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The Laws of Tumat Met

What is Tumat Met all about? Who, when and how?


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Wednesday, 26 Cheshvan 5768
Our parsha opens with a discussion of tumat met, the defiling that occurs when someone comes 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 eat korbanos and maaser sheini, and in order to separate challah and terumah.
However, until the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, the laws of tumat met affect primarily cohanim 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 where a knowledgeable non-cohen can save a cohen from transgressing the Torah by preventing the cohen from contracting tumat met.

Under normal circumstances, a cohen is prohibited from becoming tamei met through contact with human remains. This tumah is conveyed in several ways. Firstly, it is conveyed through touching, carrying, or moving a met or part of a met.
Tumat met is also conveyed via "ohel," being under the same "roof" as the met. Tumat ohel occurs when the met 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 Tumat Met 13:2; SHA YD 369:1]. However, since the details of this very technical subject are beyond the range of our article, we are going to assume that the branches of a tree convey tumah [see Shu’t Melamed L’Ho’il, Yoreh Deah #132].) Thus, a Cohen must be careful not to pass beneath a tree that is also overshadowing a grave. Tumat ohel also occurs when a person is directly above or below (part of) a met, even if only to a small extent.
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 tumat met (Gemara Sotah 44a). Thus a Cohen may not walk within four amos of a casket or the hearse carrying it. (This ruling follows opinions of Derisha and Aruch HaShulchan, YD 371:27. Cf. Shach 371:18 who rules that the law of four amos does not apply to a met that is outdoors.) This is a very common problem that occurs during a funeral when escorting the met outside. Many times I have noticed cohanim unwittingly move too close to the casket or the hearse.
When there is a wall or fence between the met and the cohen, there is no requirement for the cohen to remain four amos distant from the met (Gra, Yoreh Deah 371:17; Chazon Ish 210:13). Therefore, a cohen is permitted to walk or stand outside the fence delineating the cemetery provided that no trees, or anything else, overhang the cohen and the graves simultaneously. Some poskim require the cohen to be four tefachim distant from the fence (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 371:5; Chochmas Odom 159:14).
I once attended a funeral that took place near a cargo terminal in Kennedy Airport. The met, a respected talmid chocham who lived outside New York, was being transported to Eretz Yisroel for interment, and he had talmidim in the New York area who wished to perform the mitzvos of hesped (eulogizing) and levaya (escorting the met). In order to accommodate the cohanim present, the entire funeral was conducted outdoors, near the cargo terminal, and care was taken to ensure that all the cohanim remained more than seven feet distant from the aron and from trees overhanging the aron.

Tumah can spread from one building to another joined to each other through any window or door that is open between them (Yoreh Deah 371:1). It can also spread between adjacent buildings whose open windows or doors are connected by a canopy or awning. Thus, if there are human remains in one building, a cohen 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 met was located. Could cohanim 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 paskened that the cohanim should not enter the shul until the met was removed after Shabbos.

Yes, an umbrella not only conveys tumat ohel, but if an open umbrella overlaps another umbrella, the tumat met spreads from under one umbrella to the second. Therefore when a crowd of people escort a met on a rainy day, if one umbrella is covering over the aron even partially, the tumat met may spread a considerable distance through the crowd from umbrella to umbrella. Some poskim rule that under these circumstances a cohen must distance himself seven feet away 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, tumat met 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 cohanim 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 cohanim 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 met 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 met 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 cohen 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 met will be removed.

Yes, an entire limb removed from a living person also conveys tumat met. Thus, a cohen may not be in the same ohel as a severed or amputated limb. If a cohen 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 tumat met 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 in the Gemara whether the remains of a non-Jew convey tumat ohel. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one should be stringent (Yoreh Deah 372:2). Therefore, a cohen 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 cemetery and a section of roadway at the same time. Since a cohen may not defile himself by entering an ohel containing the remains of a non-Jew, he may not drive down this roadway. Instead, he must find an alternative method of getting to his destination.
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 cohen suddenly realizes that the street ahead passes alongside a cemetery and that there are trees overhanging the roadway. Obviously, the cohen should not swerve suddenly and endanger people in order to avoid defiling his kedusha, but many such situations can be avoided if people alert cohanim 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 shayla for a neighbor or a guest who is a cohen. Thus, it may be disadvantageous to have a skeleton in the closet that the neighbors don’t know about.

