“And Hashem said to Moshe, “Speak to the Kohanim – the children of Ahron – and say to them that no priest should defile himself through contact with the dead from among his people.” (VaYikra 21:1)
This passage introduces the Torah’s discussion of various restrictions upon the Kohanim. One of these restrictions regulates the Kohen’s contact with dead bodies. In general, the Kohen is not permitted to defile himself though association with a dead body. There are exceptions to this prohibition. The restriction does not apply to the body of a close relative. The Kohen is allowed become defiled through associating with these remains.
Gershonides discusses the defilement associated with dead bodies. He offers a simple explanation of this tumah – defilement. He explains that a human being consists of a spiritual soul combined with a material body. The soul differentiates the human from other material creations. This spiritual element is the distinguishing characteristic of the human being. This element is the source of human perfection and all virtue. With death, the spiritual element is separated from the material element. The dead body is the material remainder. The Torah assigns tumah to the body. This tumah communicates that the foundation of human perfection and virtue has departed from the body. The material element, alone, is meaningless.
As explained above, there are exceptional instances in which the Kohen may associate himself with a dead body. In these cases, the Kohen is permitted to defile himself. Primarily, these exceptions allow contact with the body of a close relative. However, there is an additional exception. The Kohen may associate with a mait mitzvah – an abandoned body. There are no relatives to bury this body. The Kohen is permitted to defile himself in order to assure that the body is properly interred.
This law is derived from a very interesting source. The Torah commands us to bury those executed by the courts. Even the bodies of these evil individuals must be treated with respect and properly interred. It follows that we must treat the dead body of a good person with the same dignity. Therefore, the entire community is charged with the duty of burying a mait mitzvah. Even the Kohen is permitted to defile himself to perform this mitzvah.
The dead body is associated with tumah. This communicates the worthlessness of the material element of the human being when separated from the spiritual soul. Yet, the Torah commands us to treat these remains with the utmost respect and dignity. These seem to be contradictory and confusing messages. We are taught, through the symbolic message of tumah, that the dead body is a meaningless remnant. It is bereft of its virtue. It is an agent of tumah – defilement! The Torah also teaches us to treat this body with extreme deference. This implies that the remains retain significance and even sanctity!
In fact, these two attitudes are not contradictory. The Torah’s treatment of the dead body provides an insight into the uniqueness of the Torah.
Over the ages, humanity has produced many systems of law. There are also a variety of religions and theologies. The Torah is derived from different source. It is the Almighty’s revealed truth. We expect Hashem’s law to bare marks of His wisdom. Our apparent paradox illustrates one of these expressions of Divine wisdom.
The Torah recognizes that human beings are guided by intellect and instinct. A comprehensive religious system must address both of these elements. The intellect must be taught and the instincts must be trained. Every religion teaches. The essential substance of a religion is its theology and world-view. These are the ideas it attempts to impart to its adherents. However, the instinctual component must also be treated seriously. Religion must incorporate a theory of psychology. Without psychology, the instincts are ignored. The religious practitioner remains a primitive.
We have discussed the important idea communicated by the tumah associated with the remains of the dead. This idea is addressed to the intellectual element of the human being. In contrast, the dignity with which the dead body is treated is designed to train the instincts. This mitzvah is an expression of the Torah’s psychology.
What is the instinctual issue addressed by this law? We are required to treat each other with extreme deference. We may not physically harm another individual or damage another’s property. We may not even speak poorly of others. These behaviors are counter to our basic instincts. We must train ourselves to adopt these behaviors. We must deal with our instincts. This requires a psychological approach to human behavior.
How are the instincts reformed? First, the same simple message must be constantly and clearly communicated. Through this repetition the instincts are influenced. Countless laws and teachings of the Torah emphasize the dignity of the human being. This provides constant reinforcement of the Torah’s lesson. Every human being is sacred.
Second, all contrary messages must be eliminated or minimized. In other words, behaviors that minimize the value of the human being must be discouraged. For this reason, the Torah insists that we respect the remains of the dead. Disrespect might communicate the wrong message to the instincts. The instincts do not recognize fine distinctions. The instincts do not necessarily recognize the difference between the treatment required of a human being and behavior displayed towards human remains. Disrespect towards human remains might undermine the Torah’s emphasis on deference towards others.
“And to his virgin sister who is close to him, that is not married, for her he may become ritually unclean.” (VaYikra 21:3)
A Kohen is generally prohibited from becoming ritually unclean. This prohibition restricts a Kohen from contact with a dead body. There are exceptions to this restriction. A Kohen is required to bury and mourn a close relative. This obligation takes precedence over the restriction against spiritual impurity.
One of the positive commands of the Torah is to mourn close relatives. No passage in the Torah expressly states this mitzvah. Maimonides, in his Sefer HaMitzvot, explains that the command is derived from the obligation of the Kohen to become spiritually unclean in order to bury and mourn a close relative. He explains that the mitzvah of mourning is expressed in reference to the Kohen in order to stress the importance of the command. A Kohen is generally prohibited from becoming spiritually unclean. Yet, in order to honor the deceased this restriction is abrogated. Certainly, a Jew who is not restricted in becoming ritually unclean must properly care for and mourn the departed! Maimonides cites our pasuk as the source of the positive command to mourn.
