to various charitable societies, among them the "ḳabbarim" (grave-diggers). An often-quoted tradition attributes to Löw ben Bezaleel, chief rabbi of Prague (d. 1609), the organization (1593) of the first ḥebra ḳaddisha (Lieben, "Gal 'Ed," p. 4, Prague, 1856; "Il Vessillo Israelitico," 1894, p. 395; "Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1865, p. 102). A. Kohn, in Wertheimer's "Jahrbuch," i. 28, Vienna, 1854, says that Eliezer Ashkenazi founded the ḥebra at Prague in 1562; and G. Wolf thinks that the expulsion of the Jews from Prague in 1561, at which time the sick were allowed to remain, led to the organization of a society for the care of the infirm ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1888, p. 237).

At all events, historical reports of the existence of these societies date back to the beginning of the seventeenth century. Even the books of prayers to be recited at the bedside of the dying seem to prove the existence of these societies. The earliest of these books is the "Ma'abar Yabboḳ" of Aaron Berechiah of Modena (Venice, 1626). On the blank pages of a copy of Leon Modena's "Ẓori la-Nefesh u-Marpe la-'Eẓem" (ib. 1619), Steinschneider found the roster of the members of such a society, giving their turns for duty, and beginning with 1646 ("Hebr. Bibl." xvii. 126). Jospe Hahn of Frankfort-on-the-Main, in his "Yosif Omeẓ." (§ 870), reports that his congregation had a society for the care of the sick ("gomel hbḥesed") as early as the seventeenth century (Horovitz, "Frankfurter Rabbinen," ii. 12). The ḥebra ḳaddisha of Hildesheim was founded in 1668 ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." Sept. 15, 1893); that of Breslau dated its oldest constitution from 1726; that of Vienna, from 1764; that of Copenhagen, from 1767. The "Book of the Society of Mercy" ("Ḥebrat Raḥamim") of the congregation of Mantua, dated 1579 (Almanzi MSS., Cat. p. 13), may be something similar.


The membership of the ḥebra was limited to males over the age of thirteen (see Bar Miẓwah), but children might be admitted as contributing members. It was, in fact, customary for wealthier members of the community to enroll their children in the ḥebra at the time of birth. Women formed their own societies to attend the dying and wash the dead; these were usually called "Nashim Ẓadḳaniyyot" (pious women). The members of the ḥebra and their families enjoyed certain benefits after death; they were buried in that part of the cemetery reserved for privileged people, and their funeral expenses were lower. The officers of the ḥebra were elected annually, generally during the week of the Feast of Sukkot; but the president, chosen from the trustees, was changed every month. In some cities, as Breslau and Düsseldorf, there was a board of eighteen (that number being chosen because it is the numerical value of = "living"), who were always ready to attend the bedside of a dying member and remain with him to the last; to recite with him the confession of sins, if he were conscious; to pray during his agony; and finally to recite the Shema' at the moment of death. When breathing had ceased for a certain time, they laid the body on the bare floor, arranged for the burial, and then washed the body, during which ceremony they recited Biblical passages. Among the Sephardim this is done by a similar society called the "Lavadores" ("Jew. Chron." Dec. 28, 1900; Jan. 23, 1903). The various functions connected with washing the body and attiring it in shrouds were distributed according to the age and the standing of the members; thus, the president of the society had the privilege of putting the linen cap on the head of the corpse. Every year the society observed a fast-day, on which, after the morning service, the members visited the cemetery, where the rabbi preached a sermon on charity; in the evening they held a banquet ("ḥebrah se'uddah") Various days are chosen for this reunion, although the 7th of Adar, the traditional date of Moses' death, seems tobe the most popular date. Presburg observes this fast-day on the 22d of the 'Omer days (17th of Iyyar); Prague, on the eve of the new moon of Shebaṭ; Kiev, on the 15th of Kislew. The members of the ḥebra had certain privileges at the synagogue: they distributed the honors on Hosha'na Rabbah, and on the eve of Simḥat Torah the president was escorted to the synagogue under a canopy by torch-bearers (Mapu, "Ha-'Ayiṭ. Ẓabua'," iii. 54). Not infrequently friction occurred between the ḥebra and the congregation; this has been especially the case in modern times, when the congregations have been inclined to Liberalism, and the ḥebra has been the center of Orthodoxy. On one occasion in fürth the civil authorities were compelled to interfere ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1841, pp. 337 et seq.). In the congregations of to-day, however, especially in large cities, the voluntary performance of the duties to the dead is no longer common, and the functions of the ḥebra have become attached to certain of the communal offices or are performed by paid workers. See Watcher.

  • Jeiteles, Zikkaron le-Yom Aharon, Prague, 1828-30;
  • Immanuel Löw and Solomon Klein, A Szegedi Chevra 1787 tül 1887, Szegedin, 1887;
  • Allg. Zeit. des Jud. 1888, pp. 167, 237;
  • Ottolenghi, Origine della Hebra Chedoscia, in Il Vessillo Israelitico, 1894, p. 395;
  • G. Wolf, Die Jüdischen Friedhöfe und die Chewra Kadischa in Wien, Vienna, 1879;
  • Kupernik, Le-Ḳorot Bene Yisrael be-Kiew, Berdychev, 1891;
  • S. Weisz, Abne Bet ha-Yoẓer, Paks, 1900;
  • Ornstein, Laws and Bye-Laws of the Burial Society of the United Synagogue, London, 1902;
  • I. Grätzer, Gesch. der Israelitischen Krankenverpflegungsanstalt und Beerdigungsgescllschaft zu Breslau, Breslau, 1841;
  • B. Beer, Rede, bei der Hundertjährigen Gedenkfeier der Chewra Kadischa in Dresden, Dresden, 1850;
  • Emil Lehmann, Zur Gesch. der Juden in Dresden, ib. 1875;
  • Ben Chananja, 1865.
A. D.
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