This is the law regarding a man who dies in a tent: Anything that enters the tent and anything that is in the tent will become impure for seven days. (Bamidbar 19:14)
A halachic question that has occurred countless times over the generations, and which is still widely discussed today, is the matter of whether Kohanim are permitted to visit the graves of the righteous.
Like many among Israel, Kohanim too wish to visit the graves of tzaddikim, which serve not only as a holy location but even as inspiration to beseech Hashem in heartfelt prayer. Yet, approaching the graves, which sometimes involves entering a purpose-built chamber that stands over the grave, often involves a risk of ritual impurity, which Kohanim are forbidden from.
We will attempt to clarify this interesting issue, basing ourselves on the writings of past and present halachic authorities.
The Righteous Do Not Defile
At the beginning of the Parashah, Ramban discusses the association of ritual impurity with death. The very concept of tumas meis, in the words of Ramban, draws from etyo shel nachash—the evil of the Serpent that brought death to the world. It is this evil, which is transmitted via the Angel of Death, which causes ritual impurity to be manifest in those who have departed from the world.
Ramban continues by making a statement that could have broad halachic implications. Since the underlying cause of ritual impurity is the primordial evil of the Serpent, it follows that those righteous individuals who death is executed by Hashem—rather than by the Angel of Death—are not subject to the defilement of ritual impurity (see also “Commentary to Ten Commandments,” printed in Writings of Ramban Vol. 2, p. 544). As Chazal state (see Tosafos, Bava Metzia 114b), the righteous do not defile.
The most direct proof for this concept in the writings of Chazal is found in the Gemoro’s description of the funeral procession of Rebbi, the codifier of the Mishnah. In the words of the Talmud, when Rebbi died the sanctity of kehunah was waived, and Kohanim participated in the funeral (Kesubos 103b).
According to Ramban, the meaning of the Gemoro is that the body of Rebbe was not ritually impure. The reason why Kohanim were permitted to participate in Rebbe’s funeral is that the death of the righteous is fundamentally unlike that of ordinary people—to the extent that that the ritual impurity normally associated with death does not tinge the righteous.
In this vein, Rabbeinu Chaim Kohen, himself a Kohen and one of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosefos, stated (recorded by Tosefos in Kesubos 103B) that had he been alive at the time, he would have participated in the burial of (the great tosafist) Rabbeinu Tam. Although other Ba’alei Tosafos disagree with this halachic ruling (ibid.), the statement is quoted in Piskei Ha-Tosafos.
Many Rishonim disagree with Rabbeinu Chaim Kohen. They explain that although Rabbi Yanai declared at the time of Rebbi’s death that “priesthood does not apply today” (Yerushalmi, Berachos 21a), the reason for this is not because of Rebbi’s unique righteousness, but rather out of respect for his being the Prince of Israel (nasi). This, indeed, is the reasoning mentioned by Beis Yosef (Yoreh De’ah 374).
According to this line of reasoning, there is no proof from the events of Rebbi’s death that the righteous are immune to the ritual impurity of death. On the contrary: the only reason why Kohanim were actively present at the funeral is out of respect for the leader of the generation—an obligation of respect that outweighs even the prohibition of ritual impurity for Kohanim.
According to this view, for Rabbeinu Tam, a renowned Torah scholar but not the Prince of the generation, there would be no permit for a Kohen to become ritually impure.
Eliyahu and Rabbi Akiva
An additional source from which Ramban learns of the eternal purity of the righteous is the otherwise perplexing act and words of Eliyahu the prophet. In spite of his being a Kohen, Chazal state that Eliyahu himself brought Rabbi Akiva to burial, explaining that “no ritual impurity is present upon the righteous, and even not upon their disciples” (Midrash Mishlei, chap. 9).