In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides discusses the laws of mourning in detail. In the second chapter of the laws of mourning he mentions our pasuk. He explains that this pasuk obligates the Kohen to become spiritually unclean. However, it is interesting that in introducing the command to mourn Maimonides cites a different passage. In order to understand the pasuk Maimonides chooses, a brief introduction is required.
The construction of the Mishcan was followed by a period of inauguration. The first seven days of this period Moshe served as the Kohen Gadol. Ahron assumed his duties as High Priest on the eighth day. On that first day of Ahron’s service, his sons Nadav and Avihu died. Moshe instructed Ahron, that despite this tragedy, the service in the Mishcan should not be interrupted. Ahron and his sons should continue to perform their functions. Moshe discovered that although Ahron generally followed these instructions, he did deviate in one area. Ahron and the Kohanim had not eaten their assigned portion of the Chatat for the new month.
Moshe asked Ahron’s sons Elazar and Itamar to explain this deviation. The Chumash relates Ahron’s response. “And Ahron spoke to Moshe, ‘Today they offered their chatat and their olah. And this happened to me. And if I ate the chatat, would this behavior be appropriate in Hashem’s eyes?’”
Ahron explained to Moshe that it was inappropriate for him and his sons to eat from the chatat. They were obligated to mourn the death of their close relatives. This obligation disqualified them from consuming the sacrifice.
Maimonides, in introducing the laws of mourning in the Mishne Torah, quotes Ahron’s comment to Moshe. Maimonides’ intention is clear. Ahron indicated that the obligation to mourn disqualified him and his children from performing a duty of the Kohanim. This implies that the Torah recognizes the requirement to mourn as a mitzvah.
It is interesting that Maimonides cites our pasuk as the source for mourning in his Sefer HaMitzvot. However, in Mishne Torah Maimonides cites Ahron’s response to Moshe!
There is a further difficulty in understanding Maimonides’ position. In order to understand this difficulty, we must review some of the laws of mourning.
Mourning is expressed through various restrictions. Maimonides explains that there are eleven prohibitions. These include cutting one’s hair, washing of clothing, and bathing. According to the Torah, these prohibitions apply for a single day. The Sages extended the period of mourning. In some cases, some degree of restriction extends for twelve months.
When do these prohibitions begin? Maimonides explains that generally these restrictions begin with the completion of the burial. However, prior to the burial the restrictions associated with mourning do not apply.
On the day of the death and burial of a close relative one is defined as an onan. The obligations of mourning do not apply until the completion of the burial. What, then, is the significance of the status of onan?
Maimonides explains that the onan status is relevant to Kohanim. A Kohen with the status of onan is disqualified from serving in the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash. A Kohen Gadol continues to serve as an onan. However, he may not eat from the sacrifices.
We can now better understand Ahron’s response to Moshe. Ahron told Moshe that he and his sons had the status of onan. This status disqualified them from consuming the sacrifice.
This creates a new difficulty in understanding Maimonides’ position. Maimonides, in Mishne Torah, cites Ahron’s response as the Torah source for the mitzvah of mourning. Ahron was explaining his reason for not consuming the sacrifice. His reason was not because he was mourning. He was explaining that he and his sons had the status of onan! In short, this passage is not a reference to mourning. It is a source for the status of onan!
In order to answer these questions, we must consider the nature of mourning as conceived by the Torah. Mourning involves various restrictions. However, are these prohibitions the essence of the mourning experience? Maimonides, in the laws of mourning, does not enumerate the specific restriction until the fifth chapter. It would seem that these prohibitions are not the fundamental feature of the mitzvah. Instead, the essential aspect of mourning is the sense of loss and the contemplation of the meaning of the tragedy. The restrictions give visible expression to mourning. They do not define the experience.
The restrictions do not begin until the completion of the burial process. This does not mean that mourning has not begun. The essential element of mourning is the internal aspect – the sense of loss. This element of the mourning begins immediately. From this perspective, the status of onan is an expression of the mitzvah of mourning. The onan is not obligated in the restrictions associated with mourning. However, the onan is subject to the internal aspect of mourning.
We can now readily understand the effect of the status of onan upon the Kohen. The onan is preoccupied with the death of a close relative. This internal upheaval disqualifies the Kohen from service and the Kohen Gadol from consuming sacrifices.
The status of onan is a form of mourning. It involves the essential element without the external expression of the prohibitions. Ahron’s response to Moshe is an appropriate source for the mitzvah of mourning.
Maimonides cites Ahron’s response to Moshe to introduce the mitzvah of mourning. This passage captures the essential nature of the mitzvah. Our pasuk indicates the existence of the mitzvah. But it tells us little of the nature of the command. Ahron’s statement expresses the essence of mourning. It captures the internal aspect of the command.
 Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p 317.  Sefer Devarim 21:23.  Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 537.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 37.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 2:6.  Sefer VaYikra 11:19.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 1:1.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel, Chapters 5 and 6.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 1:2.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bey’at HaMikdash 2:9.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bey’at HaMikdash 2:6.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bey’at HaMikdash 2:8.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bey’at HaMikdash 2:8.