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The Laws of Tumas Meis

When the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, bimheirah beyameinu, the laws of tumah will affect us all, since we will be required to be tahor in order to enter the Beis Hamikdash, to eat korbanos and maaser sheini, and in order to separate challah and terumah.


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Parshas Emor opens with a discussion of some of the mitzvos that apply to kohanim, including the prohibition that they not become tamei meis, defiled by coming in contact with a corpse or human remains. When the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt, bimheirah beyameinu, the laws of tumah will affect us all, since we will be required to be tahor in order to enter the Beis Hamikdash, to eat korbanos and maaser sheini, and in order to separate challah and terumah.

However, until the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, the laws of tumas meis affect primarily kohanim and their families. Nevertheless, every Jew should be familiar with these halachos since they impact on others. As we will see, there are numerous situations in which a knowledgeable non-kohen can save a kohen from transgressing the Torah by preventing the kohen from contracting tumas meis.

Only a male kohen is prohibited from becoming tamei meis. The daughter and the wife of a kohen are not included in the prohibition and need not be concerned about making themselves tamei meis (Kiddushin 29a). This is true even if the kohen's wife is pregnant and knows that she is carrying a baby boy (see Pischei Teshuvah 371:1).

Under normal circumstances, a kohen is prohibited from becoming tamei meis through contact with human remains. This prohibition applies even if the kohen has become tamei previously in his life. This tumah is conveyed in several ways. Firstly, it is conveyed through touching, carrying, or moving a meis or remains of a meis.

Tumas meis is also conveyed via "ohel," which means being under the same "roof" as the meis. Tumas ohel occurs when the meis and the person are both inside the same building or are both under the same tree or awning. (Technically, a tree does not always convey tumah [see Mishnah Ohalos 8:2 with commentaries; Rashba, Niddah 57a; Rambam, Tumas Meis 13:2; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 369:1]. This is an extremely complicated topic on which I have written an article. I hope to send this article to our e-list at some time in the future, but if you would like to read it earlier, please send me an e-mail and I will send it to you now. Since the details of whether a tree conveys tumah are beyond the range of this article, here we will assume that the branches of a tree do convey tumah [see Shu’t Melamed L’Ho’il, Yoreh Deah #132].) Thus, a kohen must be careful not to pass beneath a tree that is also overshadowing a grave. Tumas ohel also occurs when a person is directly above or below (even part of) a meis.

Because of concern that a person may unwittingly pass over a grave or human remains, Chazal instituted that the area within four amos (about seven feet) of a grave or human remains also conveys tumas meis (Sotah 44a). Thus a kohen may not walk within four amos of a casket or the hearse carrying it. (This ruling follows opinions of Derisha and Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 371:27. Cf. Shach 371:18 who appears to hold that the law of four amos does not apply to a meis that is temporarily positioned outdoors.) This is a very common problem that occurs during a funeral when escorting the meis outside. Many times I have noticed kohanim unwittingly move too close to the casket or the hearse.

When there is a wall or fence between the meis and the kohen, there is no requirement for the kohen to remain four amos distant from the meis (Gra, Yoreh Deah 371:17; Chazon Ish 210:13). Therefore, a kohen is permitted to walk or stand outside the fence surrounding the cemetery, provided that no trees, or other things, overhang the kohen and the graves simultaneously. Some poskim require the kohen to be four tefachim (about 13 inches) distant from the fence (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 371:5; Chachmas Adam 159:14).

I once attended a funeral that took place near a cargo terminal in Kennedy Airport. The meis, a respected talmid chacham who lived outside New York, was being transported to Eretz Yisrael for interment, and he had talmidim in the New York area who wished to perform the mitzvos of hesped (eulogizing) and levaya (escorting the meis). In order to accommodate the kohanim present, the entire funeral was conducted outdoors, near the cargo terminal, and care was taken to ensure that all the kohanim remained more than seven feet distant from the aron and from trees overhanging the aron.

