In Hebrew, tachrichim means to “enwrap” or “bind.” It comes from the verse in Megilas Esther (Chapter 8; verse 15) “And Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal apparel of blue and white and a huge golden crown and a wrap of linen (tachrich butz) and purple, and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was happy”.
The traditional clothing for burying the dead are tachrihim, simple white shrouds. Their use dates back to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel II, who, in the second century CE, asked to be buried in inexpensive linen garments. According to the Talmud, Rabban Gamliel observed that the custom of dressing the deceased in expensive clothing put such a terrible burden on the relatives of the deceased, that they would “abandon the body and run.”
The custom he initiated – which set both a decorous minimum and a limit on ostentation – has been followed by Jews ever since. “Whoever heaps elaborate shrouds upon the dead transgresses the injunction against wanton destruction. Such a one disgraces the deceased.” The universal use of shrouds protected the poor from embarrassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Since shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death. In every generation, these garments reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality.
Shrouds are white and are made without buttons, zippers, or fasteners. Tachrihim may come in muslin or linen, fabrics that recall the garments of the ancient Hebrew priesthood. Our Tachrihim are sewn locally by volunteers. Regardless of gender, a complete set includes tunic, pants, a head covering, face covering, and a belt. Everyone is also dressed in a kittel, a simple, white ceremonial jacket that some Jews wear on Yom Kippur, at the Passover seder, and under the wedding canopy. The kittle is traditioally worn during one’s lifetime at moments of “spiritual elevation”.
In addition to tachrihim, men are wrapped in the prayer shawl (tallit) in which they prayed. Every tallit is tied with four sets of knotted fringes (tzitzit), which symbolize the commandment (mitzvot) incumbent upon Jews. Before the tallit is placed on a body for burial, however, one of the sets of fringes is cut to demonstrate that the person is no longer bound by the religious obligations of the living. When only men wore tallitot, only men were buried in them; today, any woman who wore a prayer shawl during her lifetime — an increasingly common custom — is accorded the same treatment in many communities.
A large sheet, or sovev swaddles the entire body, including the face, so that the deceased is both clothed and protected against the gaze of other people. The body is placed in the coffin, which is then closed. In Israel, it is customary to bury the deceased (except soldiers) without a coffin.