Kohanim, Impurity and Us – Part II
In Part I we discussed several halachic issues that kohanim face. In this week’s column we will interview Rabbi Yochanan Lombard, co-founder and co-director of Taharas Hakohanim to see how these and other issues are being solved.
AR: Rabbi Lombard, what is the purpose of your organization?
RYL: Taharas Hakohanim is an international, non-profit educational organization dedicated to increasing awareness of the unique rights and responsibilities of kohanim, and protecting their needs.
AR: What do you mean by “responsibilities”?
RYL: The name “Kohein” is not merely a surname. It is a title. In a corporation, for example, where the CEO inherited his position from his father, even though he did nothing to earn the title, the title bears with it responsibilities. He has to know his job and how to do it. The same applies to kohanim. They received their title from their great-great grandfather, and with the title comes responsibilities. They have to know what these responsibilities are in order to do their job correctly.
AR: What type of responsibilities are you speaking of?
RYL: At this stage, with the unfortunate lack of the Beis Hamikdash, may it be speedily rebuilt, I am referring to the responsibility of maintaining his holy status by not coming in contact with tumas meis.
AR: How does Taharas Hakohanim achieve its goals?
RYL: We provide lectures, newsletters, telephone and e-mail hotlines. We also maintain an extensive network of rabbonim and volunteers who identify potential halachic complications and work intensively to resolve such problems.
AR: I understand that you yourself are not a kohein. How did you get involved in this project?
RYL: For a very long time I wanted to learn Seder Taharos. Since the time he was a yeshiva bochur, a friend of mine, Rabbi Dovid Hakohein Munk, wanted to learn Mishnayos Ohalos, which deal with the halachos of tumas meis, and write a summary of the halachos. He invited me to join him in learning Ohalos with the intent of understanding the practical applications of the halacha.
AR: Isn’t that a major undertaking?
RYL: At the time we did not realize how major it was. However, with tremendous siyata dishmaya we persevered and the result was the Hebrew sefer, Taharas Hakohanim, a commentary to Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Deah, chapters 369-374, which deal with kohanim coming in contact with tumah. At a later date, we compiled a English book entitled, “A Kohen’s Handbook,” with the basic guidelines of avoiding tumas meis.
AR: Were the two sefarim well received?
RYL: Exceptionally so. Most importantly, they generated awareness. These halachos are very complex and most people, even some major talmidei chachomim, are not aware of the practical halachic issues. People who learned the sefarim were amazed to discover how very common occurrences actually create problems for kohanim.
AR: Could you provide an example?
RYL: The halacha is that the human body can become an ohel that transfers tumah. This created a problem for the Sfas Emes Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. The Pnei Menacham (uncle of the current Gerer Rebbe) and his father, the Imrei Emes (the third Gerer Rebbe), are both buried in the Yeshiva’s courtyard. Twice a year, on their respective yahrtzeits, thousands of people come to the kevarim. The large crowd of people becomes a tumah “transmitter,” and very often they overflow into the building. This allows the tumah to enter the building, making it off-limits to kohanim. Once people became aware of this, signs were posted in the yeshiva to the effect that kohanim are not to enter the building on the yahrtzeits.
This awareness generated a slew of halachic inquiries, and my chavrusah and I saw the need for an organization to deal with these and other issues. To answer this need we founded Taharas Hakohanim.
When the organization started, it dealt primarily with issues in Eretz Yisrael. There was a similar organization in theUScalled Vaad Mishmeres Kehuna, which was founded due to the involvement of Rabbi Yechezkel Roth. He was very concerned about various questions raised by kohanim, and he asked other rabbanim to join him in making a special committee. Members of this group included Rabbi Avigdor Miller and Rabbi Pam zt”l and ybl”ch Rabbi Yonasan Strasser, Rabbi Shlomo Gross of Belz, Rabbi Chaim Leib Katz and his brother the Viener Rav, Rabbi Osher Anshel Katz.
They dealt primarily with halachic issues and with the problem of trees hanging over Jewish graves and main highways, which impeded kohanim’s freedom of travel. They have overseen the trimming of hundreds of trees in theNew Yorkarea at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. However, trees grow back and in addition, there are many places where they were never able to trim the trees because of a lack of sufficient funds.
For the sake of unity, the two organizations decided to merge. We now have a joint Rabbinical board and our new name is Vaad Hakohanim for Kohen Purity.
AR: What types of problems has Vaad Hakohanim dealt with?
RYL: One of the first big issues was the new terminal in the Ben Gurion airport. The introduction of the use of jet ways (“accordion sleeves”) meant that a plane would be physically attached to the terminal. Therefore, several times a day the entire terminal would be off-limits to kohanim because of the presence of a meis on a plane. The tumah would transfer from the plane via the ohel of the jet way and spread throughout the terminal.