Tumah can spread from one building to another when they are joined to each other through any window or door that is open between them (Yoreh Deah 371:1). Tumah can also spread between adjacent buildings whose open windows or doors are connected by a canopy, awning or overhanging gutter. Thus, if there are human remains in one building, a kohen may not enter an adjacent building.

I was once asked the following shaylah: Someone had, unfortunately, passed away on Shabbos in an apartment. A shul was located in an adjacent building that connected to the apartment where the meis was located. Could kohanim enter the shul to daven on Shabbos? Since I could not ascertain whether or not there were any openings between the two adjacent buildings, I advised that the kohanim not enter the shul until the meis would be removed after Shabbos.

Yes, an umbrella not only conveys tumas ohel, but if an open umbrella overlaps another umbrella, the tumas meis spreads from under one umbrella to the second. Therefore when a crowd of people escorts a meis on a rainy day, if one umbrella is even partially over the aron, the tumas meis may spread a considerable distance through the crowd from umbrella to umbrella. Some poskim rule that under these circumstances a kohen must distance himself seven feet from the umbrella closest to him.

I once attended a funeral conducted in a yeshiva beis hamedrash where the door to the beis hamedrash was adjacent to an awning. This exit was left open wide to a huge crowd standing outside in the rain with umbrellas. Because the exit was open, tumas meis was spreading from the building to the area under the awning, and from there it spread under the many umbrellas of the people outside, contaminating many kohanim who were totally unaware of what was happening! All this could have been avoided with a little foresight and planning, such as arranging an area for the kohanim to assemble that was distant enough not to make them tamei.

As mentioned above, tumah spreads through an open door if there is an overhang or canopy outside the entrance.

Sometimes tumah spreads even through a closed door. If it is intended to carry the meis through a particular door, tumah spreads through that door as if it is already open (Rama, Yoreh Deah 371:4). This is because of a principle called sof tumah latzeis, that tumah spreads through the route through which the meis will eventually pass. (The rules governing the principle of sof tumah latzeis are more complex than we can outline here.) Because of this rule, a kohen should be careful not to stand under an awning outside a funeral home if part of the awning or an extension of the awning covers the outside of the exit through which the meis will be removed.

Yes, an entire limb removed from a living person also conveys tumas meis. Thus, a kohen may not be in the same ohel as a severed or amputated limb. If a kohen must have an amputation performed, G-d forbid, arrangements should be made in advance with the chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) and the hospital to remove the limb from the hospital as quickly as possible and bury it according to halacha.

The remains of a non-Jew convey tumas meis if they are touched or carried. Although all agree that the halacha is that the remains of a non-Jew convey tumah through touching and carrying, there is a dispute as to whether the remains of a non-Jew convey tumas ohel. The Shulchan Aruch rules that it is proper to be stringent (Yoreh Deah 372:2). Therefore, a kohen should not enter a building containing the remains of a non-Jew.

This ruling has many ramifications. For example, it is not uncommon to find large trees overhanging a non-Jewish cemetery and a section of roadway at the same time. According to the above quoted conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch, a kohen should find an alternative method of getting to his destination, rather than travel on this roadway.

It should also be noted that often one side, or one lane, of a road goes under trees that overhang a cemetery, while the other side, or lanes, do not. It also can happen that while driving down a city street, a kohen suddenly realizes that the street ahead passes alongside a cemetery, and that there are trees overhanging the roadway. Obviously, the kohen should not swerve suddenly and endanger people in order to avoid defiling his kedusha, but many such situations can be avoided if people alert kohanim in advance to the fact that this road presents a problem.

Medical and dental students are often supplied with human skeletons that they take home to assist them in their training. Bringing these skeletons into their home could create a halachic shaylah for a neighbor or a guest who is a kohen. Thus, it may be disadvantageous to have a skeleton in the closet that the neighbors don’t know about. Because of this concern, a kohen who is a student in a university should research what laboratories and other study and research facilities exist in the buildings and adjacent buildings that he must enter.

