From the Mikdash Mailbag
To D.C. It is very true that the Torah ordains that Kohanim must avoid Tum'at Meit (the severe ritual impurity acquired by means of contact with a corpse) but only up to a point!
The Gemara (Zevachim 100a) relates how the wife of Yosef Hakohein (a colorful personality who lived in the days of the Bayit) died on Erev Pesach and "he did not wish to ritually defile himself" by attending to her funeral and coming in contact with her dead body (Bamidbar 19:11,14). The Sages taught that the death of a Kohein's wife was unquestionably a valid reason for a Kohein to become ritually impure. They based their decision on the Pasuk, "Say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, 'Each of you shall not ritually contaminate himself to a (dead) person except to the relative who is closest to him, to his mother and his father… (Vayikra 21:2). Though the Pasuk does not specifically mention "wife", nevertheless, the Sages postulated that a man's wife is his closest relative. The Torah says, "Therefore a man should leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh" (B'reishit 2:24, note the Sifra). During the Avoda of Yom Kippur, the Kohein Gadol had to sacrifice a bullock that was his own personal property. The function of this particular Korban was to atone for the ritual defiling of the Mikdash and its "holy things". He put his hands between the horns of the bullock, pressed down and confessed his sin, "O G-d, I have committed iniquity … and sinned before Thee, I and my house, etc." Somewhat later in the service, he made a confession over the bullock a second time. "He … said, 'I have committed iniquity… I and my house" and he added, "and all the children of Aaron" - the Kohanim. Particularly instructive is the fact that the Kohein Gadol's wife is included in the first confession ("I and my house") and his children are included in the second confession together with the rest of the Kohanim. The previously mentioned Pasuk, "Therefore a man… shall cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh" had "morphed" into Mikdash Halacha! Since the Kohein Gadol and his wife were "one flesh", how could he not include her in his personal confession of sin? Yosef Hakohein knew that if he came into contact with his wife's dead body, he would be infected with Tum'at Meit and as a result, he could neither offer nor eat Korban Pesach. Frivolously, he maintained that it was more important to offer and eat the Korban Pesach than to inter his deceased wife and thereby become impure. Exasperated by his twisted values, "his brother Kohanim took council and they decided to ritually contaminate him by force" thereby recalling him to his primary responsibility. Even Yosef Hakohein's "brother Kohanim", who performed the Avoda daily in the Mikdash, condemned his exaggerated "piety".
Even today when there is no Beit Hamikdash, it is a Mitzva for a Kohein not to permit himself to be defiled by Tum'at Meit. However, "in these times" - since the destruction of the Temple - the ritual purity of Kohanim is only nominal, it is not real.
Describing Mikdash procedure, a fabulous narration from the Mishna, pictures what extraordinary precautions were taken to prevent selected "Kohanic" children from being infected with Tum'at Meit. The preparation of the ashes of the Para Aduma and their mixing with spring water had to be done in a state of utmost purity. "There were courtyards in Jerusalem built over rock, and beneath them the rock was hollowed for fear of any grave down in the depths; and they used to bring women while they were pregnant, and there [in the courtyards], they bore their children and reared them (Para 3:2). (The hollowed out areas beneath the courtyards functioned as "Tum'ah-stopping tents" and protected the young Kohanim from possible Tum'at Meit pollution rising from graves even deeper underground.). Raised in absolute purity, these children would draw the water used in the preparation of the ashes of the Para Aduma. Bizman Hazeh, not even the most "Mikdash-oriented" priestly families would dream of taking such extreme precautions, nor is there reason for them to do so. If a baby is born in a hospital (where there are inevitably corpses), he is irrevocably tainted with Tum'at Meit because there are no extant Para Aduma potion, and therefore, there is no way to purify him. The absence of the Mikdash precludes the possibility of preparing the purifying ashes of the Para Aduma, ergo, Bizman Hazeh, all Kohanim are considered to be in a state of Tum'at Meit.
Nevertheless, Kohanim, in deference to their priestly status, are still required to observe certain stringencies, e.g., not entering cemeteries, etc. However, even Kohanim can permit themselves to become Temei'ei Meit under mitigating circumstances; saving a life (Piku'ach Nefesh) or going to the funeral of seven very close relatives. The Mishna further teaches that if any Kohein, even the Kohein Gadol, stumbled upon an unburied corpse and there is no one else on hand to attend to its burial, then he himself must immediately attend to it. The Halachic term for such a corpse, Meit Mitzva, may be loosely translated as "a corpse which it is incumbent upon the finder to bury". No Kohein, not even the Kohein Gadol, could eschew this obligation because of prior claims of ritual purity. In the absence of the Mikdash, the Kohein does not eschew Tum'at Meit because of ritual purity, rather the avoidance of Tum'at Meit is a "remembrances of the Temple" - a Zeicher L'Mikdash - and has become standard Halachic practice among "post-destruction" Kohanim. However, by observing these stringencies, when the Mikdash is rebuilt Bimheira B'yameinu and Kohanim will need to be in a state of purity so they can properly perform the Avoda, it will be second nature for them to do so. Hameivin Yavin.
Finally, I want to submit this interesting letter to our readers. Any ideas?
"Unless I have missed it, I do not recall that you have ever written about a Positive Commandment (#21 in Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot) which states that we must guard the Sanctuary/Temple by continuously encircling it day and night as a matter of honor and exaltation. As such, could you be so kind as to explore with us the details of this Mitzva. Who was in charge of its performance? The Beit Din or the Kohein Godol? Who did the encircling? Was it the Kohanim, the Leviyim or ordinary Yisraeilim? What about women? Could they have done it, too? How was this actually done? That is, would only a small group go around like an honor guard, or was it lots of groups, or individuals, with or without shofar and trumpet fanfare? Did these circumnavigators wear special garb and what happens in bad weather? In short, what do we know about this Mitzva?
Finally, is the performance of this Mitzva dependent on the existence of the Temple itself and, therefore, we need not/cannot perform it today or is this Mitzva dependent on the site of the Temple and should, therefore, be reinstated nowadays. If the answer to the latter question is yes, why has this not been done? [signed] RB"
Catriel's book in progress: The Temple of Jerusalem, A Pilgrim’s Perspective; A Guided Tour through the Temple and the Divine Service