Prohibition of Kohen defilement by the dead

The prohibition of Kohen defilement to the dead is the commandment to a Jewish priest (kohen) not to come in direct contact with, or be in the same enclosed space as a dead body.

Hebrew Bible

The command forbidding the priest from defilement by contact with a dead body is stated in the Book of Leviticus;

And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them, There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people:
Leviticus 21:1

Rabbinical application

Although the priest, or modern kohen, is forbidden to come in contact with a dead body, he is permitted to become defiled for his closest relatives: father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, and child. Defilement of a Kohen to his wife, although implied in the Torah text as forbidden according to Maimonides and Even Ezra on Leviticus 21:3-4, is permitted by rabbinical order.[1]


Main article: Oholot

A Kohen is forbidden to enter any house or enclosure ("ohel", tent) in which a dead body (or part thereof), may be found (Leviticus 10:6, Leviticus 21:1–5, Ezekiel 44:20, Ezekiel 44:25). Practical examples of these prohibitions include: not entering a cemetery or attending a funeral; not being under the same roof (i.e. in a home or hospital) as a dismembered organ.

The rules and regulations of defilement are discussed at length in the Mishnah Tohorot. A cursory rule of thumb is that the kohen may not enter a room with a dead person.


Rabbinic prohibition further limits the Kohen of coming within four amoth[2] of an outdoor (i.e. no roof or overhang present) corpse or grave, but a fence or groove with a height or depth of 10 tefachim[3] eases the restriction and enables the Kohen to be within four tefachim of the corpse or grave.[4]

In order to protect the Kohen from coming into prohibited contact with or proximity to the dead, Orthodox cemeteries traditionally designate a burial ground for Kohanim and their families which is at a distance from the general burial ground, so that the relatives of Kohanim can be visited by a Kohen without him entering the cemetery.

Chabad Ohel

Image depiction of minimal four tefach requirement at pathway entry to ohel

The Chabad Ohel in the Montefiore Cemetery, Cambria Heights, Queens, New York, resting place of the previous two Chabad Rebbes, presents a problem to a visiting kohen.

Usual visitors access the Ohel via a walkway that is fenced off from the other graves in the cemetery, creating a separate enclosure in which visitors pass but lacking the minimal four tefach requirement on either side of pathway.

Thus, even though the Ohel itself is open to the sky to eliminate problems of tumas meis in an enclosure the kohen is unable to gain entry to the actual ohel without coming within four tefach's of the tombstones located on both sides of walkway.

As halacha mandates a Kohen keep a distance of 12.59 inches (320 mm) (four tefachs) away from a tombstone (provided it is fenced in, and 75.59 inches (1,920 mm) inches if the tombstone is not fenced it).[5][6]

A non-Jew

There is a Tannaic dispute as to whether the prohibition of defilement is applicable to the corpse of a non-Jew. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai opines that the prohibition does not apply while Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel maintains that is does[7]


Meit mitzvah, commandment of burying

The Talmud prescribes that if a priest, even the High Priest, chances upon a corpse by the wayside, and there is no one else in the area who can be called upon to bury it, then the priest himself must forgo the requirement to abstain from defilement and perform the burial of this person (a meit mitzvah).

Death of a nasi

The Talmud Yerushalmi and Talmud Bavli quote instances the restriction of a Kohen to defile himself to a corpse were waived. In the case of the death of a nasi (rabbinic leader of a religious academy). The Talmud relates that when Judah haNasi died, the priestly laws forbidding defilement through contact with the dead were suspended for his burial ceremony.[8]

Alternatively, it is recorded that some renowned tzaddikim (righteous rabbinic leaders) deliberately expressed to those present at their time of their imminent passing that those Kohen's (or pure vessels) present should make an immediate exit (be removed from the premises) so as not to become 'ttammei (defiled). These leaders include the popular nasi Yochanan ben Zakai (Talmud Yerushalmi to Avodah Zarah 18a) and also Isaac Luria.[9]

Prohibition reasons

Since the Kohanim serve a unique role of service amongst the nation of Israel, service in the Temple in Jerusalem during the temple era and consumption of heave offerings, the Torah requires them to follow unique rules of ritual purity. Generally, the prohibition of the Kohen becoming impure (tammei) by contact with a corpse is considered in full effect in modern times and is maintained in Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson describes the restriction of the Kohen defiling himself by contact with a corpse due to a corpse being a contradiction to godliness (God is understood as the source of vitality and life), which negates the designation of a Kohen who is to maintain a holy state in his service to God - even in the diaspora. Schneerson maintains that the corpse can cause metaphysical interference to the Kohen's spiritual abilities.[10]

Modern applications

Orthodox Jewry maintains that the modern-day Kohen is obligated to guard himself from defilement to a corpse, leading to restrictions that the modern Kohen needs to consider when met with common occurrences of the Jewish life cycle;


Kohanim are required not to be in a hospital where a dead body or body parts may be present. The wife of a Kohen giving birth presents a challenge to the Kohen wanting to be present at the delivery. A hetter (rabbinic permit) is generally given by a rabbi for a one time entry for the Kohen to be present at his wife's delivery.

However, hospital entry poses additional concerns as Halakha stipulates that an infant or juvenile kohen is likewise forbidden from becoming unclean by contact with a corpse, while the adult is to be scrupulous that the juvenile or infant kohen do not accidentally transgress.[11] This responsibility leads to many kohanim choosing a birthing center or a hospital with the maternity ward in a separate building than where the hospital morgue is located so as to not make their newborn ritually unclean.

(See hospital configuration section below)


Kohanim are careful not to be on an airplane, where a dead body or body parts may be present. The modern Kohen is challenged by US airline regulations permitting corpses and body parts to be boarded up to 90 minutes prior to flight departure.

Hospital configurations

Hospital name Specifics Hospital Rabbi
Maimonides Medical Center Light signal throughout hospital notifying Kohens to exit when corpse is present
New York Methodist Hospital Morgue located in side building. Morgue entry is accessed by double doors Rabbi Hecht
Long Island Jewish Medical Center Morgue located in basement of main building

Leniency dynamics

With the prohibition of Kohen defilement often posing challenges to the Kohen, leniency is often sought in the form of a rabbinic hetter (permit) for the Kohen to become unclean. One primary source of lenient application focuses on the beraita of Evel Rabbati (Semachot);


  1. Targum Yonathan to Vayikra 21:4
  2. 6 feet 3.58 inches (based on rabbi Avraham Chaim Naehs definition of the amah)
  3. 2 feet 8.27 inches (based on rabbi Avraham Chaim Naeh's definition of the tefach)
  4. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah chap. 371:5. Tur Yoreh Deah chap. 371
  5. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah chap. 371:5. Tur Yoreh Deah chap. 371
  6. Citron, Aryeh (2012). "The Kohen's Purity". Retrieved 28 March 2012. (Footnote 9)
  7. mishna, oholot 18:9 | Tur yoreh deah end of chap. 372
  8. Talmud Yerushalmi to Nazir 7:1, Kethuboth 113a
  9. Isaac Luria Sha'ar HaGilgulam (vol. 10 of 15 volume set), p. 174
  10. Likkutei Sichos vol. 3 p. 985
  11. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh deah 373:1

External links

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