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.

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