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.

Of Things That Never Were and Never Will Be

My lecture (available at the Internet Archive) and weekly column for these past פרשיות תזריע ומצורע discussed the Talmudic principles of מאי דהוה הוה and דרוש וקבל זכר, and the practical applicability of the laws of נגעי בתים in particular:

Parashiyos Tazria and Metzora contain the detailed laws of several forms of tzaraas (commonly, but not necessarily accurately, translated as ‘leprosy’): afflictions of the skin, the hair of the head or beard, garments, warp and woof, and leather, and houses.

As we have discussed elsewhere, there is considerable debate over whether the tzaraas of the body referred to by the Torah is a natural, contagious disease, or a supernatural ailment. With regard to tzaraas of garments and houses, the Rambam declares that “they are not of the way of the world, but were a sign and wonder in Israel to warn them against evil speech” (Tumas Tzaraas 16:10).

With regard to tzaraas of houses in particular, there are conflicting views in the Talmud over the practical applicability of the relevant laws. One opinion maintains that due to the extremely specific conditions that must be met for a house to be deemed afflicted with tzaraas, “[I]t never was and it never will be, so why was it written [in the Torah]? Investigate [the laws] and receive reward!” But the Talmud then proceeds to cite a couple of sages who assert the existence of actual, specific sites where an afflicted house had been demolished and where the stones removed from an afflicted house had been deposited (Sanhedrin 71a). Furthermore, Rashi on parashas Metzora (14:34) cites a midrash that apparently interprets the Torah’s introductory language to the laws of tzaraas on houses “and I will place a tzaraas affliction” as an assurance that such afflictions will indeed occur. The midrash goes on to explain, however, that this is actually good news: “for the Emorites had hidden caches of gold in the walls of their houses all forty years that the Jews were in the desert, and via the affliction [the Jewish homeowner] demolishes the house and finds them”.

See also our previous discussion of the Talmudic assertions that certain scenarios described in the halachic portions of the Torah “never were and never will be”.

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.