Emor: Death Is Not Holy

Why won’t Mr. Cohen go into a cemetery?

Josefov Cemetery, Prague, where a six-foot distance is impossible. (photo by M.C.)

A kohein (hereditary priest) must distance himself from death, according to this week’s Torah portion, Emor. Proximity to a dead body is limited, and mourning practices are curtailed.

An Orthodox Jew who is a patrilineal descendant of the ancient kohanim (plural of kohein) still follows this principle.1 Mr. Cohen (or Kahn, Kagan, or any other variant) is also honored at Orthodox services, where he gets to deliver the priestly blessing, and he chants the first aliyah for a Torah reading.

But unlike a kohein of old, Mr. Cohen no longer acts as an intermediary for God. He neither officiates at the sanctuary nor receives sacrificial offerings at an altar. His role is strictly ceremonial, and has been ever since the year 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he keeps a distance of at least four cubits (six feet!) between himself and any coffin or grave, a rule derived from the portions Emor in Leviticus and Chukkat in Numbers.2

Why does Emor require the kohanim to keep their distance from the dead?


The portion begins with God telling Moses:

Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them: Lo yitama for a body among your own people, except for the blood-relative closest to him: his mother or his father or his son or his daughter or his brother. (Leviticus/Vayikra 21:1-2)

kohanim (כֺּהֲנִים) = priests; male descendants of Aaron. (Plural of kohein, כֺּהֵן.)

lo yitama (לֺא־יִטַּמָּא) = you must not make yourself ritually impure, contaminated. (From the same root as tamei, טָמֵא = ritually impure, contaminated, unacceptable for normal contact.)

A priest in the Torah is allowed to be near the body of his recently deceased parent, child, brother, or (in Leviticus 21:3) unmarried sister because he is responsible for the burial.3

A person who is tamei is not allowed to enter the grounds of God’s sanctuary—where all Israelites worship, and the kohanim officiate.

Contact with or proximity to a dead human body is the worst form of being tamei,4 and ritual purity can only be restored if the tamei person is sprinkled seven days later with water containing the ashes of a pure red cow5—ashes that have not been available since the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. An ordinary priest in the ancient Israelite kingdoms stayed away from the sanctuary during his seven days of impurity after attending the death of a close blood relative.6

The high priest, however, is forbidden to go near anyone who has died, no matter how close.

And he must not come where there is any dead body; [even] for his father or his mother lo yitama. And from the holy place he must not go out … (Leviticus 21:11-12)

Why does he have to be ritually pure enough to stay in “the holy place”, i.e. the sanctuary grounds, at all times? The high priest’s extra duties are officiating on Yom Kippur and running the administration of the temple. Except for the week of Yom Kippur, couldn’t he take seven days off from work?

The problem is the required level of holiness. All the Israelites are required be holy by serving God and obeying the ethical rules.7 The kohanim must be as holy as the temple sanctuary and its furnishings, i.e. set aside from profane activities and dedicated to God full-time.

Holy they must be for their God, and they must not profane the name of their God, because those who offer a fire-offering of God, as food of their God, must be holy. (Leviticus 21:6)

Although ordinary priests are allowed a brief lapse from holiness to bury a close blood relative, the high priest must be even holier than that. He even wears a gold plate on his forehead inscribed “Holy to God”.8

In the Torah a person cannot be both tamei (unfit to serve God) and holy (serving God), because the God of Israel must not be associated with death. That is why the kohanim were not only required to avoid corpses in most cases, but also to avoid most signs of mourning.


Pieter Paul Rubens, Franciscan Friar (detail), circa 1616. The hair is rounded back.

The previous Torah portion, Kedoshim, prohibits all Israelites from engaging in two of the common mourning practices in the Ancient Near East: shaving the beard or the hair at the temples, and scarification or tattooing.

