by R. Daniel Mann
Question: When visiting a hospital, I saw a kohen alert sign. Upon leaving, should I have done netilat yadayim due to exposure to tumah?
Answer: We will first survey the point of netilat yadayim in various cases including yours.
When one becomes tameh on the level of Torah law in a manner that he needs rechitza (washing) to remove the tumah (e.g., due to bodily emissions or contact with dead animals), this consists of immersing his whole body in a mikveh (see Eiruvin 4b). This does not suffice for one who came in contact with a dead human; a process that involves para aduma ashes is also needed. There are times that exposure to tumah does not make a person tameh according to Torah law, but Chazal decreed tumah on his hands, such that if they touch something holy (e.g., teruma), they render it tameh (see Rambam, Avot Hatumah 8:2). As an extension of the Rabbinic tumah for teruma foods, Chazal required netilat yadayim with a beracha before eating bread, irrespective of known contact with any tumah; it may also be connected to the need for cleanliness (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 158).
There is another standard netilat yadayim with a beracha – in between when one wakes up in the morning and davens. There are different opinions among the Rishonim if this is because the hands became dirty during sleep or because one is like a new creature who needs sanctification (see Mishna Berura 4:1).
Another reason for washing hands is the prospect of ruach ra’ah (literally, a bad spirit) that cling to the hands in various situations. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 4:18) has a list of situations in which one should wash his hands (without a beracha), including, upon leaving a bathroom, after cutting nails, and after touching sweaty parts of the body. Some of them are because of cleanliness, especially if one is to partake in something holy, and others are because of ruach ra’ah (e.g., leaving the bathroom – Mishna Berura 4:40).
The Shulchan Aruch cites as “some say” (see Mordechai, Berachot 192) that one washes after being among the dead (i.e., in a cemetery – Mishna Berura ad loc. 42, based on Shut Maharil 42). In Yoreh Deah (376:4) he says unequivocally that one washes after a funeral. Actually, the Tur (YD 376) cites a Gaon who views such a minhag as baseless. The reason given for doing it is the ruach ra’ah, not the laws of tumah. The latter is not an issue because washing the hands (or even going to the mikveh) will not remove the tumah, but it helps (at least partially) regarding ruach ra’ah, as we saw above.
The question, then, is what type of setting of contact with to the dead warrants washing? The Shulchan Aruch (OC 4:18) mentions that after touching the dead, one should wash. The Magen Avraham (4:21) infers that if one is in the proximity of a single corpse without touching it, he does not need to wash. However, he continues that it is customary to wash even if he “comes into [the place of] one corpse, as well as one who escorts it.”
While I lack the understanding of how ruach ra’ah works, the sources seem to imply that the intricate laws of tumah, especially of ohel (roughly, being “under the same roof”) are not the factor, as they are for a kohen in a hospital. One can escort the deceased and not become tameh, and yet there is washing. (The Aruch Hashulchan (4:21) cites the minhag that it depends if he is within four amot of the deceased; while there is a Rabbinic concept of tumah within four amot of a corpse (Sota 44a), the problem might still be the proximity rather than the Rabbinic tumah.) In the other direction, if one is somewhere in a large hospital when a corpse is taken out through the basement, while this could be crucial for a kohen, who is bound by the Torah laws of tumah, it need not create a connection and corresponding ruach ra’ah that would require washing.
Since I have not found a source to say that there is a need to wash after leaving a hospital in which someone has died and the minhag is clearly to not do so, we can assume that this is correct. Our explanation is likely correct.