EXTRA SHROUD FOR COHEN
A family arranging the funeral for their deceased parent (?) asked that in addition to the regular shrouds in which he was wrapped an extra set of shrouds should be put in the coffin since the man was a Cohen. Is there any traditional justification for this request? (Asked by Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California.)
THE QUESTION of the number and the arrangement of the traditional shrouds is not one which has clear legal definition. It is based upon tradition which only since the Middle Ages has made itself concrete and fairly definite. In Talmudic times there was a great deal of variation in the arrangement and the number of the shrouds (tachrichim). This can be seen, for example, from the statement of Rabbi Hezkiah asking that when he dies: “Do not put too many shrouds on me” (Jerush almi Kelaim 9:4) and also by the fact that Rabban Gamliel had noticed that the people were going to too much expense in arranging special shrouds for their dead. He purposely, although a man of wealth, decreed that only linen should be used for himself and thus put an end to the extravagance (b. Moed Katan 27b).
Gradually, apparently under Cabalistic influence, the number of shrouds were developed and became fixed, on the theory that the soul was to be nobly clad as the body was. At all events, the Shulchan Aruch itself has very little to say on the matter. Yore Deah (352) merely says: “We do not use expensive shrouds for anybody,” and that the custom is to bury in white shrouds. The later handbooks on funeral customs already give details of a developed and fixed custom. These details, for example, are to be found in Greenwald’s Kol Bo AI Avelus, p. 91 ff., and also in the best modern Palestinian handbook, the two volumes Gesher Ha-Chaim by Tekuchinski and his son (in Vol. I, p. 102). In Greenwald the regular eight tachrichim are mentioned and described in detail, and there is even greater detail in Tekuchinski.
Now, is there any distinction made between classes of people as to the number or the type of tachrichim that should be put upon them? As to that, there is only one clear legal dictum: In discussing the question as to what funeral arrangements may be omitted with regard to a wicked person, Joel Sirkes (the Bach) to Tur, Yore Deah 362, said that with regard to a wicked person the tachrichim may be omitted. Otherwise there is no requirement in the law for special treatment for special people.
Nevertheless, there is a difference, if not in law, at least in custom, at all events in Palestine. Tekuchinski, giving the details of the tachrichim, begins by saying that there are eight of them and a ninth additional one for a Cohen. The additional one is an interesting addition. This ninth garment is a pair of gloves, because in the holiday services the Cohen raises his hands in blessing. When during his lifetime the Cohen raised his hands to bless the people, it was the duty of the Levite present to pour water over the Cohen’s hands before he went up to the Duchan. Hence, according to Tekuchinski, if there is a Levite present among the Chevra Kadisha, it is he who puts the gloves on the hands of the dead Cohen and all present recite the priestly blessing, “May the Lord Mess you and keep you . . .” etc. That is all there is with regard to a Cohen.
To sum up: The whole matter of the number of tachrichim is a matter of custom, not of law, since the Shulchan Aruch gives no enumeration and description. There is no special privilege except in this one case of Palestinian custom mentioned by Tekuchinski. As for putting a whole additional set of tachrichim in the coffin of the priest, I have found no record of it in any of the sources.