Another major task is working with various hospitals, such asBarzilaiHospitalinAshkelon, to make them permissible to kohanim. When we checked this hospital, a number of problems were discovered. First of all, although the morgue was situated over 100 yards from the main building, it was halachically connected to the main building by large overhead pipes. Similar pipes connected the hospital to the outpatients’ clinic, connecting them also to the morgue.
The problem was solved by building strategically placed walls of wire netting under the pipes. These blocked the tumah from spreading.
Another troublesome area was, of course, the operating theater with its high incidence of deaths, abortions, and amputations. To solve this problem, we arranged the installation of a double pair of doors that shut automatically. This created a continual situation in the rest of the hospital of safek tumah birshus harabim (doubtful tumah in a public place), which is permitted for kohanim. In addition, arrangements are underway to ensure that anything that causes tumas meis will be taken straight outside the operating suite via a special exit, and not allowed to enter the hospital.
INVOLVEMENT OF THE NON-KOHEIN
AR: Why should these issues be a concern to those of us who are not kohanim?
RYL: Before reading Parshas Zachor the custom in many shuls is for the gabbai to announce, “everyone should have in mind to fulfill the positive Torah commandment of remembering to eradicate Amalek.” I think that we should institute another custom: Every week before the kohein is called for his aliyah the gabbai should announce: “Everyone should have in mind to fulfill the positive Torah commandment of ‘vekidashto,’ ‘you shall sanctify him (the kohein).’” The reason why we give the kohein the first aliyah is because of this mitzvah. We are all commanded to sanctify the kohein by giving him certain honors and by seeing to it that he maintains his higher level of sanctity.
One very practical application of this is carpools. It is very possible that one of the boys in the group is a kohein. If the non-kohein parents are not aware of these issues, they could unwittingly drive the car through an ohel hameis on the way to school and be guilty of the equivalent of feeding that young kohein a cheeseburger!
KOHANIM AND THE MODERN ERA
AR: Tumas meis and kohanim have been around for a long time. What has changed that these questions are suddenly popping up now?
RYL: There are three major differences between our day and age and fifty years ago. The first issue is the size of the buildings. It used to be that if there was a corpse, it was “over there somewhere,” and had really nothing to do with most people. The tumah tended to be more contained. Over the years the size of buildings has grown and if there is one meis in a large apartment building, dozens, if not hundreds of apartments are effected. Also, most hospitals were not the major complexes they are today. Different departments and wards used to be in separate buildings, thus minimizing the spread of the tumah. Modern hospitals now have everything under “one roof” with tunnels and corridors connecting every building and department.
Another change that has occurred is how much people travel. Years ago it was quite normal for a person to spend most of his life in a five-mile radius of his home. In our era, people may travel hundreds of miles a day! The more a person travels the greater is the chance is that he will come across tumas meis.
A third point is the expansion of urban areas. Most people buried their dead in cemeteries beyond the city limits, so again the tumah was “over there.” Nowadays, with the growth of the heavily populated areas, we are finding more and more cemeteries bordering, if not already inside, urban centers.
MAPPING OUT THE HOT SPOTS
AR: Vaad Hakohanim publishes biannual newsletters, and I have noticed that several of them have maps of various places both in theUSand in Eretz Yisrael. Can you please tell us about this?
RYL: This is another area in which we are expending much time and effort on. It all started a few years ago, when after graves were found in downtown Tevariyah, an organization in Eretz Yisrael issued a proclamation to the effect that kohanim are not allowed to enter Tevariyah! We felt that this situation was simply unacceptable. We are talking about an area that contains major thoroughfares and junctions for all people traveling through the northern part of the country, especially to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. So first we determined which streets went over graves and then we created a map indicating the problematic areas. More importantly, and this is something that we are very insistent on with all of our maps, we show alternate routes in order to alleviate some of the hardship.
AR: Why do they have to make detours? This seems to be an unfair hardship.
RYL: Let me put things into perspective. It says in Pirkei Avos (6:5) that Kehunah, priesthood, is acquired with twenty-four privileges. This is usually explained to mean that the kohanim were awarded twenty-four gifts, e.g., terumah, challah. However, there is another explanation. Kehunah is acquired through twenty-four obligations, e.g., not becoming tamei, not marrying certain women. The twenty-four gifts awarded to the kohanim are a type of compensation for the obligations. (See Machzor Vitri chap. 429, s.v. she’hamalchus)
You are correct. It is a hardship. However, kohanim have responsibilities and these responsibilities come with obligations. We try and make things easier for them, but there is a limit to what can be done.
AR: Is there not a way to fix the streets so that kohanim can travel on them?
RYL: Sure. Do you have $50,000?
AR: Let us go on to the next question, please. What other areas have you mapped out?
