Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha




Larchmont Temple—Har Chayim

The F*-WORD…[F _ _ _ _]…Questions, Conflicts & Connection of FAITH


EMOR—Leviticus     21:1-12


 …Key KOSHI…

HOW/WHY does death defile the Kohanim?

WHAT does our human response to death teach us about our faith?







V.1-2      Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for his mother or father, or for his son, or for his daughter, or for his brother, or for his virgin sister, near to him, who has never belonged to a man, for her may he make himself tamei.

ABARVANEL“None shall defile himself among his kin with regard to his soul.” [cf. Deut 4:15] The continued contact of the spiritual soul with the dead material body is the source of uncleanness.

JASTROWTaMeH—To be filled up, inaccessible;  to be unclean, unfit for sacred service…To be levitically impure… Derivative:  TaMaH—reasoning on the cause of grief;  gathering of comforters round the mourner in consolation.

RASHI … None shall defile himself—But for a dead person who is not “among his kin”—if there are no other Jews who can see to burial—he may do so.

IBN EZRA“b’Amav—among his kin,” That is, among his people—all of Israel are kin.

JPS…Similar provisions occur in Ezekiel 44:25: “A priest shall not defile himself by entering a house where there is a dead person.  He shall defile himself only for his father or mother, son or daughter, brother or unmarried sister.”  The precise sense of “AM” is crucial…In chapter 21, its consistent meaning is “kin.”  The social context is the clan.  As a general rule, an ordinary priest may not become defiled by contact with the dead of his own clan, but he may for those most closely related to him…

V.4         He shall not defile himself, being a chief among his people, to profane himself.       

RASHI… This is the p’shat of the verse, that “a husband shall not make himself impure through his wife” so long as she is “among the people,” meaning so long as there is another to attend to her burial.  If not, he is obligated to do so.

RASHBAM…According to the Sages, the verse means that he may not defile himself for a wife who is forbidden, but for a proper wife he may do so.

S’FORNO…Being a “Ba’Al—Chief” he must not give honor to the dead except for his relatives, for their honor is his honor.


V.5-6      They are not to make-bald a bald-spot on their head, the edge of their beard they are not to shave off, in their flesh they are not to incise an incision.  Holy are they to be to their God, they are not to profane the Name, for the food offerings of their God they bring near, so they are to be holy.           

IBN EZRA… “They shall not smooth any parts of their heads”—for the dead…”or cut the side-growth of their beards”—as is the custom of mourning in certain parts of Babylonia…”or gash gashes in their flesh”—not even a single one.  All of Israel has previously been forbidden to do any of these, so the priest who does may not serve before the Lord.

S’FORNO… “bald spots and gashes”  Although I have permitted them to defile themselves with their dead kin to honor those they love, I have not permitted them to mourn excessively so as to increase their association with death.

ETZ HAYIM… As public figures, the Kohanim must be role models of dealing with grief and loss, balancing their personal sorrow with their commitment to serving the people and the obligation to accept death as part of God’s plan for the world.

RAMBAN“Kedoshim Yiheyu”—Holiness means self-restraint, as I have explained in my comment to 19:2.  The priest must restrain himself even from things permissible for an ordinary Israelite…

RASHI… “They shall be holy”    They will be holy whether they want to be or not; so the court will enforce this law.

ABARVANEL…The Priests might think they are sufficiently distant from idolatry to have to worry—but they do.

V.10-12  Now the Kohen who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured…His head he is not to bare, his garments he is not to tear;  in the presence of any dead he is not to enter, for even his father or his mother he is not to defile himself. He shall not go outside  the Sanctuary and profane the Sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of God’s anointing, Mine, the Lord’s

TORAT KOHANIM… R’ Meir holds: The kohen Gadol may not be part of the funeral procession, “he may not go out to it” but may only follow at a distance.”  R’ Judah holds “A Kohen Gadol may not leave the Sanctuary during the funeral of a parent.”  According to R’ Meir’s view we can understand “mikdash” not as Sanctuary but Sanctity—he shall not leave his sanctified status by participating to the fullest in the funeral of a parent… Lest in his grief he come too close and become “tamei.” [Talmud, Sanhedrin, 18a]