Another shaylah that results from the tumat met of non-Jews is whether a cohen may visit many museums. Although visiting a museum seems like the ideal family vacation activity, many museums have human remains somewhere in the building that precludes a cohen from entering.
A friend of mine who is a cohen 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, we are not really certain if these are Indian bones, but they are definitely human."
The same friend went with his family on another outing to the science museum in a major city. Because of this 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 cohanim have discovered in museums are mummies, human bones, skeletons, and preserved fetuses. A cohen who would like to visit a particular museum should first have a knowledgeable non-cohen carefully research the entire museum. 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.
Incidentally, it is useful to know that museums in Israel are usually cognizant of the problem of tumat met, and the models one finds are often made of plastic.


There are two situations when a cohen is not only permitted, but even obligated, to come in contact with a met. 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 cohen is reinterred for some reason, the cohen may not make himself tamei. Furthermore if the met is not intact, the cohen may not become tamei to the remains.
A miscarried or stillborn fetus conveys tumat met. A cohen may not become tamei to 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 cohanim should not be in the hospital when it is performed until the fetus is removed from the building. Her husband should ask a shayla whether he is permitted to stay nearby because of the 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 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 cohen 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 met mitzvah is uncommon today, unfortunately many applications of this law are indeed very commonplace.
What is the law if a cohen 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 met, the cohen 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 met takes place.
A cohen I know, who is a talmid chocham, was visiting his father-in-law in the hospital when his father-in-law passed away very suddenly. The cohen remained with the deceased in the hospital until other Jews came to the hospital who could serve as shomrim (guardians of a met), prior to the chevra kadisha’s arrival to remove the body. Afterwards, he asked Rav Shimon Schwab if he had acted correctly. Rav Schwab answered him that in today’s world, a met needs a shomer in a hospital more than in any other place, and he had indeed acted absolutely correctly!

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

The prohibition of making a cohen tamei also applies to a cohen who is too young to be obligated in mitzvos (Yoreh Deah 373:1). Thus, an adult yisroel may not bring a child or baby who is a cohen into a place where he would become tamei met, be it a cemetery or a funeral. Similarly, when visiting a friend in the hospital, the wife of a cohen should pay attention not to bring her baby son, who is a cohen, with her. Furthermore, the wife of a cohen 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 tumat met. This is extremely difficult to ascertain in a hospital.
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 cohanim in attendance. Among the activities that can be problematic are visits to museums or to the Arlington National Cemetery, as well as chesed outings to nursing homes that are connected to hospitals.
In Israel, two common outings that involve problems for cohanim include the Sanhedrin Park in Yerushalayim, built in what was once a cemetery, as well as the famous mikvah of the Ariza’l, also located adjacent to an ancient cemetery. In Israel and in parts of eastern Europe, there are many roads built over kevarim. Recently a sefer was published entitled Taharas Hacohanim that lists many of the places in Eretz Yisroel that are known to be halachically problematic.
It should be noted that the prohibition of making a cohen, 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 and should be referred to one’s rav. Many factors need to be considered including: How important is it for the cohen to make the visit? What is the likelihood of there being a met, 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 tumat met? Are the sections of the hospital all one ohel? Are most of the patients Jewish?
In Eretz Yisroel, an extensive guide has been prepared by the beis din of Shearis Yisroel which includes statistics about every hospital in the country to help a rav make an informed decision. I am unaware of any hospitals in chutz la’aretz that have been this extensively researched. On the other hand, in many places in chutz la’aretz one can probably assume that any tumat met in a hospital comes from the remains of a non-Jew. As pointed out above, whether these remains convey tumat ohel is a dispute.
Under extenuating circumstances one could be lenient and rule that the remains of non-Jews do not convey tumat ohel. For this reason, I am aware of rabbanim 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-cohanim who can perform the mitzvah of bikur cholim, there should be no need for a cohen to visit patients in the hospital simply because he is the rav.

Although there is no tumah at all as long as a person is alive, there is a dispute in the Gemara whether a cohen may visit someone who is dying (Nazir 43a). The reason for this prohibition is out of concern that the person might die while the cohen is attending him, and this will cause the cohen’s kedusha to be defiled (Mefaresh ad loc.). Most authorities rule that a cohen 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 Tshuvah 372:2). A cohen 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. If a wall or fence separates the cohen 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 cohanim not to visit graves under any circumstances.
The halachos of tumat met are extremely complicated, and a small variation in individual circumstances can make a tremendous difference in halacha. Whenever possible, one should ask a rav a shaylah about a particular situation to find out what to do.

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 a taste of Hashem’s mitzvos in order to appreciate the mitzvos and grow from the experience. Thus, it behooves us to attempt to understand why the Torah bans a cohen from having contact with a met 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 cohen, who is the nation’s teacher, is excluded from anything to do with death. Thus, the cohen’s role is to imbue us with the knowledge and enthusiasm to live!!

This article was originally published in Yated Neeman.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
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