Cohen-Levi: The Tribe, the Family Heritage

The Heritage

Ritual Purity:
Avoiding Contact with the Dead

…Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon…
you shall not become ritually impure…

Vayikra 21:1-4

Kohanim are commanded to distance themselves from contact with human death-the process of separation of the soul from the body which creates ritual impurity. The Kohen’s service in the Temple required him to be in a state of complete purity. Even without a functioning Temple, the Kohen is commanded to retain his ritual purity by avoiding the environment of human death.

There are three ways which ritual impurity is transmitted:

Touching (maga) –direct physical contact with a dead body or with certain objects which are direct contact with the body.

Moving (masa) –moving a body or part of a body-even indirectly through the use of intermediary object.

Tenting (ohel) –standing under or entering into a covered area (e.g. a roof, tree, building, etc.) which also overhangs a corpse, or passing directly over a body e.g. walking over a grave.

Among the areas which should be avoided by Kohanim are a cemetery, a funeral home, and a hospital which may contain a corpse, or which has an adjoining morgue.

Ritual impurity is caused by contact with even parts of a dead body such as bones, organs, or a significant amount of blood.

Non-Jewish dead transmit impurity through touching and moving. It is best to avoid “tenting,” since some authorities hold that non-Jews also transmit impurity through “tenting.”

A Kohen may become ritually impure when involved with the burial of the following relatives: wife, father, mother, son, daughter, and unmarried sister. In avent that a Kohen is the only person able to bury a dead person, he may do so. In these situations, he must be careful not to contact any other dead bodies and must remove himself from all ritual impurity when the interment is complete. Also in the case where a Kohen could save a life, he is permitted to do so even though he may become ritually impure.

At funeral processions, Kohanim must avoid contact with the casket. They must also be careful to avoid being under any overhang, such as a roof or tree at the same time as the casket.

The grave of Tzadikim, righteous people, have the same restrictions for Kohanim as other graves.

Kohanim must distance themselves from an area suspected of containing Jewish graves, including those which may have been plowed up or built over.

From the time of the Mishna, about two thousand years ago, our rabbis decreed that due to disorderly burial practices, any area outside of the land of Israel causes a degree of ritual impurity. This degree was designed to encourage Kohanim and all Jewa, the Hole People, to dwell in the Holy Land.

Male children of Kohanim, including babies, should not be brought into any place where an adult Kohen may not enter.

Kohanim should avoid careers which are likely to require contact with the dead, e.g. medicine and emergency rescue.

A Kohen who willingly violates this commandment to avoid ritual impurity forfeits his privileges, such as being called first to the Torah and giving the Blessing of the Kohanim.

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