RYL: We have three other maps. One is ofCoastal Plain Highway, a major artery that passes throughHaifa, linking the towns north ofHaifato the city and to Tel Aviv. Again, the problem is that there are graves under the road and kohanim have to avoid that segment of the highway. The remaining two maps are of theHackensackCemeteryinTeaneckand theWoodlawnCemeteryinLakewood.
AR: What is the problem at these two locations?
RYL: There are trees that create an ohel over the adjacent roads, and therefore the roads should be avoided. Again, all the maps provide alternative routes.
BLACK AND WHITE VERSUS GREY
AR: Are these not non-Jewish cemeteries?
RYL: There are two answers to that question. The simple, straightforward answer is that, yes, they are non-Jewish, but apparently there are Jewish graves there as well. The more complex answer is, that it might not make a difference.
Let me explain. Not everything in Halacha is black and white. There are many areas that need to be classified as “grey.” In other words, there are issues that are the subject of disagreement either between the Rishonim or between the Acharonim, and they were never resolved. But just because it is “grey,” does not necessarily mean that it is “white.” However, if a person does follow the lenient opinion, can he be classified as a sinner? Chas v’Shalom! He has opinions to rely on. However, how one should conduct himself is dependant on several factors: 1) His current situation, 2) how difficult it is for him to be stringent, 3) inconvenience to other people, and 4) of course, his level of yiras Shamayim.
The halacha of ohel tumas hameis of non-Jewish graves is a case in point. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 372:2) writes regarding tumas ohel of a non-Jew: It is proper to be careful. This expression creates a grey area in halacha. Is it absolutely forbidden for a kohein to enter the ohel of a non-Jewish grave? No. Is it absolutely permitted? The answer again is no. How much does one have to be careful? That depends on the situation and again, his yiras Shamayim.
Let me tell you two true stories which I heard from the protagonists that bring out this point. A kohein once asked Dayan Yitzchak Weiss zt”l if he could drive through an ohel of non-Jewish graves on the way to work, or whether he must make a detour. The Dayan answered that he should make the detour. Subsequently, the kohein found that in Minchas Yitzchak, Dayan Weiss permitted this. When he confronted the Dayan on the apparent contradiction, he answered that according to the letter of the law, it is permitted. However, is it really such a bother to make the detour?
Story number two: A kohein was driving with his wife and son late at night down a dark two-lane road in an unfamiliar area, when they came to a cemetery on the right side of the road. It was impossible to tell whether it was Jewish or not and they could see trees hanging over the cemetery and the right lane. What should they do? Is it forbidden? I cannot say that it is, but it is also not “glatt kosher.” This is an issue of yiras Shamayim.
AR: What did they do?
RYL: They got out and walked on the other side of the road until they passed the cemetery.
TRIMMING THE TREES
AR: Getting back to the issue of trees covering the roads; I do not understand why there is such a fuss. Why don’t you just trim the trees?
RYL: First of all, one cannot “just trim the trees.” The trees are public property and in most locations there are laws forbidding any unauthorized trimming. In addition, there are government offices that deal with these matters and everything must go through them.
AR: Why should the authorities not agree to a request to trim back trees if they cause inconvenience to people?
RYL: How many people are we talking about? To the officials it seems that we are talking about a minority of a minority. Most officials would love to help, but they have to weigh the needs of the few verses the needs of the many. Trees are very important. Aside from aesthetic concerns, which are important everywhere, in urban areas where there are high levels of pollution, trees are doubly important as they replenish the oxygen supply.
This is one of areas where an organization of kohanim is an advantage. If I approach a government official as a representative of a group of people for whom the lack of tree trimming causes inconvenience, the larger the group, the more willing the official will be to listen.
AR: Are there any other areas that you plan on mapping out?
RYL: Yes. During my next trip to the US, I will be working in the Catskills in preparation for the summer. First we must determine which cemeteries are problematic, as not every cemetery that has trees next to it is automatically off limits to kohanim. Many times trees or a series of trees seem to create an ohel, but for various technical reasons do not. However, a kohein should not be the one to check out the situation, because it must be examined from up close, which of course, is impossible for a kohein. Once we determine where the problem spots are, we can approach the authorities to try and convince them to trim the trees.
AR: Do you have any concluding remarks?
RYL: Let me conclude with an anecdote and an observation. A neighbor, who is a kohein, told me the following story. His five-year-old son was playing with marbles and put one in his mouth. The child’s mother warned him that that was very dangerous, and if he swallowed one, chalilah, he would have to go to the hospital. The boy responded, “I can’t go to the hospital. I’m a kohein!”
In essence, this story is what Vaad Hakohanim is all about. We are trying to generate an awareness among the kohanim that they are special and that they have unique responsibilities. Such a reaction regarding any potential tumas meis should be second-nature to every single kohein, whether an adult or a child.
This article originally appeared in the US edition of Yated Neeman.