Home / Legacy /

Kohanim: Dead Bodies (I)

 

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Among the precautions that Kohanim must take in order to ensure their ritual purity is the prohibition against coming into contact or even close proximity to dead bodies. Female Kohanim are generally not bound to these Kohanic laws of purity and impurity. Even a Kohen who is a minor should be educated in all the laws relating to his unique status.  So too, parents of young Kohanim are encouraged to ensure that even their young children do not engage in anything that could compromise their status and purity requirements.[1]

The restrictions of a Kohen concerning a non-Jewish dead body are somewhat different. This is because a Gentile body only transmits impurity when touched. Authorities are divided on whether a Kohen is permitted to put himself under the same roof as a deceased Gentile.[2] There is no problem, however, for a Kohen to be in proximity to a deceased Gentile as long as he is careful not to touch the corpse. Kohanim who need to enter a hospital building should inquire whether or not there are any dead bodies currently being stored there. This is especially important in Israel.[3]

Museums, which display ancient human remains and the like, will often be off-limits to Kohanim, as well. Not only may a Kohen not be under the same roof as a corpse but even the overhang of a tree can transmit the impurities of any graves that its shade might cover.[4] Therefore, a Kohen who is walking along the outer perimeter of a fenced cemetery should be sure not to walk under any branches of a tree that may also be shading a grave on the other side. Indeed, one of the main reasons that Jewish cemeteries always have a gate surrounding them is to help ensure that a Kohen does not violate his sanctity. So too, it allows Kohanim a clear position from where they can stand to observe any ceremonies taking place inside the cemetery. Indeed, a proper wall or fence may allow a Kohen to come even closer to a grave than the generally permitted seven feet.[5] 

Kohanim are also forbidden to visit the resting places of Tzaddikim such as the tombs at Ma’arat Hamachpela or Kever Rachel. While there are sources[6] that seem to suggest that the resting places of righteous people cannot defile a Kohen, normative halacha is not in accordance with this view.[7] Kohanim who visit such places are not conducting themselves appropriately.[8] 

A Kohen is permitted to defile himself to attend the funeral of his seven closest kin. So too, a Kohen is permitted to offer assistance to someone who is dying even though it is unlikely that it will prolong that person’s life. In the event that a Kohen unexpectedly happens upon a dead body, he is permitted to sit with the body and watch over it until someone else is able to take over. He may even bury the body if there is no one else to do so. In fact, so important is proper care for a deceased, that even the Kohen Gadol may bury someone who has no one else to bury him.


[1] Y.D. 373:1

[2] Y.D. 372:2

[3] Sota 44a, Aruch Hashulchan, Y.D.  371:27

[4] Rambam, Hilchot Tumat Met 13

[5] Gra,Yoreh Deah 371:17, Y.D. 371:5

[6] See Mishlei Rabba 9; Sefer Hachinuch 263

[7] Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 202:14

[8] Yechave Da’at 4:58, Shraga Hameir 1:34

 

Share this Post

 

Related Posts

About the author

Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of “The Dalet Amot Halacha Series” (6 Vol.) among other works of halacha. rabbiari@hotmail.com

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

48 Responses

  1. Tal Benschar says:

    “Kohanim are also forbidden to visit the resting places of Tzaddikim such as the tombs at Ma’arat Hamachpela or Kever Rachel”

    I do not believe that that is the accepted custom in EY. It may be that they are somehow relying on the building structure to interrupt the tumah.

  2. Ari Enkin says:

    Yes, youre right. I have a piece on that — maybe for another post.

    Ari Enkin

  3. Chanokh says:

    While it should be obvious to anyone, it bears mentionning that of course in Hevron and Kever Rahel the actual bodies are not in the cenotaphs that you see. They are in the cave below.

  4. Nachum says:

    Chabad, of course, does shtick with boxes so kohanim can visit the Rebbe’s grave. Doesn’t make it right…

    I don’t think there’s a cave in Kever Rachel. (We don’t even know for sure that there’s a grave, but that’s another story.) The caves (plural) in the Mearat HaMachpela are at least partially not underneath the building itself. I was once at an OU convention in Israel and asked R’ Schachter about them; he said it was best not to go.

    Speaking of R’ Schachter, the YU High Schools once had their dinner in the American Museum of Natural History, and the invitation noted that R’ Schachter had gone through the museum to “kasher” it for kohanim. I went up to him after shacharit one day and he, k’darko bakodesh, filled me in on all the details. Fascinating stuff. We kohanim did have to stand outside for a few minutes before the dinner so they could finish up.

