For donations Click Here

Kohanim and Impurity – Part I

Kohanim, Impurity and Us

Many people have a hidden desire to be a kohein. What could be better than getting an aliyah a couple of times a month? Or having the first shot at leading the zimun when it comes to birkas hamazon? It also seems very glamorous to be the center of attention during Musaf of the Yomim Tovim, when the kohanim ascend the duchan to recite Birkas Kohanim. And the fact that the kohein is the guest of honor at a pidyon haben, where aside from getting a free meal, he is also paid, is always very enticing.

Of course, the extra privileges awarded the kohanim go hand-in-hand with additional responsibilities and obligations. In this week’s parsha, Emor, we learn about many of these obligations. Let us take this opportunity to examine one of these mitzvos, the prohibition for a kohein to become tamei through contact with a dead body.

Now, to all you non-kohanim: before you put down the paper thinking, “This has nothing to do with me and I’ll pass this article on to my neighbor who is a kohein,” stop for minute! Are you so sure that it has nothing to do with you? Please read on.

Consider the following true-life cases:

1) A friend who is a kohein was touring with his family. One of the places that they visited had an indoor exhibit on natural history. My friend’s wife told him that she would like to go in and look around. He told her that, as a kohein, he was not allowed to go in because there were preserved body parts there, but as there were other exhibits in the area, he would find something to occupy his time while she went in. Right before she entered the building, he looked at her and suddenly called out, “Stop! You can’t go in!”

She spun around looking confused, and asked, “Why not? I’m not a kohein!”

“Correct. But you’re carrying our son in the infant-snugly, and he is!”

2) A neighbor made a day camp for young boys. While speaking to another neighbor, he happened to mention that he was taking the kids to Sanhedrin Park, located in the Yerushalayim neighborhood of Sanhedria. The park got its name because the graves of members of the Sanhedrin are located there, making it off-limits to kohanim. The neighbor asked the camp director, “Whose children do you have in your camp?” The director said, “I have two boys from the Kaplan family, and one of the Cohen boys and…” “I think you had better find a different place to go!”

Dear reader: At this point, you are probably thinking, “I’m not married to a kohein and I don’t live in Yerushalayim where there are graves in a public park, so what does the tumah of kohanim have to do with me?” Let me mention one more true-life example that is a bit closer to home.

3) In a major American city, there is an Orthodox day school located next to a cemetery. Theoretically speaking this should not pose any halachic issues at all. Unfortunately, however, there is a major problem at that school. There is a canopy of trees from the cemetery proper that also covers the area where the school buses park when loading and unloading the children at the beginning and end of each school day. Any male kohein that learns in that school has a problem.

“So, why don’t they trim the trees?” you might ask. “And still, what does this have to do with me? I’m not the bus driver!” some might wonder. The more ‘get-involved’ types amongst us might question, “What can I do to help?”

Before answering these questions, let us examine some of the issues involved.


All three scenarios mentioned above are situations involving under-age kohanim. Many might ask, “Why should this concern anyone? He is only a child and not obligated in mitzvos!”

This is a popular misconception and requires clarification.

There are three concepts in the Torah that dictate each person’s obligation to ensure that one’s fellow Jew performs the mitzvos and does not transgress any prohibitions.

1) Arvus – Responsibility

Everyone is familiar with the Talmudic dictum, “kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh” – “all Jews are responsible for each other.” (Shavuos 39A) This obligates every Jew to be on the lookout for his fellow and make sure he performs his mitzvos properly and does not sin.

However, this concept is limited to those mitzvos that one is obligated in. For example, Reuvein is responsible to see to it that Shimon keeps the mitzvos that he must do. It is obvious that if Shimon is not obligated to do a particular mitzvah, Reuvein is absolved of his responsibility. Therefore, although one must stop an adult from transgressing a mitzvah, there is no such obligation when it comes to a child. This is because a child has no obligation to do mitzvos.