Another shaylah that results from the tumas meis of non-Jews is whether a kohen may visit a museum. Although visiting a museum seems like the ideal family vacation activity, many museums have human remains somewhere in the building that preclude a kohen from entering.

A friend of mine who is a kohen had planned a family visit to a small, neighborhood children’s museum. There were many "hands-on" science exhibits of the type that are perfect to keep children interested. The family then turned the corner to be confronted by an area described as an "Indian Burial Ground," complete with bones for realistic affect. Assuming that the bones were artificial, my friend asked the curator, "Are these bones authentic?"

The curator answered, "Actually, these are not bones from Native Americans, since there can be legal problems with our owning them, but they are from those who have donated them for the sake of science and education, or they may have been unclaimed. We have them to give the display a feel of authenticity."

The same friend went with his family on another outing to the science museum in a major city. Because of his previous experience, he checked in advance to ascertain that there were no human remains in the museum. During their visit, they noticed a display of a giant, which they assumed was a mannequin. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a giant whose remains had been preserved in formaldehyde!

Among the remains discovered in museums are mummies, human bones, skeletons, and preserved fetuses. From first-hand experience, I can attest that one should not rely on the information desk personnel’s insistence that there are no human remains in the museum, because they are ignorant of the potential problems. Even if they are not on display, there is a chance that there are human remains in the museum's storage and archives.


There are two situations in which a kohen is not only permitted, but even obligated, to come in contact with a meis. One situation is his obligation to participate in the funeral of close relatives that include his wife, natural parents, child, brother, or unmarried sister. If a close relative of a kohen is reinterred for some reason, the kohen may not make himself tamei. Furthermore if the meis is not intact, the kohen may not become tamei through the remains.

A miscarried or stillborn fetus usually conveys tumas meis. A kohen may not become tamei from a miscarried or stillborn fetus, even if he is the father. Thus, if, G-d forbid, an abortion must be performed because the mother’s life is endangered, male kohanim should not be in the hospital when it is performed, until the fetus is removed from the building. Her husband should ask a shaylah whether he is permitted to stay nearby because of the situation of pikuach nefesh that his wife is in. The chevra kadisha should be contacted in advance to make appropriate burial arrangements.

I was once informed of the following problem: A well-meaning, non-Jewish high-school science teacher in a yeshiva brought a fetus to school as part of an intended science lesson. Needless to say, the teacher could not comprehend why this created such a commotion!

Another instance where a kohen is required to become tamei is if he discovers a Jewish corpse in a place where no other Jew is available to take care of it. Although people think that the case of meis mitzvah is uncommon today, unfortunately many applications of this law are indeed very commonplace.

What is the law if a kohen is somewhere and he discovers that a Jewish person has passed away? Until he can locate another halachically responsible Jew to take care of the meis, the kohen is required to disregard the defiling of his kedusha. This concern is even greater in a hospital where he needs to make certain that no autopsy or other desecration of the meis takes place.

A kohen I know, who is a talmid chacham, was visiting his father-in-law in the hospital when his father-in-law passed away very suddenly. The kohen remained with the deceased in the hospital until other Jews who could serve as shomrim (guardians of a meis) came to the hospital, prior to the chevra kadisha's arrival to remove the body. Afterwards, he asked Rav Shimon Schwab zt"l if he had acted correctly. Rav Schwab answered him that in today’s world, a meis needs a shomer in a hospital more than in any other place, and he had indeed acted absolutely correctly!

The prohibition of making a kohen tamei also applies to a kohen who is too young to be obligated in mitzvos (Yoreh Deah 373:1). Thus, an adult Yisrael may not bring a minor male kohen into a place where he would become tamei meis, such as a cemetery, a funeral or a museum. Similarly, when visiting a friend in the hospital, or attending a doctor's appointment in a clinic attached to a hospital, the wife of a kohen should pay attention not to bring her baby son, who is a kohen, with her. Furthermore, the wife of a kohen who has a baby should not be visited by the new baby’s older brothers unless it can be determined that there are no problems of tumas meis.

