May Death and Impurity be Swallowed Up

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Emor

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: May the wife of a kohen (priest) enter a cemetery when pregnant? 

And the Lord said to Moshe, Speak to the priests the sons of Aharon, and say to them, There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people. (Leviticus 21:1)

The Torah clearly prohibits kohanim (priests) from contracting tumah (ritual impurity) that issues from a corpse. A unique element of tumas meis, impurity issuing from the deceased, is that it can be contracted even from simply being under the same roof as the body. This raises the question about whether the pregnant wife of a kohen may enter a structure or area that would expose her potentially male fetus (who would be a kohen) to tumah. The Rokeiach (no. 315) permits a woman to enter such an area on the basis of  a double-doubt: (A) There is a chance that the child will be miscarried (B) and there is a chance that it might be female, thus not being forbidden to come in contact with tumah.

The reasoning of the Rokeiach is precarious especially from a contemporary vantage point, as we now have the technological means to determine the gender of the fetus, and due to medical advancements, fetal viability has, thank God, increased significantly. 

Leaving aside the modern implications, there is also something fundamentally problematic about the Rokeiach’s reasoning from a standard Talmudic standpoint. The Magen Avraham (343:2) notes that in the laws of ritual impurity a teharah baluah, something pure that is fully encapsulated, is not susceptible to contracting tumah. As the fetus is completely enveloped within its mother’s womb, even if it turns out to be a viable male, it would still be impervious to tumah without having to resort to the Rokeiach’s tenuous double-doubt justification. With that being the case, why did the Rokeiach not suffice with the more air-tight solution of taharah baluah?

(1) The Radvaz (responsum no. 200) suggests that the Rokeiach was specifically addressing an end-of-term scenario in which the head could begin breaching at any moment. This would compromise its status as being fully encapsulated thus requiring the Rokeiach’s double-doubt reasoning. (However, the Birkei Yosef  (O.C. 343:4) points out that this is a forced reading of the Rokeiach.)

(2) R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (Kisvei HaGriz, Bechoros 23a) offers two possible ways to conceptualize the concept of taharah baluah. (A) Hafka’ah: One is protected from the tumah issuing forth from the deceased. (B) Hatzalah: One is not merely protected – from a halachic perspective they are considered spatially removed from the structure containing the deceased at all whatsoever. The fetus is portrayed as being in a completely separate building altogether.

R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Achiezer 3:5) and R. Elchonon Wasserman (Koveitz Shiurim 2:41) would appear to adopt the more limited interpretation, that taharah baluah merely provides protection from tumah, but the fetus would still be viewed as being present within the same structure as the deceased. Therefore, they suggest that in addition to the standard issue of contracting tumah, “lo yitmaei,” we also need to bear in mind the prohibition of “lo yavo.” The proscription of lo yavo would imply that a kohen may not come even within close contact by entering under the same roof as a cadaver – irrespective of whether he becomes tamei as a result! (This premise is supported based on a particular reading of Nazir 43a regarding a kohen not entering under the same roof as a goses, one who is near death.) 

Therefore, since tahara baluah only protects the fetus from the tumah but still conceptualizes the fetus as having entered under the same roof as the corpse, we would still need to reckon with the issue of lo yavo. Thus, if not for the double-doubt framework of the Rokeiach, it would be forbidden for the wife of a kohen to actively expose her fetus to the dead, even if it was protected due to taharah baluah! (See Yevamos 114a regarding adults’ responsibilities vis-a-vis children). 

R. Mordechai Carlebach, adds that this theory is supported by R. Saadia Gaon (Mitzvah no. 156) who subsumes the issue of rendering a kohen tamei under v’kidashto, the imperative of treating kohanim with sanctity. While a fetus may in theory be impervious to contracting tumah, bringing it under the same roof as a corpse would be an active negation of one’s obligation to honor the sanctity of kehunah

While our discussion has addressed the matter of taharah baluah, purity which is “swallowed up,” we pray that that ultimately one day that the words of the verse will be fulfilled: “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the insult of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord has spoken it (Isaiah 25:8).

End Note: Several sources raise the point that a fetus should not assume kohen status while still in utero (see Yevamos 67a). Furthermore, the principle of ubar yerech imo suggests that if anything, the fetus shares the same gender category as its mother (i.e. female) while it remains connected to her body, thereby obviating any issue of contracting tumah from the deceased (see Chasam Sofer Y.D. 354). For a further treatment of this topic see R. Hershel Schachter’s essay in B’Ikvei HaTzon (no. 35). 

Also, the imperative of v’kidashto does not only apply to the laws of tumah, but to rendering general preferential treatment to kohanim. While this may be a (deliberately) less popularized halachah, it is certainly on the books (see Nedarim 62a-62b and Rema O.C. 128:45).

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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