2) Lifnei Iver

The Torah commands us, “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). The Gemara explains that this is not necessarily limited to someone who is literally blind, but rather to someone who is not aware of the pitfalls of a particular situation. One is not allowed to place a person in a situation where he will stumble and thereby transgress a prohibition.

This mitzvah, like arvus, is applicable only in certain situations. One does not transgress this prohibition if he causes someone to do an action that is contrary to a mitzvah that the perpetrator is not obligated in. For example, if one causes a child to sin, there is no prohibition of “lifnei iver,” since a child is not obligated to perform mitzvos.

Based on these two concepts of arvus and lifnei iver alone, there would be nothing wrong if a person places an underage kohein in a situation where he will become tamei from a corpse. Since a child is not obligated in mitzvos, the mitzvos of arvus and lifnei iver are not applicable.

However, there is a third concept, referred to as the prohibition of “safei lei b’yadayim,” which literally means, “to actively feed him” a forbidden item. This concept extends to include any prohibited activity and is not limited to forbidden foods. Therefore, although a child under the age of bar or bas mitzvah is not obligated in mitzvos, and if he attempts to transgress any mitzvah on his own accord, no one, except for his parents, is obligated to stop him, nevertheless it is forbidden for anyone to feed him something forbidden or command him to do something prohibited. In the case of a kohein, one is not allowed to cause him to become impure from a corpse. (See Yevamos 114a, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 343, Y.D. 373)

In addition to these three general commandments that apply to all the mitzvos of the Torah, there is also a specific commandment of “v’kidashto,” “and you shall sanctify him,” which relates specifically to kohanim. This is a mitzvah for every Jew to make sure that the kohanim retain their level of sanctity. Therefore, anyone who sees an adult kohein who has knowingly or unknowingly entered a situation of tumas meis, he must warn him. With regards to an underage kohein, while no one is allowed to make him tamei, only his parents have the obligation to teach him to stay away from tumas meis.


In the framework of a newspaper article it is impossible to cover all of the pertinent halachos, nonetheless, I wish to focus on several issues that are either misunderstood or very problematic.

There are three ways through which a person can become tamei meis: 1) maga (touching), 2) masa (carrying), and 3) ohel (roof).

It is forbidden for a kohein to come in contact with a corpse unless it is either a meis mitzvah, i.e., a body that has no one to bury it, or it is one of the kohein’s seven close relatives: His father, mother, wife, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister. In fact, not only is it permitted for the kohein to become tamei in these situations, he is required to and performs a mitzvah when he does.

However, a kohein may not have contact with any other corpse. This includes any of the methods that convey tumah. Therefore, he is not allowed to touch a corpse. Also, he is not allowed to touch a person or utensil that is presently in contact with a dead body through any of the three above-mentioned methods, maga, masa or ohel. For example, if Reuvein is touching or carrying a meis, it is forbidden for Mr. Cohen to touch Reuvein. Also, if any part of Reuvein’s body is above a meis, it is likewise forbidden for the Mr. Cohen to touch him.

Similarly, it is forbidden for a kohein to move or carry a meis. For this reason, a kohein cannot be a pallbearer, if it is not one of the above-mentioned seven relatives or a meis mitzvah.

The third method through which tumah is conveyed, ohel, is unique. Unlike maga and masa, ohel conveys tumah even when there is no physical contact.


Although ohel literally means “tent,” or “roof,” in the context of tumah, it has much broader connotations. One aspect of ohel is that anything above a corpse or grave becomes tamei because that object is deemed to be an ohel. Also, anything below a corpse or grave is tamei, since the corpse or grave is an ohel over that object. Thus, it is even forbidden for a kohein to place his little finger over or under a corpse or grave.

