“All life is sacred!” It’s an important statement that is frequently bandied about for political causes. The “Sanctity of life,” however, is a very real and very tangible concept in Jewish life and law, and this is not just limited to pikuach nefesh (saving a life).

In Torah law, a person is greatly affected by being in physical contact with or even near a dead body. “One who touches the corpse of any human being shall be impure seven days…If a person dies in a tent, any one who comes into the tent and everything that is in the tent shall be impure” (Numbers 19:11,14).

The Torah’s concept of pure and impure suffers in translation because it sounds like good verses bad. The status of pure or impure, however, does not necessarily have to do with behavior (though it can). For example, a person can become impure while fulfilling an important mitzvah, such as someone involved in a chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) and is perparing a body for burial.

Since the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish dispersion, every Jew has the same status (impure) and cannot be purified (which requires a special ceremony that can no longer be performed). However, the fact remains that Judaism is very conscious of the concept of the sanctity of life and the finality of death.

One of the more practical applications of this connection to both death and impurity is washing hands after visiting a cemetery. This is done once outside the graveyard area and requires water to be poured over each hand from a cup three times, alternating hands. This washing ritual affects a basic level of recognizing the impurity of having been surrounded by death.

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