Priestly Purity and the Pious

My weekly lecture (available at the Internet Archive) and column for this past פרשת אמר considered the halachic debate over כהנים visiting the graves of the righteous:

In parashas Emor, kohanim (Aharonic priests) are prohibited from defiling themselves by contact with the dead. This includes visiting gravesites.

Over the centuries, it has become increasingly customary for Jews to visit the graves of those renowned for great piety and Torah scholarship. Kohanim, too, have desired to do so, and the question has therefore arisen as to whether they have any dispensation from their prohibition against defilement. The core of the discussion concerns a controversial doctrine declaring that “the righteous do not cause defilement”.

One of the primary sources for this doctrine is a midrash that relates that when the great sage R. Akiva died in jail, [the Prophet] Elijah personally involved himself with his burial. In reply to the challenge that he was a kohen and therefore prohibited from defiling himself, he explained: “chas ve’shalom, there is no defilement [caused by] Torah scholars and their students” (Yalkut Shimoni #944, and cf. Zohar Vayishlach p. 168).

But while some authorities take this statement of Elijah at face value and ascribe it at least some degree of normative significance (see, e.g., Rashash Kesubos 103b, Shut. Minchas Elazar 3:64), the preponderance of halachic opinion forbids kohanim from visiting the graves of even great and holy men, at least in the absence of other bases for leniency (see, e.g., Shut. Maharil #150, Shut. Zayis Raanan 2:YD:26, and see Nitei Gavriel Hilchos Aveilus part 2 chapter 91 for an extensive discussion of the topic). The Tosafos (Yevamos 61b) explain that Elijah’s true justification for involving himself with R. Akiva’s burial was the fact that since R. Akiva had been executed by the [Roman] government, people were generally afraid to bury him, and his remains therefore constituted a meis mitzvah (human remains which due to the circumstances will not receive a proper burial, in which case the paramount importance of ensuring such burial overrides the normal prohibition for a kohen to defile himself).

One of the most radical justifications for allowing כהנים to visit the popular Israeli gravesites of great figures from the Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic periods is that of an anonymous contemporary authority, cited – and vehemently repudiated – by Rav Yehoshua Menahem Ehrenberg:

על דבר פסק הלכה וקבלה של הרב ….. [הושמט במקור] נפלאתי נוראות שלפי דעתו כל אותן הקברי צדיקים שגילה האר”י ז”ל ברוח הקודש מותר לזלזל בהם ואף לפתוח את קברם כל זמן שלא ראינו שגופם קיים בבשר גידין ועצמות, משום דכל זמן שלא ראינו כנ”ל יש לנו לתלות דלא זו בלבד שאינם צדיקים אלא שהם גוים גמורים משום שלפי דעתו רוב הקברים בארץ ישראל הם של עכו”ם ואין בעל רוח הקודש כמו האר”י ז”ל נאמן לומר שאינם של גוים.

ותמה אני מי שמתיימר להיות מקובל יאמר דבר כזה דאם כן כל אותן שמשתטחין על קברי הצדיקים הנ”ל וסומכין על האר”י ז”ל אינם אלא טועים ובאמת הם משתטחין על קברי גוים מאחר שלפי ההלכה אזלינן בתר רובא ומהאי טעמא התיר גם לכהנים לילך על קברם.

See our much lengthier citation and discussion of R. Ehrenberg’s responsum here.

Flora and Pfingsten

My weekly פרשה lectures and הלכה column for the past פרשיות אחרי מות-קדושים discussed the Biblical prohibition against “walking in the ordinances” of the Gentiles. As I discuss, a debate over the scope and parameters of this prohibition is apparently behind the controversy over the custom (or family of customs) of the arraying of trees, grasses and flowers in synagogues and homes on Shavuos. I also recently published a detailed article focusing specifically on this custom, its history and its attendant controversy:

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See also Flowers on Shavuos in Ami Magazine 2 Sivan, 5776 [June 8, 2016] pp. 66-70 and שטיחת עשבים ופרחים והעמדת אילנות בחג השבועות, in והנה רבקה יוצאת – עיונים במדע היהדות לכבוד רבקה דגן, pp. 211-17, both by my friend Eliezer Brodt, and Trees and Flowers on Shavuot: Is it a Pagan Practice or not? (audio) and Flowers and Trees in Shul on Shavuot in Torah To-Go, Shavuot 5777, both by my friend R. Ezra Schwartz.