I have heard of many instances when school or camp trips went to places that would create a problem of defiling the kedusha of the minor kohanim in attendance. Among the activities that can be problematic are visits to museums, even such landmarks as the Smithsonian, or to Arlington National Cemetery, as well as chesed outings to nursing homes where the home's building is connected to a hospital.

In Israel, two common outings that involve problems for kohanim include the Sanhedrin Park in Yerushalayim, built in what was once a cemetery, as well as the famous mikvah of the Ariza’l, located inside a cemetery. In Israel and in parts of Eastern Europe, there are many roads built over kevarim. There is a sefer entitled Taharas Hakohanim that lists many of the places in Eretz Yisrael that are known to be halachically problematic.

It should be noted that the prohibition of making a kohen who is a minor tamei applies only to an adult who makes the child tamei. There is no technical requirement to prevent a child from making himself tamei, if the child is too young to be trained in the observance of this mitzvah (Yoreh Deah 373:1).

This is a complicated shaylah. Many factors need to be considered, including: how important is it for the kohen to make the visit? What is the likelihood of there being a meis, either Jewish or non-Jewish, in the hospital at the time of the visit? With what frequency does the hospital perform abortions or surgeries that create tumas meis? Are the sections of the hospital all one ohel? If it is a teaching hospital, there may be other problem areas.

In Eretz Yisrael, an extensive guide has been prepared by the beis din of Shearis Yisrael which includes statistics about every hospital in the country to help a rav make an informed decision. On the other hand, in many places in chutz la’aretz one can probably assume that any tumas meis in a hospital comes from the remains of a non-Jew. As pointed out above, whether these remains convey tumas ohel is in dispute.

Under extenuating circumstances, one can be lenient and rule that the remains of non-Jews do not convey tumas ohel. For this reason, I am aware of rabbanim who are kohanim in small towns in chutz la’aretz who visit Jewish patients in the hospital because there is no one in the community to perform the mitzvah of bikur cholim properly. However, in a major Jewish community, where there are non-kohanim who can perform the mitzvah of bikur cholim, there should be no need for a kohen to visit patients in the hospital simply because he is a rav.

Although there is no tumah at all as long as a person is alive, there is a dispute in the Gemara whether a kohen may visit someone who is dying (Nazir 43a). Most authorities rule that a kohen may not visit someone who is so ill (Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Bach, and Shach 270; cf. Rama).

Some people erroneously think that ‘kivrei tzadikim einam mitamim,’ ‘the graves of the righteous do not convey tumah.’ However, this heter does not have halachic foundation and should not be relied upon (Pischei Teshuvah 372:2). A kohen is permitted to visit a gravesite, provided he is careful not to walk under a tree that is also hanging over a grave, and that he is also careful to remain more than seven feet from any grave, unless there is a wall between him and the grave. If a wall or fence separates the kohen and the graves, he can come closer to the grave, as long as he is not in the same ohel as the grave or under a tree. Because it is difficult to adhere to these criteria, many gedolim advise kohanim not to visit graves under any circumstances.

The halachos of tumas meis are extremely complicated, and a small variation in individual circumstances can make a tremendous difference in halacha.

It is beyond our ability to fathom the ultimate reasons why Hashem commanded us to keep each specific mitzvah. However, we can still attempt to glean lessons while observing the mitzvos that help us grow from the experience. Thus, it behooves us to attempt to understand why the Torah bans a kohen from having contact with a meis under normal circumstances.

Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on Vayikra 21:5, provides us with a beautiful insight into this mitzvah. In most religions, fear of death and what happens afterwards are the major "selling points" of the religion. Thus, the role of the priest is most important when dealing with the dying and the dead.

However, in Torah the focus is to learn how to live like a Jew—to learn about and perform the mitzvos and devote our energies to developing ourselves in Hashem’s image. To emphasize that the Torah is Toras Chaim, the blueprint of perfect living, the kohen, who is the nation’s teacher, is excluded from anything to do with death. Thus, the kohen's role is to imbue us with the knowledge of Hashem's ways and enthusiasm to live!!

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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