“Death, and the Kohanim–the Children of Aaron”
(updated and revised from Parashat Emor 5762-2002)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, the parasha opens with the laws regarding the special sanctity of the Kohanim, the priests, who are the male descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Leviticus 21:1 reads: וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו . G-d spoke to Moses: Speak unto the priests, the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron and say onto them: “None of you [priests] shall defile himself to a dead person among his people.” The Torah continues to explain that, despite this prohibition, a Kohain may contaminate himself in order to attend the funeral and burial of one of the Kohain’s seven closest relatives–mother, father, son, daughter, brother, virgin sister and wife.

In Leviticus 21:6, the Torah explains the reason for these severe restrictions: קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵא־לֹקֵיהֶם, וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיהֶם . They [the priests] shall be holy to their G-d, and they shall not desecrate the name of their G-d. This verse explains that because priests conduct the sacred services in the Temple, they must remain holy, and not ritually defile themselves.

As I have frequently argued, I strongly believe that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the “sanctity of human life,” and that virtually every single mitzvah of the Torah can be traced back to that principle. Since life is the great sanctifier, death is the great defiler. One reason that death is the great defiler is because frequent contact with death often renders those who survive, inured to human life. It is especially true in today’s era, with the constant proliferation of news regarding massive numbers of casualties and deaths, that the constant exposure leads to great indifference to both death and to human life. That is why the menstruant woman, who experiences the death of the ovum in her body, must regularly reaffirm life by going to the primordial source of life, the waters of the Mikveh, to purify herself.

Let us try to understand the source of the special sanctity of the priests. The Kohanim–the priests, represent a utopian dream, a world in which there is no death, no divorce, no mentally or physically-challenged people, a world bereft of pain. Consequently, the priest is not permitted to be involved with death, because death does not “apply” to his world.

Of course, in reality, death certainly impacts the priest’s world. Consequently, for his seven closest relatives the priest may attend the funeral and the burial. A high priest, on the other hand, because of his exalted status of sanctity, is not even permitted to attend the funeral of his seven closest relatives. However, because of the extraordinary ideal of the sanctity of human life, if there is a Jew suffering from a terminal illness who has no one else to care for him, or attend to his burial, the High Priest, even in the week before Yom Kippur, or on Yom Kippur itself, must defile himself and care for this person in need. The High Priest must do this even if it means, that as a result of his contamination, he may be unable to perform the Yom Kippur service for the People of Israel on the holiest day of the year.

There is, however, perhaps another reason why priests are not permitted to be involved with death and burial. The ancient priests, of course, were, in some way, the equivalent to the contemporary clergymen. According to a view expressed by Rabbi Saul Berman, the priests, who act as clergy, are not permitted to be involved with death, so that they not be in a position to exploit the vulnerability of their flock at the time of death. The priest is permitted to counsel, console, and advise, but is forbidden to attend the funeral or burial of the deceased.

Perhaps, because these vulnerable moments are often a time that people turn to spirituality, priests and/or religious leaders must not exploit this vulnerability to advance their own personal causes, no matter how noble, by seeking donations, contributions or memorial buildings, but should rather distance themselves from the mourners.

Perhaps, by distancing the clergy, the Torah may also be saying to all other Jews, that one need not be a member of the clergy in order to show sensitivity, and to care for the mourners. Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of encouraging lay people to be there for the sick and the infirm. In that sense, all the Jewish people become “priests.” No one is free from the obligation of comforting, encouraging, and attending to the needs of the mourner or the family of one who is gravely ill. It is during that most vulnerable time of need, that every Jew is expected to act like a rabbi or clergy person.

What a sensitive and fascinating idea!

May you be blessed.

This Thursday evening, May 7th through Friday , May 8th is Pesach Shay’nee, the “Second Passover.” Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.