    Many cemeteries in Israel are specially designed to have areas where kohanim can see the graves. Hospitals put up signs if kohanim can’t enter, and at least Shaarei Tzedek has a small booth where kohanim can wait. It’s usually only a few minutes- there are various details regarding “ohel,” including the fact that they don’t use the front door for bodies, that make it relatively easy to visit a hospital.

  5. HaDarda"i says:

    “A Kohen is permitted to defile himself to attend the funeral of his seven closest kin.”

    Not only is he permitted, he is commanded.

  6. IH says:

    For the past decade, the #1 Subway in NYC has passed through Ground Zero. For most of that time, one can see sunlight peering through slits in the temporary walls that keep it enclosed, thus seeming to locate it above ground. Further, it is logical to say the Ground Zero site is a field where (possibly Jewish) human body parts may still lay undiscovered.

    Is there a halachic issue?

  7. Nachum says:

    Any body part left there is most likely unrecognizable. I know that there are opinions that human ashes (e.g. from concentration camps) don’t count; similarly here. You have more to worry about from the fact that Manhattan is dotted with old cemeteries- potters’ fields, slave and Indian burying grounds, relocated cemeteries…the location of the first Shearith Israel cemetery is unknown. (The “First” in Chinatown is really the second.)

  8. Nachum says:

    Washington Square Park, for example.

    There are claims that the Har HaBayit itself, covered as it is by caves and cisterns, was once a cemetery. Indeed, there’s a Gemara that they once found a skull under the mizbeach (said there to be that of Aravna HaYevusi himself) and ruled that there’s no such thing as retroactive tuma or cancellation of korbanot. You rebury it elsewhere; end of problem.

  9. David says:

    Just as an additional warning – nobody should rely on anything in this article halakhah le-ma’aseh. Almost every single sentence is subject to tremendous machlokes and is presented in a very one-sided manner that is not necessarily in accordance with normative pesak.

    Most importantly, both the Shulchan Aruch and Rama PROHIBIT Kohanim from being under the same roof as a non-Jewish corpse.

  10. Nachum says:

    Rama, not Shulchan Aruch.

  11. David says:

    That’s simply not correct.

  12. Nachum says:

    Well, regardless, it’s a problem for Ashkenazim, not Sephardim.

  13. Aryeh says:

    Even a Kohen who is a minor should be educated in all the laws relating to his unique status. So too, parents of young Kohanim are encouraged to ensure that even their young children do not engage in anything that could compromise their status and purity requirements.[1
    —————————————–

    I am a Kohen with three young children, including two boys, all under five. My wife, a bat yisrael, just asked me whether it would be permitted for her to bring the boys to museums and other similar places that are problmatic for me while the boys are still young. I was unsure of the answer based on my memory (I have a vague memory of a day school field trip to a museum that today I could not enter) or being now unable to ask my father how we handled that. It seems there could be three potential answers: 1. As this is a matter of purity, the restriction is from birth (even if is not your custom to avoid pregnant women from entering the cemetery, I know many pregnant women who are married to Kohanim, who will not enter one during that period); 2. From age of chinuch; or 3. From bar mitzvah. I was planning to ask my rav this week when I saw your article. Any insights anyone has?

  14. Chaim says:

    R Enkin,
    No response to David’s claim?

  15. Mr. Cohen says:

    Dear Nachum,

    Where is it written that kohanim should not visit Washington Square Park?

    Sincerely,
    Mr. Cohen

  16. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    1. please correct second sentence to “Daughters of Kohanim” (bat cohen).

    2. nachum — perhaps RHS should write up the issues and what he did, including cooperation of the museum.

    3. washington sq park is an old potters field http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/washingtonsquarepark. also issues with mcdonald avenue, F ttrain, and old boundaries of washington cemetary (per R drillman z”l, RY of riets; “the rock” to some.)

  17. Ari Enkin says:

    Re: David’s claim-

    …it has merit. My postings are my views. I write what I beleive is emes. Certainly ask your rabbi first.

    …..a little rough, though.

    Ari Enkin

  18. Ari Enkin says:

    Aryeh-

    #1 is ideal and in accordance with most poskim. I dont know of a single source to accept #3.