My column:

In both parashiyos Acharei Mos (18:3) and Kedoshim (20:23), we are prohibited from “walking in the ordinances” of the non-Jews. This prohibition is the basis of a controversy over the custom of decorating synagogues and homes on Shavuos with grasses, trees, and flowers. The Maharil (Hilchos Shavuos) records that (fragrant) grasses and flowers (shoshanim) were arrayed on synagogue floors “for the joy of the holiday”. The Magen Avraham (siman 494 s.k. 4) records the placement of trees in synagogues and homes, which he suggests was intended as a reminder that on Shavuos we are judged regarding the fruits of the trees, and that we should pray for them.

The Gaon of Vilna reportedly opposed and abolished (at least locally) the custom of trees (and perhaps also that of grasses), since in contemporary times, the non-Jews have a similar custom on their holiday of “Pfingsten”, i.e., the Christian Pentecost, which occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday, thus paralleling, and occurring around the same time as, Shavuos, the Jewish Pentecost (Chayei Adam 131(130):13, Chochmas Adam 89:1, Aruch Ha’Shulchan OC 494:6, Shut. Igros Moshe YD 4:11:5).

But while a number of important halachic authorities, particularly within the “Lithuanian” / yeshivah tradition, follow the Gaon’s position, other major authorities reject it, in reliance upon the doctrine that non-Jewish practices are not forbidden as long as they have a rational, legitimate basis. R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson relates that he queried the non-Jews about their reason for the custom, and received a response from “their elder” that it was merely for the purpose of “honor and adornment with beautiful trees”. It therefore has a rational basis and is permitted (Divrei Shaul / Yosef Daas YD #348). R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron justifies the custom based on the fact that we have a legitimate rationale for it, as a reminder of the judgment regarding the fruits of the trees (Orchos Chaim siman 548 os 8 – see there for an additional basis for leniency). [R. Asher Weiss notes that the Gaon is on record as rejecting the doctrine that the existence of a rational basis legitimizes non-Jewish customs (Biur Ha’Gra YD siman 178 s.k. 7), which explains his stringent position with regard to grasses and trees on Shavuos (Minchas Asher Vayikra 33:2).]

My lectures are available at the Internet Archive. Previous lectures I have given on this topic are also available there: here and here.

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

My weekly halachah column for this past פרשת שמיני:

Toward the end of parashas Shemini (11:43), the Torah admonishes: “Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.” Although the context of this verse, at the end of the Torah’s lengthy exposition of the laws of kashrus of animals, fowl, birds and crawling things, might suggest that it refers to the consumption of those species that the Torah has already forbidden, the halachic tradition understands it as a more general prohibition against engaging in any sort of “abominable” behavior, such as holding in one’s waste (Makos 16b). [There is some debate, however, whether this general prohibition is Biblical, or Rabbinic, i.e., based on an extension of the verse beyond its plain meaning (asmachta – Beis Yosef YD #116; Pri Chadash YD 84:3; Tevuas Shor 13:2; Shaarei Teshuvah OC 3:7).]

One major category of behavior forbidden under this general prohibition is the consumption of “abominable” material. But ultimately, taste is at least somewhat subjective – as the saying goes, “al ta’am va’rei’ach ein le’hisvakei’ach”. Is the standard of “abominable” in this context determined by the eater’s subjective preferences, or by some sort of general consensus? The Pri Chadash promulgates the principle that “the standard of “revolting” is not determined by ‘most of the world’ but rather by each individual”. He therefore rules that one may eat something that most people consider revolting provided that he himself is not revolted by it, and conversely, one may not eat something that revolts him even if most people are not revolted by it. Even the Pri Chadash, however, apparently agrees that there is some level of objectivity involved here, since he concedes that something that “everyone” is revolted by may not be eaten by anyone, even one who is not revolted by it, since “his opinion is null in the face of everyone [else’s opinion]” (batlah da’ato eitzel kol adam – this is the Sedei Chemed’s (Kelalim, Ma’areches ha’Beis #79) interpretation of the Pri Chadash’s position).

[The cited sources can all be found in the typically excellent discussion of the topic at עולמות.]