RASHI…  “he shall not go outside the mikdash”—That is, he does not attend the funeral.  Our Sages further learned from this phrase that a High priest who has lost a family member may nevertheless go on with the temple service, even before their burial…

RAMBAN…  The two rabbinic explanations given by RASHI contradict each other.  If the text permits the High Priest not to go outside the Sanctuary, but to serve while he is in the first stage of mourning, then there is nothing here that prevents him from attending the funeral.  If RASHI’s explanation is correct, the understanding is: he need not go outside the Sanctuary, nor does he profane the Sanctuary” —while still serving during mourning, as would a regular priest.

ABARVANEL“Ani Adonai”—And the Kohen Gadol ought to pay no mind to the dead when in My Presence—for I live forever, and eternal salvation is found through Me, not through those already dead and gone.



R’ Pinchas PELI…This command must be seen, as the prohibitions on all the kohanim, and even the restrictions on mourning rites on all Israel, against the backdrop of the gaudy worship of the dead in ancient Egypt from where the people had recently emerged.  All of life in ancient Egypt centered around death, concentrating on building one’s “house of eternity”—the tomb.  When death came, the priests took over with a series of rituals, processions and incantations to get the body to its proper place.  The dead were buried with clothes, eating utensils, weapons….and in royal burials, slaves were slain and buried by the king’s side to serve him in the next world…Funerals in ancient Egypt lasted for 70 days; they were filled with pomp and ceremony.

In Jewish tradition, the less time that elapses between death and burial, the better.  The simpler the ceremony, the more commendable…Funerals were big business back in Egypt for the temple and the priests and the extensive death “industry” that grew around them…Not only is the kohen restrained from all of this, he is not even allowed to come near the dead. This emphasizes that his job was not to cater to the dead, but to serve as a model of holiness for the living.  A traditional Jew to this day who is a Kohen may not enter a cemetery or a house where there is a corpse. However, to eliminate the suggestion that there is an intrinsic demonic defilement in the human corpse comes the exception which sheds light on the rule.  The Priest must take care of the burial of his seven closes t of kin…for this is a prime human obligation….It is not death that defiles the priest, but the shifting of the weight of his duties from the living to the dead.



We have a tradition in the name of Reb Menachem Mendl that the main idea was that the High Priest should be set apart from all material relations, so much so that he may not feel any connection coming from the side of his physical being.  “And the High Priest is set apart” so that he can be a holy of holies.  Despite his being just an ordinary physical person, nevertheless, his soul should continually dwell with the angels on high, never permitting him to be ritually defiled.  He must remove himself from human nature as one who erases from his heart all the cares of this decaying world.  From his great cleaving to God—the joining of his soul to Heaven—the death of even a relative will not disturb him, for he has already departed from them while still alive.


SIRKMAN…. [HH Days, 1992]

I never planned on filling in my Bobba’s grave, certainly not by myself.

But I remember watching, waiting till everyone else had put a shovel or two in, and then I started. Slowly at first, then faster and faster.  The rhythm overtook me; sounds of Bobba’s table filled my head. I did not for a moment hear that dirt; I was no longer standing there.  The act of shoveling in transported me.  Bobba’s love—even in returning it—rescued me yet again…  And when I stopped, sweat mixed with tears pouring down, her grave was filled…As I gave the cemetery gravedigger back his shovel, he hugged me.  At the moment, I did not know why…

Yet knowing all she’d given me in my lifetime, it was the least I could do.

And in so doing, I had joined the ranks of the Chevra Kadisha…the Sacred Burial Society.

The Talmud teaches that the burial of a loved one is the most holy mitzvah—Chesed Shel Emet, lovingkindness of truth, for it is the most selfless act—one  for which we never can be repaid.

Lifting the shovel, standing as close as we can get as the grave is covered, leaving no doubt between ourselves and that final deed, we understand: death is forever, beyond our denial and disbelief….

Yet, in that very same recognition, we realize as well, something of us can never die….


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