Tosafos (Bava Metzia 114b), however, refuse to take the words of Rabbi Akiva at face value. In their opinion, the true reason why Eliyahu buried Rabbi Akiva is that he was a meis mitzvah, i.e. there was nobody else to bury him (he was executed in jail). Under such circumstances, the mitzvah of burial always defers the prohibition of ritual impurity for a Kohen. According to Tosafos, the statement of Eliyahu that “the righteous do not defile” was insincere, and was intended only to defer the questioner.
Yet Ramban (commentary on Yevamos 61a), faithful to his above-mentioned doctrine, accepts the statement of Eliyahu at face value, brushing aside the very suggestion that Eliyahu’s statement was insincere (since an incorrect statement might bring others to a mistake in halachah). According to Ramban, the statement of Rabbi Akiva that the righteous do not ritually defile is a true halachic ruling.
Proofs of Impurity
Two Rishonim, the Sefer Ha-Eshkol (Laws of Tumas Kohanim) and Maharil (no. 150), make a point of ruling that the graves of the righteous ritually defile no less than those of others. To this effect, they quote a number of solid proofs from the teachings of Chazal:
- The Gemoro in Bava Basra (58a) relates that Rabbi Bena’a specified the location of Me’aras Hamachpeilah, the burial place of the Patriarchs. Rashbam explains that he did this so that items related to kehunah should not be defiled.
- According to one opinion of the Gemoro (Sukkah 24b), the people who were ritually impure and required to bring the pesach sheini offering were those who carried Yosef’s coffin. According to another opinion (ibid. 25b), they were Mishael and Eltzaphan who came into contact with the bodies of Nadav and Avihu. These people were extremely righteous and yet we see that they defiled others.
- The Gemoro (Bava Metzia 85b) relates that Reish Lakish used to identify the graves of deceased rabbis. Rashi explains that the purpose of this was so that Kohanim should not stumble upon them, and become ritually impure.
These sources clearly indicate that the graves of the righteous are ritually impure just like those of other Jews. As to the question of Eliyahu’s burial of Rabbi Akiva, Sefer Ha-Eshkol writes that halachos cannot be extracted from aggadic passages that were not included in the Talmud.
Avnei Nezer (Yoreh Deoh, no. 466-469) suggests an interesting distinction. Although a righteous individual is subject to ritual impurity if he dies a natural death, he does not defile with ritual impurity if he is killed. By means of this distinction, Avnei Nezer is able to defer some of the sources mentioned above. Yet, the distinction is difficult to understand (though he bases it on kabbalistic principles), and halachic authorities have not adopted it.
[Avnei Nezer himself adds that in our generation, there is surely nobody about whom one can say that he does not defile after death.]
Thus, although it appears that it was once customary for Kohanim, in particular in the Land of Israel, to visit graves of ancient tzaddikim, we find many authorities writing against the custom. Pe’as Hashulchan (2:18), for instance who was among the foremost disciples of the Vilna Gaon who emigrated to the Land of Israel, writes that the practice should be banned, adding a number of proofs, and explaining that proof brought from the Zohar indicates nothing more than a typing error (Beis Yisrael 25).
The Hassidic Rebbe of Shinoveh also writes against the custom (responsum at the end of Divrei Yechezkel on the Torah), and Sedei Chemed (Rosh Hashanah 1) goes so far as to state that the main purpose of his visit to the Land of Israel was to warn about the matter. However, Rav Shlomo Alefandri (Saba Kadisha, YD 23) defends the custom, based on the above-mentioned statements of Ramban. Nevertheless, he concludes that “doing nothing” (shev ve’al taaseh) is preferable.
Concerning modern-day visits to mearas hamachpeilah, to the tomb of Rachel or to other renowned burial places of the righteous, Sedei Chemed quotes from the great Rabbi Shmuel Salant that Kohanim are not permitted to visit the graves. The same ruling has been issued by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (approbation to Zion Lenefesh Zvi), and (lehavdil) by Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef (Yechaveh Daas, YD 58).
Our conclusion is therefore that Kohanim who wish to visit burial sites of tzaddikim must ensure in advance that they will be able to do so without infringing the laws of ritual impurity.