“Priests and Death: An Unusual Relationship”
(updated and revised from Emor 5765-2005)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, continues the theme of holiness from last week’s parasha, parashat Kedoshim, as it applies specifically to the כֹּהֲנִים –Kohanim, the priests, the sons of Aaron.

In Leviticus 21:1, G-d speaks to Moses and tells him to inform the priests, the sons of Aaron, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו, no priest shall contaminate himself to a dead person among the Jewish people. In the verses that follow, the Torah notes that there are exceptions for members of the priest’s immediate family who pass away, in which instance the priest may contaminate himself and attend their funerals and even their burial. The priest’s seven closest relatives are: mother, father, son, daughter, brother, virgin sister, and of course, wife.

The Jewish mourning rituals generally consist of three and, at times, four stages. From the moment of death until the burial, mourners are regarded as אונְנִיםOnanim, intense mourners. By biblical law, Onanim are forbidden to eat meat, drink wine, and in the case of males, to perform certain mitzvot such as putting on talit and tefillin and being counted to a Minyan. As a sign of distress, they are also required to rend their garments. The second stage of mourning is known as the שִׁבְעָהShiva, the rabbinically mandated seven-day period during which mourners refrain from washing themselves, shaving and taking haircuts, sitting on a regular chair, or wearing leather shoes. This is followed by the third stage, known as שְׁלוֹשִׁיםSheloshim, literally 30, which starts with the end of the Shiva and continues until the 30th day after the death, during which time the prohibition continues for the mourner to shave or cut one’s hair. In the case of the loss of a parent, there is a fourth stage, a period of eleven months following the 30-day Shloshim period, during which all festivities are avoided. Additionally, until the end of the eleventh month from the time of death, children customarily recite the קַדִּישׁ‎–Kaddish mourner’s prayer at the daily communal prayers.

Despite the fact that a Cohen is generally prohibited from coming into contact with a dead body, he is obligated to perform the necessary preparations for his seven closest relatives, even though this will defile him. However, the ancient High Priest, the כֹּהֵן גֶּדוֹלKohen Gadol, was prohibited to defile himself even for his closest relatives–even for his wife, mother or father.

The commentators struggle with the issue of why an ordinary, priest is allowed to defile himself in the case of the death of his near relatives but not for the death of a stranger. After all, defilement is defilement, whether a close relation or stranger?

Maimonides, explains that even though there is a prohibition of contamination to the dead, in the case of a relative, there is a mitzvah of אֲבֵלוּת–Aveilut, of mourning and grieving for the deceased, and that positive mitzvah overrides the negative mitzvah of the prohibition of defilement.

Nachmanides, explains that since every ordinary priest is a potential High Priest who is forbidden to come in contact with any deceased, an ordinary priest must train himself for this possibility. Consequently, the ordinary priest is allowed to contaminate himself for close relatives but not for strangers.

The Abarbanel explains that in the case of the death of strangers, since the family of the strangers will take care of the burial, there is no need for the priest to attend to the funeral needs. However, in the case of the priest’s own relatives, he is personally responsible to help arrange the funeral, especially since he is probably more knowledgeable of the rules and regulations that pertain to funerals and burials.

The Kli Yakar maintains that priests, in general, represent a high level of holiness, whereas the High Priest represents the highest “concentration” of holiness on earth. Therefore, the ordinary priest’s exposure to death and contamination was more restricted than the general Israelite, while the High Priest was restricted from having any contact with death at all.

The Radbaz elaborates on the meanings of the rituals of mourning, contending that they are meant to stir people to think deeply about the meaning of life and death. The mourning rituals, the Radbaz maintains, are meant to lead people to repentance and contrition. And while it is true that no one can ever escape death, one may not assume that because death is inevitable, grief is unnecessary. Thus, the period of mourning is not so much for the dead as it is for the living. Had it not been for sin, maintains the Radbaz, the deceased’s life might have been prolonged. It is, therefore, through the rituals of mourning that the mourner learns that his life may also be prolonged by good actions and mitzvot. The priest, therefore, has a primary responsibility to influence his family to do good deeds, and because of the intensity of the loss to the priest of one of his seven closest family members, he is allowed to be defiled.

Despite the clear-cut prohibition for priests to contaminate themselves for strangers, any priest, even a High Priest, who finds an abandoned corpse with no one else to attend to the burial, is required to make the necessary arrangements even though that contact will render the priest defiled.

Once again, we see the Torah’s remarkable concern for those who are downtrodden and helpless. Even a High Priest, within a seven-day period prior to Yom Kippur, must defile himself, even though it means that he will be disqualified for the Yom Kippur service since he cannot cleanse himself in time for the holiday. Despite the greatness of the priests’ hereditary obligations, the Torah, in this extraordinary lesson, teaches that the person in  need, (and even a deceased person!), comes before all other considerations.

It is quite remarkable how, through the laws and rituals of death, the Torah teaches how to live a meaningful life.

May you be blessed.