    Ari Enkin

  19. Tal Benschar says:

    There is an issur deoraysah to cause even minor ketanim to become tmei meis. Similar to the issur Torah to feed non-kosher food to a minor Jewish child. (lehazhir ketanim al ha gedolim). See Yemamos 114a; Rambam Hil. Avel 3:12.

  20. Tal Benschar says:

    Sorry, the last post should have said “lehazhir gedolim al haketanim”

  21. m says:

    On a side note how many kohanim are really kohanim that this matters. I remember reading that we cant trust alot of people who claim to be kohanim because over time confusion happens regarding their family histories.

  22. Rafael Araujo says:

    m – you’re right. In fact, we really arent’s sure that Jews are really Jews. Maybe their Khazar gypsies.

    Just ignore this religious jibberish.

  23. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    m — halacha assumes anyone who claims to have a lineage of kohanim, is a kohen for pidyon haben purposes, marriage rules, etc, except for purposes of trumot, etc. unless the lineage is broken by impermissibnle marriages (very commmon nowadays; rabbis dont care.)

  24. IH says:

    MMhY — is it fair to say that Rabbis don’t care? Perhaps, in acknowledging the sfeikut regarding the integrity of kehuna, they have found ways to be more humane in effectively allowing a safek-kohen to exit the kehuna should the circumstances justify.

  25. Joe in Australia says:

    With regard to ancient cemeteries (we have this problem in Australia as well; the biggest market in Melbourne is reputedly built over one) why can’t we rely on all the sfeikot: perhaps this ground wasn’t part of the cemetery; if it was, perhaps no body was buried here; if there was, perhaps it was removed; if it is still there perhaps it was non-Jewish and the halacha goes according to the opinion that only Jewish remains transmit tumah this way.

  26. Shlomo says:

    You can also apply the sfeikot in the reverse direction. Perhaps it WAS that cemetery. Perhaps it was once a different cemetery. Perhaps it was never a cemetery but somebody once happened to die there. With all these sfeikot, shouldn’t we certainly avoid the area? That is why deciding sfeikot must be done by poskim, not amateurs.

  27. IH says:

    While we’re on the topic, I accept that having the Cohen-Modal-Haplotype in one’s DNA is not considered a kohen if the identity has not been passed down to him by his father.

    But, sooner or later, it seems to me there is an issue if someone considers himself a kohen because that is what he was told by his father, but he does not have the Cohen-Modal-Haplotype or anything close to it.

  28. m says:

    IH- does the Cohen-Modal-haplotype really give the full picture?couldnt a big percent of the people who have that be decendents of a specific family of cohanim?

  29. Nachum says:

    m: No, that’s the whole point. The gene goes back as far as Aharon’s time.

    IH: I think it has to be the same one way or another. Presence of the gene may also be found in, say, chalalim or their descendants. And a very large chunk of kohanim don’t have it, so here’s an example of halacha overriding (possible) reality.

    And you don’t want to touch the Leviim issue with a ten-foot pole.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Nachum- are their any leveim with the same cohan haplitype thing?

  31. Anonymous says:

    Nachum — but it’s not “(possible) reality”. There simply is no way that a male whose Y-DNA is not some form of Haplotype J can be a descendent of Aharon.

  32. IH says:

    9:04 was IH [IE problem, sorry]

  33. Adam says:

    Does a pregnant woman married to a kohen have to determine the gender of the fetus –perhaps she is having a boy that would also have to observe These laws???

  34. Ari Enkin says:

    Adam-

    According to some shitos — yes!!

    Ari Enkin

  35. sass says:

    Adam,
    I believe that was the upshot of Rabbi Bleich’s article in Tradition a few years back on the topic – that the heter of sfek sfeika advanced by earlier authorities is no longer viable since the situation is now efshar levarer bekal by means of a sonogram.

  36. Nachum says:

    Anonymous: Studies of (Ashkenazi) Leviim have shown a heavy amount of Khazar descent, the last I checked. In any event, hey haven’t found a similar trait to those of Kohanim. I don’t much care: A Levi is a Levi, and I wish we had more. Both Kohanim and Leviim account for about 10% of Jews, and yet it always seems like there are less of the latter.

    IH: I added the word “possible” because (as with anything of this sort) there is a far outside chance that, say, this gene has nothing to do with kohanim. Or only dates to a *son* of Aharon. Whatever. You’re probably correct.

