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A Concise Guide to the Halachos of Taharas Hakohanim

A Dead Person in an Apartment Block

15. In apartment buildings with main entrances or shared staircases, a dead person in one apartment can make the whole entrance or stairwell tamei. Furthermore, apartments or rooms that are open to the stairwell, or that have doors hung on hinges not manufactured specifically for hanging doors, also become tamei. Since it is difficult to ascertain which doors block tuma and which don’t, a kohen living in this type of building should, in general, abide by the following guidelines:

  • If the door leading to the stairwell is closed and there is an open door or window leading to an unroofed area, the kohen should go to the unroofed area immediately. If there is no such option, he should stay where he is. No door or window in the kohen’s apartment should be opened until it can be ascertained that this will not allow tuma into the apartment. Meanwhile, the kohen should enter the apartment’s innermost room, closing as many doors and windows as he can between himself and the tuma.
  • If the apartment door to the stairwell is open, or the kohen is already in the stairwell, he should leave the building immediately through the most direct route.
  • If remaining in the apartment will cause the kohen extreme discomfort or great embarrassment (e.g., there is no access to a bathroom in the apartment), he may leave and enter a place where there is only rabbinical tuma.

16. A kohen who evacuated his apartment because there was a dead person in the building cannot demand that the body be removed from the building. If the body was already removed from the building, the kohen can object to having the body returned there, unless it is common custom for the body to be returned to the house where the person died.

17. Some authorities contend that a kohen has the right to demand that a dead fetus or stillborn be removed from the building.

18. If the kohen cannot leave his apartment because of infirmity or illness, the deceased person should be removed from the building immediately to save the kohen from tuma, even if it is customary to purify the dead person in his home. For this reason, a body should be removed from a hospital as soon as possible, since there may be kohanim among the patients. In such a case, the relatives of the deceased cannot object.

19. If someone dies in a room where a kohen is praying, the kohen must leave the room even if he is in the middle of the Shemoneh Esrei. However, if the tuma is only rabbinical, the kohen should not be told about the tuma until he has finished the Shemoneh Esrei. If, though, the kohen was told, he must leave straight away. If the kohen is the chazan, see Mishna Berura 126:11.

Identifying a Body

20. If a kohen is needed to identify a body in order to obtain a burial license or to allow the wife of the deceased to remarry, he may do so under the following conditions:

  • If the body is under the open sky, and there is a partition (at least ten tefachim high and four tefachim wide) between him and the body, he may come as close as but no closer than four tefachim from the body to identify it.
  • If the body is under the open sky and putting up a partition is not feasible, or if it is impossible to identify the body without coming closer, the kohen may come closer to the body if there is no one else to identify it. He must make certain not to lean over or touch the body or the bed it is lying on.
  • If the body is under a roof and will not be buried unless the kohen goes there and identifies it, the dead person is considered a mes-mitzva, and the kohen may enter to ensure a speedy burial, provided he does not need to become tamei from another corpse before coming in contact with the body he needs to identify. Before the kohen enters, an appeal should be made to the authorities to remove the body from the building so that the kohen can identify it outside.

Funerals and Cemeteries

21. It is a mitzva to escort the dead to burial, and a kohen should perform this mitzva. To do so properly, he must learn the halachos of tuma carefully so as to avoid becoming tamei in the process.

22. A kohen escorting one of his seven close relatives to burial should preferably carry the body all the time he is in the cemetery. This will prevent him from inadvertently becoming tamei from other graves while not in contact with his relative.

23. If a funeral procession (for any person) passes through a place where there is rabbinical tuma, the kohen should not leave the funeral procession. Nor should he leave the procession if it passes through such a place while escorting the mourners back to their homes. However, if there is any way the kohen can accompany the procession without becoming tamei, he must do so.

24. A kohen at a funeral or in a cemetery should be careful not to walk under trees or roofs that are above graves or dead bodies. However, he may walk under wires that are less than a tefach wide.

25. Umbrellas are considered to be roofs that spread tuma. If people attending a funeral carrying open umbrellas stand so close to each other that the umbrellas overlap, if one of the umbrellas covers a part of the deceased, it is forbidden for a kohen to come near any of the umbrellas.

26. It is forbidden for a kohen to stand within four amos of a dead body even to do a mitzva, such as eulogizing him, if he can do the mitzva without coming that close. If there is a partition at least ten tefachim high and four tefachim wide between the kohen and the corpse, he may stand within four tefachim of the body. If the body is inside a vehicle, he must stay four amos away from the whole vehicle.

27. While a car carrying a dead body passes through a tunnel, a kohen may not travel through the tunnel, even in another car and even if all the windows of both cars are closed.

28. A kohen should not touch a person who is standing partially in a room where there is a corpse, nor may he touch a person who is leaning over or under a corpse. The kohen may also not lean over that person or be directly underneath him. Furthermore, the kohen may not touch a person who is touching or carrying a corpse, even if that person is not in he room where there is a corpse and is not leaning over or under it.

29. It is permissible to touch the bed that the body was lying on after the body has been removed.

30. Cemeteries are not a source of tuma; only the graves are. Therefore, a kohen may walk on wide paths in a well marked cemetery so long as he does not come within four amos of a grave (or four tefachim, if there is a separating wall). He should take care not to go under a tree or anything else overhanging a grave.

31. Gravestones cause tuma only while they are marking a grave.

32. It is forbidden for a kohen to come close to any graves, including those of tzaddikim such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, or the burial cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  There are opinions that this obligation applies only when the kohen would become tamei in order to take care of the relative’s burial needs. It is an honor for the deceased person when his relatives personally take care of his burial needs. In such circumstances, a kohen may remain in a room with the deceased as long as there is a need for him to be on hand to supervise and make decisions concerning the funeral. If his presence is unnecessary, as, for example, on Shabbos, when no decisions need to be made, according to these opinions, the kohen should leave.

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  1. Dear Rabbi,

    I have a couple questions pertaining to this article:

    The article states that “A challal (a descendant of a kohen who defiled his status as a kohen in a way that
    disqualifies him mi’de’Oraisa) is also allowed to become tamei”

    Is this only the case when absolutely necessary, for example for the burial needs of a close relative (ie those close relatived permitted for any Kohein) or can a challal become temei mes for any relative or any other person’s burial needs. Does this also allow for becoming tamei to visit graves or a yortzeit, for example a relatives or the yortzeit of a great rabbinic figure? Can a challal visit places in eretz yisrael or elsewhere where it is known there are Jewish graves or those of non Jews or should he still not purposely become tamei.

    Can a challal go into a hospital for his own medical needs or to accompany or visit someone (a wife or close relative) when there may be tumas mes or can they carte blanche enter with no problem.

    The essense of my question is – is the challals allowance to become tamei a carte blanche all encompassing pass to ingore the restricitons of (regular) kohanim or should a challal be careful in any way?

    1. Yes, a challal is just like a non-kohen and is allowed to marry a divorcee etc. The only difference between him and a non-kohen is that his daughters, and the daughters of his sons and sons’ sons ad infinitum, may not marry kohanim.

  2. Dear Rabbi,
    Situation: A Kohen marries a giyores.
    I know his children are challalim.
    He loses “Kohanic privileges.”
    Question: Does he retain restrictions (to not become tamei, etc)?
    Kol tuv,

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