You must not round back the side of your head [hair], and you must not destroy the side of your beard. And you must not make an incision for a [dead] person in your flesh, and you must not engrave a tattoo into yourself. I am God. (Leviticus 19:27-28)

The Torah is not against shaving per se. Nazirites end their terms as holy lay people by shaving their entire heads.9 When Levites are initiated into the clergy, and when people with the skin disease tzara-at are healed, they have to shave their entire bodies.10

Nor is the Torah opposed to every form of cutting into the skin. Circumcision is required for males, and piercings are condoned for earrings and nose-rings. The Torah only prohibits shaving hair and cutting into skin in the context of mourning.11

The Torah does allow mourners who are not priests to tear their garments, to throw dust on their heads, or to tear their hair. But the kohanim must exercise more restraint.

They must not make a bald spot on their heads, and they must not shave off a side of their beards. They must not incise incisions in their flesh. (Leviticus 21:5)

The Talmud rules in several tractates that a kohein nust not tear his hair to make a bald spot even the size of a grain of rice.

And the great kohein, above his kinsmen, upon whose head anointing oil was poured and who was ordained to wear the [high priest’s] garments, must not bare his head and must not tear his garments. (Leviticus 20:10)

An extreme gesture of mourning by a priest would detract from God’s reputation as a god of life.


Two Egyptian Priests perform the funerary rite “Opening of the Mouth”, 1275 BCE

Modern commentator Jacob Milgrom pointed out that although priests in other religions officiated at funerals, kohanim were limited to tending their own dead. “A polemic may underlie these verses against the Egyptian cult, which was obsessed with death and the afterlife and which contained in every temple a cadre of special priests involved in funerary rites.”12

19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch went further, writing: “Heathenism, both ancient and modern, tends to associate religion with death. The kingdom of God begins only where man ends. Death and dying are the main manifestations of divinity.”13

Crucifixion by Giotto, 14th c.

I suspect Hirsch was alluding to two aspects of most Christian sects: the glorification of the dead body of Jesus on the cross (before resurrection), and the importance of belief in an afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible posits an underground place called Sheol where the souls of the dead go, but those souls are unconscious.

The dead do not praise God, nor any who go down to silence. But we ourselves will bless God, from now until eternity. (Psalm 155:17-18)

Judaism still calls God Elohim chayim (the god of life, the god of living).14 Jews do honor our dead friends and family members in cemeteries—with burial services, headstone unveilings, and leaving memorial pebbles on graves (except, of course, for Orthodox Mr. Cohen). We also honor and remember our dead by saying the Mourner’s Kaddish for our them, though the language of that prayer praises God for granting life. But we do not exalt death or look forward to an afterlife.

When I meet people whose personal religion revolves around an afterlife, I wonder if they are fully appreciating this life. I would rather focus on the holy glory of life in this world, like the kohanim.

  1. Genetic research has shown that most Jews with a last name like Cohen and a family tradition of being called to the Torah with “ha-kohein” appended to their name actually do share a group of common ancestors.
  2. Numbers 19:11-20 explains that a person becomes tamei by touching a dead person, or being in the same tent, or stepping on (or into) a burial site.
  3. A priest’s legitimate wife is added in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 22b.
  4. Ritual impurity is also caused by other reminders of death: the skin disease tzara-at (Leviticus 13:3-46), discharge after giving birth (Leviticus 12:2-8), genital discharges including menstrual blood and semen (Leviticus 15:1-32), touching or eating dead animals that were not properly slaughtered (Leviticus 11:8, 11:24-38, and 11:44-47), and touching a tamei person or thing (e.g. Numbers 19:22).
  5. Numbers 19:1-20.
  6. Ezekiel 44:25-27 (part of this week’s haftarah reading).
  7. Leviticus 19:1-2.
  8. Exodus 28:36-37. See my post Tetzaveh: Flower on the Forehead.
  9. Numbers 6:13-18.
  10. Leviticus 14:8-9, Numbers 8:5-7.
  11. This also applies to Deuteronomy 14:1. See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.
  12. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 262.
  13. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 703.
  14. This appellation first appears in Deuteronomy 5:23.


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