An ohel over a corpse or grave also has the capability to transfer tumah to other items, provided it covers a minimum space of one cubic tefach (3 x 3 x 3 inches). Therefore, a roof, overhang, balcony, umbrella or wide tree branch that is over a grave or corpse and has this minimum dimension, is considered an ohel and conveys tumah to anyone standing anywhere under the same ohel. Therefore kohanim must avoid such situations. This is true even if there is an area of the ohel that is not one tefach wide. As long as the majority of the ohel is one tefach wide, the tumah will spread even to areas that are less than a tefach.

Not only does tumah spread everywhere under an ohel, but even a series of overlapping roofs, ledges, overhangs and the like will create a continuous ohel that can transfer tumah great distances. For this reason a corpse in a building will very often cause problems for any kohein in the building, even if they are not in the same room as the dead body. (This is dependent on other factors which are beyond the scope of this article.) As a case in point, I remember a levayah of an American Rosh Yeshiva where the meis was brought into the Beis Medrash. Not only did the kohanim have to leave the Beis Medrash, they also were not allowed into the dormitory building, as the two were connected with a tunnel.

The transferal of tumah via an ohel takes place even where the overlapping ohalos (plural of ohel) are not the same height. For example, if a meis is underneath the roof of a carport and a second floor balcony extends over the carport, and the ledge of a roof extends over the balcony, the tumas meis transfers to all of these areas anyone under them becomes tamei.

This halacha has several practical ramifications. There was a steady rainfall during the levayah of Hagaon Harav Yisrael Yaakov Fisher zt”l of Yerushalayim. Because of this, many of the huge throng had open umbrellas, which unfortunately created a situation where tumah was transferred a great distance under the otherwise open sky.

The human body can also function as an ohel that conveys tumah. Therefore, if a person would lean out of window over a corpse or grave, he is now an ohel and transfers tumah into the house. Also, people crowded around a corpse or a grave create a continuous ohel that transfers tumah to anyone who touches them. Because of this, when attending funerals, a kohein should avoid contact with the crowd and keep his distance.

Another common situation where this halacha can cause unsuspecting kohanim to inadvertently become tamei, is when trees are located next to cemeteries. Tree branches and their foliage, depending on various factors such as the thickness of the branches and the density of the leaves, can very often create an ohel according to the Torah.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned the unfortunate situation of school buses parked under a canopy of trees adjacent to a cemetery. This is only one incident of many. In several major North American Jewish communities, trees make parks and roadways inaccessible to kohanim, sometimes even many blocks away from the source of the tumah. This of course causes more kohanim to inadvertently become tamei, as they have no reason to suspect that there is tumas meis where there are no graves in the immediate vicinity.


One concept that is misunderstood is the tumah of non-Jews. Although everyone knows that the body (and in some instances, body parts) of a Jew conveys tumah via all three methods: maga, masa and ohel, the status of a non-Jewish corpse is not fully understood.

The Mishnah in Ohalos (18:7) states that the homes of non-Jews are tamei, because they would sometimes bury stillborns beneath the floor. This indicates that tumas ohel is applicable to non-Jews. On the other hand, the Gemara (Baba Metziah 114b) quotes an incident where an Amora found Eliyahu, who was a kohein, in a non-Jewish graveyard and asked him what he was doing there. Eliyahu responded that non-Jewish graves do not convey tumah.

There is a disagreement among the Rishonim how to resolve this contradiction. Some explain that although non-Jewish corpses convey tumah through maga and masa, no tumah is transferred via ohel. Other Rishonim maintain that non-Jewish corpses do in fact convey tumah through ohel. However, Eliyahu wished to avoid the question and quoted an individual opinion that they do not.

The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 372) states that a kohein should follow the stringent opinion and not enter an ohel of a non-Jewish corpse.


We have discussed some of the halachic issues that kohanim face, but unfortunately, have barely scratched the surface. Next week, we will discuss some more points and see how these and other problems are being solved.

(Most of the halachic content of this article was taken from The Kohen’s Handbook by Rabbi Yochanan Lombard.)

This article originally appeared in the US edition of Yated Neeman.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *