Class Notes - Class #16

The next mitzvot are based on the section of the Torah often called “torat cohanim.”  We will see mitzvot related to cohanim becoming tamei, who cohanim may or may not marry, and several other topics.  It will take us several classes to cover all this material.

            Mitzvah #269 requires us to give preference to cohanim.  A cohen should be the first person called up for reading the Torah, should be asked to lead the Grace After Meals, and should be served first at a meal. 

The author explains the shoresh for this mitzvah as a mechanism for reminding us of the honor we owe to God.  One way to honor a master is to treat his agents with respect; when we give honorable preference to cohanim, we honor God who appointed the cohanim.  The cohanim may not refuse these preferences, since the purpose is not to honor the cohanim personally, but to honor God who chose them.  Even cohanim who are not qualified to serve in the Temple are given these preferences.  But a cohen who is not worthy of honor because of his bad behavior does not get or deserve preference.

The author fills in some details of two aspects of this mitzvah.  A cohen is the first to be called to the Torah, followed by a levi.  If there is no cohen present, no Levi need be called before others.  If there is a cohen but no levi, the cohen is called both as the cohen and then again in place of the levi.  (Of course, every cohen is also a levi.)  We do not call two different cohanim because people might think we did that because there was some problem with the first cohen. 

Second the author discusses apparent conflicts between people who would normally be given honor or preference.  As between a Torah scholar and a cohen who is not a scholar, in theory the Torah scholar is given preference.  That is true even if the Torah scholar is not of distinguished ancestry, even if the Torah scholar is a mamzer.  But the author says he has never seen a Torah scholar accept that preference over a cohen.


Mitzvot #263, 264, 270 and 271 prohibit cohanim from encountering tumat meit except when the cohen’s close relative has died.  We also learn about obligations of mourning at the death of anyone’s close relative.

            Mitzvah #263 starts with the notion that an ordinary cohen is prohibited from coming in contact with tumat meit voluntarily.  Similarly, mitzvot #270 and 271 reiterate that prohibition for the cohen gadol.  The prohibition on contact with tumat meit applies to sons of cohanim but not daughters of cohanim.  (In the rest of my notes on these four mitzvot, I will use the term tamei as shorthand.  The only type of tumah relevant to these mitzvot is tumat meit.)

            The author refers to the shoresh from his first discussion of tumah in mitzvah #159.  There he said that since God would only command us to do things that are good for us, there must be something harmful in tumah even if we do not understand how that harm comes about.  Tumat meit is the ultimate, most powerful form of tumah.  The author suggests a reason for that: when a person dies, whatever good the person did departs from the corpse with the person’s soul, leaving only the person’s body which was engaged in sin.  That fits with the notion in the Jerusalem Talmud that the body of a righteous person is not a source of tumah, a notion that has homiletical but not halachic validity.  Cohanim, chosen to minister in God’s special service, are especially required to stay away from tumat meit.  We will see later that cohanim had more economic incentives to remain tahor than ordinary people did.

The author goes into quite a bit of detail about tumat meit.  We covered much of this content when we studied tumah and taharah earlier on. The author explains some details we did not cover, and what he adds fits in to the context of our prior discussion.  The prohibition on cohanim voluntarily becoming tamei by contact with a corpse applies everywhere and at all times.  Thus, it impacts cohanim who want to go to a funeral, go to medical school or enter other fields that require someone to do an autopsy or come in contact with parts of dead bodies, cohanim who want to visit hospitals, etc.

These prohibitions create an agonizing conflict when a close relative of a cohen dies.  The cohen naturally wants to be involved in the burial and mourning for the deceased relative, and that would violate these prohibitions.  Our author explains that out of compassion for the cohanim, God made an exception to the prohibition on a cohen coming in contact with tumat meit to allow an ordinary cohen to bury and mourn for a close relative.  But mitzvah #271 has no such exception for the cohen gadol.  The cohen gadol has a higher calling, and his personal interests are secondary to that higher calling.  The cohen gadol must try to transcend temporal concerns to focus on spiritual matters.

Mitzvah #264 requires a cohen to bury and mourn for a close relative despite the fact that the cohen becomes tamei in doing that.  If the cohen wants to have someone else bury his relative so he can avoid becoming tamei, the midrash halachah says he is forced to participate.  The Talmud relates a story of a cohen whose wife died just before Passover.  The cohen wanted to remain tahor so he could participate in the Passover rituals, but the rabbis objected.  They shoved him, presumably so he touched the corpse, and he became tamei despite his objections.

Rambam understands this mitzvah to extend so that it requires all Jews to bury and mourn for their close relatives.  At the end of the essay, the author mentions that other authorities disagree and consider all post-burial aspects of mourning to be rabbinic.  But the author writes about the content of this mitzvah following Rambam’s view, and says that someone who refuses to mourn a close relative should be forced to do so.

The shoresh the author outlines connects the death of someone’s close relative to the process of the mourner repenting for his or her sins.  As the author has said often, our characters are influenced by our actions.  When someone’s relative dies, the person is consumed by grief.  When the mourner is required to bury the dead person and then attend to formal mourning, the mourner will focus attention on grief, but also on the possibility that the mourner’s sins might be responsible for the grief.  Then the mourner might set about to improve. 

The author says this notion is directly opposite from the thought that someone’s death might be the result of chance events. And the author objects vociferously to that notion.  He says only heretics could think that and that such ideas are entirely alien to Judaism.  He says books that convey that notion should be burned.  This is a stronger statement than we have seen the author make until now.  He seems to be saying that nothing that happens to people is a matter of chance; in earlier discussions he left room for chance events and only asked that we consider the possibility that our individual sins might have been the cause of our misfortunes.

To understand the details the author provides about mourning we need to keep in mind that there are two phases of responsibility for someone whose close relative dies.  The first phase, the period of time from the death until the burial, is called “aninut.”  The second phase, called “aveilut,” follows the burial.  It consists of seven days of intense mourning, called “shivah,” another 23 days of less intense mourning called “shloshim,” and, for a child mourning a parent, an even less intense period that extends through the year after the death.   We will see that mitzvah #537, which requires every Jew to bury an abandoned corpse, a “meit mitzvah,” applies to cohanim and even to the cohen gadol.  Also, not everything the author mentions is common practice now.

The source verse for this mitzvah, Lev. 21:3, lists the relatives for whom a Jew is required to mourn, and for whom a cohen becomes tamei: someone’s mother, father, son, daughter, brother who shares the same father, and unmarried sister who shares the same father.   That leaves several obvious omissions:  a brother or sister who shares the same mother but not the same father, a married sister, and a spouse.  The author says the rabbis legislated mourning for those brothers and sisters, although a cohen does not become tamei in mourning for them.  The rabbis required mourning for a spouse by requiring the living spouse to treat the deceased spouse as a meit mitzvah. Thus, a cohen is obligated to personally bury his deceased wife and become tamei in the process.  This is a radical notion.  The rabbis re-classify the cohen’s behavior so that the cohen is required to become tamei through rabbinic legislation in spite of the apparent Torah prohibition on his becoming tamei.

The author deals with some special cases.  There is no formal mourning if a baby is born prematurely and does not survive for thirty days after birth.  However, if a child born after a full term pregnancy dies, even in the first thirty days, that child is mourned as anyone else would be.  There is no mourning for thoroughly evil people such as someone who was a moser or a heretic.  There is no mourning for an intentional suicide; the author mentions that determining whether a suicide was intentional is a complex issue. 

Aveilut begins when the burial is complete, and mourning for the rest of that day is a mitzvah d’oraita.  The rest of shivah is d’rabanan, instituted originally by Mosheh.  (Note that even though the source of this practice is Mosheh, Mosheh was legislating as any later rabbi would.)  The author cites the Talmud, Moed Katan 14b, to justify that the first day is d’oraita.  The Talmud explains that aveilut is nullified if it occurs on a holiday such as Passover or Succot.  The Talmud says the positive mitzvah obligatory on everyone, the holiday, overrides the positive mitzvah that applies to an individual, the person’s mourning.  Note the explicit statement that individual mourning is a positive mitzvah.

The author fills in more details of how personal mourning interacts with major holidays:  Rosh haShanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Pessah, Shavuot.  If a death happens during a holiday, the burial takes place but the mourning does not begin until the end of the holiday.  If the death happens during hol hamoed, the middle days of Pessah and Succot, the mourner tears his or her clothing.  If a holiday interrupts the mourning, though, the holiday cancels the remainder of that particular period of mourning.  If the mourner observers even as little as a few minutes of mourning before the holiday starts, the rest of that period of mourning is overridden.   (That does not apply to the full year of mourning for a parent.)

Close relatives who are required to mourn are also required to tear their clothing.  Sometimes the mourner may re-sew the tear, for example a woman who will be embarrassed to wear torn clothing, but the mourner may have to leave the repair ragged rather than neatly sewn.  The author mentions the possibility that people should tear their clothing when a great teacher or luminary dies as well as on seeing certain places, presumably in Israel, in ruin. 

Different rules apply when the mourners learn about the death more than thirty days after the death.  In that case, the mourners observe only one day of shivah rather than the usual seven days.  They do not tear their clothing. Authorities disagree about whether there is an exception for children who learn of the death of a parent.

The author says that the rabbis require someone whose close relative is a mourner to observe the mourning customs of the mourning relative when in the presence of that relative.  So, for example, when someone’s parent is in mourning, the child who is visiting that parent should share the mourning rituals along with the parent during the visit. 

The author mentions many of the subtopics related to mourning.  He fills in more detail on some than on others.  He mentions that there are detailed rules on when and how to deliver eulogies, on rituals, for blessings said and consolation practices during the mourning period.  He mentions that there are complex rules that apply to re-burials.  He does not talk about the timing of funerals and burials, what mourners may or may not do before the burial and during shivah and shloshim, the meal of consolation that he mentioned in a prior essay.  Overall, the author makes it clear there is much more to know about this mitzvah than he covers in his essay, even without having mentioned all the sub-topics.

As we said earlier, the cohen gadol is prohibited from voluntarily encountering tumat meit even when his close relative dies.  To be precise, mitzvah #270 prohibits the cohen gadol from being under the same roof with a corpse, and mitzvah #271 prohibits the cohen gadol from becoming tamei meit by other means of contact with a corpse.  When an ordinary cohen is not dealing with the death of a close relative the same two prohibitions apply, but for an ordinary cohen both prohibitions are subsumed under one mitzvah whereas there are two separate mitzvot that apply to a cohen gadol.  The author explains the difference based on a close reading of the source verses. The verse regarding the cohen gadol, Lev. 21:11 has two separate clauses, each the source of a separate mitzvah.  Only one phrase appears in the verse about ordinary cohanim, Lev. 21:1, but the midrash halachah infers both prohibitions through a g’zerah shavah.  However, Rambam counts two mitzvot about the cohen gadol because there are two explicit phrases whereas he infers only one mitzvah about the ordinary cohen because there is only one explicit phrase.  Derivation by g’zerah shavah is not strong enough to create a separate mitzvah.


Several mitzvot in torah cohanim prohibit cohanim from serving in the Temple under certain conditions.

            Mitzvah #278 prohibits a cohen who is tamei from serving in the Temple. 

            Mitzvah #265 prohibits a cohen who is a t’vul yom from serving in the Temple.  As we discussed earlier, when someone or something was tamei, the person or thing would be immersed in a mikvah, typically during the day, but would remain tamei until evening.  Someone or something that was a rishon l’tumah before immersion becomes a sheni l’tumah after the immersion, and becomes entirely tahor at nightfall.  (If these terms are not familiar, you might want to review our discussion of tumah and taharah in Season 2 Classes 3 & 4.  The author writes specifics about the different levels of tumah.  We covered that topic earlier, so we will not focus on the details here.  What the author says should be consistent with what we discussed earlier.)

            In discussing the shoresh, the author adds to what he has said previously about the role the cohanim play.  The cohanim serve as agents to facilitate Jews becoming closer to God through the Temple and through sacrifices, which help make atonement for our sins.  Thus, the cohanim must strive to uphold the highest possible standards, including remaining tahor.  But our author is puzzled about how this particular requirement of t’vul yom fits in.  He suggests that immersion in the mikvah does not itself accomplish purity until sunset.  But, the author says, God gave us this requirement and God must have had a reason.

            Mitzvot #275 – 277 deal with cohanim who have a physical defect that disqualifies them from serving in the Temple.  The source verses, Lev. 21:17 – 21, list several examples of things that are a “mum,” a disqualifying physical condition.  Mitzvah #275 prohibits a cohen with a permanent mum from processing sacrifices.  But the source verses say “col ish,” “every man.”  The word “col,” all, is considered a “ribui,” a word that implies the verse includes cases that are not explicit.  Here, the rabbis interpret the ribui to add cases of a cohen with a temporary mum, and that is the source of mitzvah #276.  As to several other qualifications for cohanim to serve in the Temple, Rambam defines the qualification as a mitzvah d’oraita and Ramban does not.  We have another example here.  Rambam relies on the ribui as the source for a separate Torah mitzvah, whereas Ramban considers it just an aspect of mitzvah #275 about a cohen with a permanent mum.

            Our author knows that someone with a physical deformity can be a wonderful and ethical person.  But the question here is serving in the Temple.  The Temple was designed to create an overwhelming sense of beauty and perfection  in the hope that that atmosphere would help bring those who came to the Temple a sense of the presence of God.  The cohanim who worked in the Temple contributed to that atmosphere in many ways; they had to be well groomed, their uniforms had to be neat, etc.  This mitzvah forbids cohanim with physical deformities from serving in the Temple, lest their unusual appearance distract from the overall atmosphere that affects those who come to the Temple.  Therefore, a mum does not disqualify a cohen from any of the other activities cohanim do, or disqualify cohanim from eating sacrificial food or the various gifts Jews are required to give to cohanim.  A cohen with a mum might come to the Temple with the rest of his mishmar, but would work at jobs other than processing the sacrifices.  The author says they might work on sorting the wood for the fire on the mizbeah. 

            The author catalogs several different categories of mum.  In general, only an external mum disqualifies a cohen.  Some defects which are a mum in a person would also be a mum in an animal that had a parallel defect.  The author lists all of them and specifies some that seem out of the ordinary: a cohen or animal so old or ill and cannot stand or function stably, and a cohen or animal that exudes a bad odor.  Some defects which are a mum in a person would not be a mum in an animal that had a parallel defect.  A cohen who had an organ removed surgically could still serve in the Temple.  Even a cohen with a condition that would make an animal a treifah would not disqualify a cohen.  The author lists several exceptions: a cohen who is deaf, or mentally incompetent, or epileptic, or who hallucinates.  (There are also defects which are a mum in an animal but would not be a mum if a parallel defect affected a person.  Several classes hence we will see mitzvot that prohibit bringing an animal with a mum as a sacrifice.)  There are also two conditions that the rabbis considered disqualifications because those conditions would be visually distracting: a cohen whose eyelashes or teeth were missing.

            The author says there are a total of 140 different conditions that would disqualify a cohen from serving.  With a new cohort of cohanim coming to the Temple each week, a major task of the Sanhedrin that met at the Temple was to determine whether an individual who came to serve was in fact a cohen, and whether each cohen had a mum.      

The punishment rubric for these mitzvot is complex and depends on the categories of defects although the author does not explain any source or reason for the distinctions.  If the cohen had a mum that would also have disqualified an animal, then the service the cohen did would be disqualified even if the cohen served b’shogeg as to the issue of his mum.  If that same cohen acted b’mazid, he was punishable with malkos.  If the serving cohen had a mum that would not have disqualified an animal or if the cohen served with a mum that was temporary, the service he did remains valid although he is punishable with malkos if he acted b’mazid.  If the cohen served with a condition that is a mum d’rabanan, his service remains valid and he is not punishable with malkos.

Mitzvah #277 defines the final limitation on a cohen with a mum; that cohen may not enter the heichal, the building in the interior of the Temple complex, or enter the area between the altar and the heichal.  The author explains how Rambam derives this mitzvah from the source verses.  But Ramban does not entirely agree.  Ramban holds that a cohen with a mum has a Torah prohibition on participating in the service that occurs in the designated part of the Temple, but he considers the restriction on a cohen with a mum entering that area for other purposes to be a rabbinic rather than a Torah prohibition.