By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
April 27, 2002
In the sanctified society projected by the Torah, the Kohanim play a crucial role. They are the ones who aid Klal Yisrael in coming closer to Hashem by offering sacrifices and by acquiring Torah knowledge - in short, in achieving the goals of the sanctified society.
The Kohanim themselves are sanctified above the level of holiness of the entire people of Israel. This places additional restrictions upon them, as outlined in this parshah, in the realm of marriage. But first, Emor opens with the prohibition against the Kohanim allowing themselves to become defiled through the dead:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe: Speak (EMOR) to the priests, the sons of Aharon (HAKOHANIM B’NAI AHARON), and speak (V’AMARTA) to them: To no one among his people shall he make himself tamei (Vayikra 21:1).
All male Kohanim - even those who, because of physical blemishes are ineligible to serve in the Mishkan - are forbidden to come into any contact with the dead, unless the dead are the six close relatives, wives, or an abandoned body. Furthermore, if a Kohen is suddenly informed that there is a corpse under the same roof with him, he must leave without delay.
[It might be instructive to point out here that the Egyptian priesthood - of which the Hebrews had some knowledge - were completely preoccupied with death and mummifying the bodies of the Pharaohs. Their entire spiritual focus was on the afterlife. In stark contrast, the Torah, which is Hashem’s plan for sanctifying life, commands the Kohanim to withdraw from the precincts of death, and to be involved solely with life.]
Moreover, as Rashi points out (based on Yevamot 114a), this prohibition extends to the young children of
“Speak (EMOR) . . . and speak (V’AMARTA) - in order to warn the adults regarding the minors.”
As Ramban further explains, the repetition includes more than the basic warning to the adults regarding themselves; they are further enjoined to maintain the purity of their children.
Rosh (Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) points to the fact that, in all other instances, the Torah refers to “the sons of Aharon, the Kohanim” (for example, Vayikra 1:5). Here, however, the phrase is reversed: “the priests, the sons of Aharon. This suggests that this law includes a definition of Kohanim who are no more than “the sons of Aharon” - referring to the children.
Rambam in the Laws of Mourning (3:12) formulates this law as follows:
Regarding a minor Kohen, behold the adults are warned not to defile him. And if he is about to defile himself, the court is not commanded to stop him. However, his father needs to train him in sanctity.
Indeed, there is a general obligation upon the father to educate his children in the performance of the mitzvot. So, a Kohen is required to teach his sons how to behave as adult Kohanim. No one may intentionally bring even a baby Kohen into contact with death-tum’ah, just as no one may give a child forbidden foods to eat (Yevamot, loc. cit.). But, there is no duty to remove a baby Kohen from the presence of death-tum’ah.
On this last point, the Tur (Arba’ah Turim, written by R. Yaakov ben Rabbenu Asher, c.1270-1340) disagrees (Yoreh Deah 373:1). He says that, when it comes to death-tum’ah, not only is active defiling of a child prohibited, there is also a special obligation to stop children from becoming defiled. The Aruch HaShulchan (R. Yechiel Michel Epstein, 1829-1908) suggests that this distinction may derive from an additional source in the Torat Kohanim (the halachic midrash on Vayikra):“the sons of Aharon” - to include the minors.
According to the Tur, this mitzvah is unique: not only is it forbidden to place a minor Kohen in contact with death-tum’ah actively, as is the case with forbidden foods, but one must intervene to prevent this contact. The Shulchan Aruch codifies the view of the Rambam as against that of the Tur.
Why is this mitzvah so far-reaching? Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888) refers back to the wording of our verse, beginning with EMOR. Unlike D-B-R, which, says Hirsch, means “to state,” A-M-R means “to inform, to communicate, to explain in detail.” In our verse, Moshe is instructed:
Speak (EMOR) to the priests, the sons of Aharon (HAKOHANIM B’NAI AHARON), and speak (V’AMARTA) to them . . .
This means that Moshe is to explain to the Kohanim that their status is the result of their parentage, not due to any special qualities of their own. Theirs is a mission imposed upon them at birth. As a result, they are to see in their children the future Kohanim. Since a Kohen is, in terms of his mission, a Kohen from birth, then he must be educated accordingly and kept away from contact with death.
The Torah’s plan of education considers environment crucial. Indeed, the child learns from the beginning, at the pre-cognitive level, of his place in the world. This is illustrated by the story of R. Yehoshua ben Chananiah, whose mother would bring him to the beit midrash (study hall) when he was an infant “so that his ears might become accustomed to the words of Torah” (Yerushalmi Yevamot 1:6). The Kohen’s education for sanctity, too, begins in his infancy.
The entire people of Israel strives for Kedushah, holiness, and it is the lifework of the Kohanim to lead them, by example and instruction, towards that holiness. And so, from the moment a Kohen is born, his world is to be the world of Kedushah and life. All of Israel follows the Kohanim into the realm of life-affirming sanctity.