A halachic question that has been asked countless times over the generations, and which is still widely discussed today, is whether Kohanim are permitted to visit the graves of the righteous.

Like many, Kohanim wish to visit the graves of tzaddikim, which are not only holy locations but also serve as inspiration to beseech Hashem in heartfelt prayer. Yet, approaching the graves, which sometimes involves entering a chamber built over the grave, often involves ritual impurity which is forbidden to Kohanim.

In the present article we will discuss this interesting and pertinent issue. Do graves of the righteous have tumah the same as other kevarim? Which Talmudic precedents do we find for this matter? And how have halachic authorities past and present related to the question?

These, among other questions, are discussed below.

The Righteous Do Not Defile

At the beginning of Parashas Chukas, the Ramban discusses the association of ritual impurity with death. Tumas meis, explains the Ramban, draws from etyo shel  nachash—the evil of the primordial Serpent, who 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 the remains of those who have departed from the world.

The Ramban makes a statement that could have broad halachic implications. Since the underlying cause of ritual impurity is this force of evil, it follows that those righteous individuals who death is carried out by Hashem—rather than by the Angel of Death—are not subject to ritual impurity (see also “Commentary to Ten Commandments,” printed in Writings of Ramban Vol. 2, p. 544).

He cites Chazal to this effect (see Tosafos, Bava Metzia 114b): “The righteous do not defile.”

Rebbi’s Death

The most direct proof for this concept in the writings of Chazal is found in the Talmudic narration of the funeral procession of Rebbi—Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the codifier of the Mishnah. When Rebbi died the sanctity of kehunah was waived (Kesubos 103b), which can be interpreted—as Rabbeinu Chaim Kohen says—to mean that Kohanim participated in his funeral.

According to the Ramban, this implies that the body of Rebbi was not ritually impure. The reason why Kohanim were permitted to participate in Rebbi’s funeral is that the death of the righteous is fundamentally unlike that of ordinary people, so that the ritual impurity which is ordinarily associated with death, does not tinge the righteous.

In this vein, Rabbeinu Chaim Kohen, himself a Kohen and one of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafos, stated (recorded by Tosafos in Kesubos 103b) that had he been alive at the time, he would have participated in the burial of (the great tosafist) Rabbeinu Tam. The statement is brought in Piskei Ha-Tosafos (the summary of the halachic rulings of Tosafos), though other Ba’alei Tosafos disagree with this ruling (ibid.).

Many Rishonim disagree with Rabbeinu Chaim Kohen. They explain that although Rabbi Yanai declared at the time of Rebbi’s death: “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 have no ritual impurity of death. The only reason Kohanim were present at Rebbi’s funeral is their respect for the leader of the generation. The obligation of respect outweighs the prohibition of ritual impurity to Kohanim.

The Beis Yosef writes that based on this approach, though Rabbeinu Tam was a renowned Torah scholar and spiritual leader, there was no sanction for a Kohen to become ritually impure at his funeral, because he was not a Prince (Nasi) of Israel.

Eliyahu and Rabbi Akiva

An additional source from which the Ramban derives the purity of the righteous even in death is the act and words of Eliyahu the prophet.

In spite of his being a Kohen—a matter that is itself discussed by Rishonim (see Tosafos, Bava Metzia 114b)—Chazal state that Eliyahu himself buried Rabbi Akiva, 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 Eliyahu at face value. In their opinion, the true reason Eliyahu buried Rabbi Akiva is that he was a meis mitzvah, meaning that 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 push off the questioner.

Yet, the Ramban (commentary on Yevamos 61a), faithful to his above-mentioned doctrine, accepts the statement of Eliyahu at face value, dismissing the suggestion that Eliyahu’s statement was insincere (since an incorrect statement might bring others to a mistake in halachah). According to the Ramban, the statement of Eliyahu that the righteous do not ritually defile is a true halachic ruling.

Proofs of Impurity

Two early poskim, 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 the same as those of others. They quote a number of proofs from the teachings of Chazal:

  • The Gemara in Bava Basra (58a) relates that Rabbi Benaa 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 Gemara (Sukkah 24b), the people who were ritually impure and required to bring the Pesach Sheini offering in the desert 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. All these people were certainly righteous, and yet we see that they defiled others in death.
  • The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85b) relates that Reish Lakish used to identify the graves of deceased rabbis. Rashi explains this was so that Kohanim should not stumble upon them, and become ritually impure.

These sources 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—and certainly from those that were not included in the Talmud.

Halachic Conclusions

Shut Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De’ah 466-469) suggests an interesting distinction in the matter of ritual defilement for graves of the righteous.

He explains that although the remains of a righteous individual have ritual impurity if he dies a natural death, they do not defile if he is killed. With this distinction, the Avnei Nezer is able to defer the proofs from some of the sources mentioned above, such as the burial of Rabbi Akiva. Yet, the distinction is difficult to accept (though he bases it on kabbalistic principles), and halachic authorities have not adopted it.

Note that the Avnei Nezer himself adds that in our generation, there is surely nobody about whom one can say that he does not defile after death.

It appears that it was once customary, in particular in the Land of Israel, for Kohanim to visit the graves of ancient tzaddikim. However, we find many authorities writing against this custom.

Pe’as Hashulchan (2:18), for instance, who was among the foremost disciples of the Vilna Gaon and among the first pioneers to settle the Land of Israel, writes that the practice should be banned, adding a number of proofs, and explaining that a proof brought from the Zohar is from a typing error (see 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 prohibition.

However, Rav Shlomo Alefandri (Saba Kadisha, YD 23) defends the custom, based on the above-mentioned statements of Ramban. Nevertheless, he concludes that acting passively in this respect—shev ve’al taaseh—and thus refraining from visiting graves, is preferable.

Concerning contemporary visits to Mearas Hamachpeilah, 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 those graves. The same ruling was issued by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (approbation to Zion Lenefesh Zvi), and by Rabbi Ovadyah Yosef zt”l (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. The general custom is to bury Kohanim—even the most righteous among them—near the fence at the edge of a graveyard, to enable family members to visit the kever from the outside, without becoming ritually impure.

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