||A little prayerbook containing MaTovu, Yigal, a few psalms, Hallel, and ending with Kaddish. Text is in Hebrew on one side and the German translation on the facing page. Published for the Hevra Kaddisha (Burial Society) in Vienna.
Hevra kaddisha and Gemilut Hasadim societies are restricted to one aspect of all the acts of kindness and consideration, at least among the Ashkenazi Jews. It applies 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 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.
The fraternal aspect of the hevra was observed in various ways, the most common being the annual celebration of the hevra 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 selihot 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 hevra.