  37. Tal Benschar says:

    m: No, that’s the whole point. The gene goes back as far as Aharon’s time

    What’s the evidence for that? Why couldn’t it just go back to (i.e. be a mutation from) some later time — say in bayis rishon?

  38. IH says:

    Tal — there is much literature on this, but I would recommend http://www.amazon.com/Jacobs-Legacy-Genetic-Jewish-History/dp/B005M4V544

    In any case, even in the scenario you suggest, the Y-DNA of any hereditary Kohen would still be in the broader segment called Haplogroup J.

  39. Tal Benschar says:

    Does a pregnant woman married to a kohen have to determine the gender of the fetus –perhaps she is having a boy that would also have to observe These laws???

    No, she can just stay out of a cemetery or other place that has tumas meis, which is a common practice anyway.

  40. Nachum says:

    Tal: Of course, this depends somewhat on what chronology you use, but the origin of the gene is pinpointed (they can do this) to about 3300 BCE, i.e., the life of Aharon.

  41. Tal Benschar says:

    Tal: Of course, this depends somewhat on what chronology you use, but the origin of the gene is pinpointed (they can do this) to about 3300 BCE, i.e., the life of Aharon.

    Surely you understand that that is at best an estimate. It could just as easily be one of Aharon’s sons or his father.

  42. Tal Benschar says:

    One other point to add to my last post. One should not forget that there was overlap between the life of Aharon and his sons. At the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, Aharon was 83 years old, and almost a year later, he and his four adult sons were all made Kohanim (and two died that day). So Elazar and Itamar were adults at the time of yetzias Mitzrayim when it is estimated that the gene originated. (From Rashi, Pinchas was already alive at the time, which is why he did not become a Kohen until the maaseh with Zimri. Although not clear how old he was, he is another option.)

    If the gene originated with one of Aharon’s sons or with Pinchas, then the lack thereof is no proof that the person is not a Kohen.

  43. IH says:

    Tal — I’m sorry, but you seem to be willfully misunderstanding the science. Y-DNA is passed from father-to-son and mutations that develop over time do not change the broader segmentation. The inconvenient fact is that a simple and inexpensive DNA test can tell who is not a descendent of Aharon.

  44. Tal Benschar says:

    IH: by the “broader segmentation,” I assume you refer to “Haplogroup J.” If so, that has its origins much before Aharon, and is widespread among descendants of Semitic peoples (or so my quick research has revealed.)

    We seem to be talking about two different things — a specific gene, which Nachum says originated around 3300 BC, and a broader gene group, which originated before that. It is the former which is claimed to be uniquely associated with Kohanim, not the latter. (True, the lack of the latter would be evidence that the person is not a Kohein, or, for that matter, his paternal lineage is not Semitic. But that is not true of the former.)

  45. Nachum says:

    Tal, the way they figure the years is by looking at the *rate* of mutations. Things don’t just suddenly change. In other words, they can go back as far as Aharon; perhaps if they tried harder they could go to Avraham (which continues the all-male line). Of course, as I said, there’s no way to say that it *isn’t* Eleazar or Itamar or Amram.

  46. IH says:

    Tal (and Nachum) — I am open to further research that provides better accuracy: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohen_Modal_Haplotype

    My point was simply that there is an issue if someone considers himself a kohen because that is what he was told by his father, but he does not have the Cohen-Modal-Haplotype or anything close to it.

    At a practical level, this might be a tool a posek could use to free a safek-Kohen of his constraints if/when circumstances justify it.

  47. MiMedinat HaYam says:

    sass — sonogram is only 65% accurate (some organs not visible / covered / clear). perhaps later in pregnancy, etc.

    2. IH — is it proper to “free a safek – Kohen”? when yes, and when no? over family objections (and determine why is family objecting)?

    if you allow DNA to identify remains (In WTC caes) perhaps. but thats not universally accepted in O jewish community. and this might / might not be a proper case to make such a determination.

    besides, many mesadrei kiddushin will marry Kohanim in problematic cases, as i mentioned earlier.

    3. regarding haplotype, etc — why is the gene so unique to Aharon, and not Moshe Rabbenu?

  48. Ari Enkin says:

    Dear Readers-

    A rather large number of copies of my latest sefer “Shu”t Hashulchani” have very slight damages/imperfections. I am giving them away for the price of shipping ($8). If you’re interested: rabbiari@hotmail.com.

    Ari Enkin

 
 

Submit a Response

 

You must be logged in to submit a response.