Generally speaking, there is no prohibition against becoming impure, as explained in Why Is Impurity Not Observed? and since nowadays we no longer have the Temple, there is really no reason why a person would take precautions to prevent himself from becoming ritually impure. An exception to this is the male kohen, descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Torah states, “The L‑rd said to Moses: ‘Speak to the kohanim . . . Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.’”1 There is a unique prohibition against a kohen becoming impure by coming into contact with a corpse, regardless of whether he plans on engaging in activities that require purity.

There are, in general, three ways that one could become impure through human remains:

  • Touching the human remains, known as tumat maga
  • Moving or carrying human remains, even without touching them, known as tumat masa
  • Being under the same roof or covering as the remains, known as tumat ohel

Thus, morgues, funeral homes or cemeteries are off limits for a kohen except for the funerals of certain immediate relatives (with restrictions).

This brings us to the question of a kohen visiting a museum or hospital, which may contain human corpses or remains. Depending on the layout and other factors, if all the rooms in the building are connected via airways (doors, ducts, etc.), tumat ohel spreads throughout the entire building. Therefore, if even one room in the hospital or exhibit in the building contains a corpse, the kohen might have to refrain from stepping in the whole building.

There is, however, a distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish remains.

Non-Jewish Remains

Although non-Jewish remains impart ritual impurity by touching or moving them, there is a dispute whether they are susceptible to tumat ohel—impurity by being under the same roof. In the Code of Jewish Law,2 both Rabbi Yosef Caro and Rabbi Moses Isserlis rule that, although the halachah may follow the more lenient opinion, a kohen should follow the stricter opinion and be careful not to be under the same roof as the remains of a non-Jew.

Kohanim generally follow this ruling. However, many rabbis are of the opinion that—outside of Israel and heavily Jewish neighborhoods—we can safely assume that the majority of the corpses or limbs in hospitals are non-Jewish, so in a case of great need a kohen may follow the lenient opinion that a non-Jewish corpse imparts impurity only through touch, and visit the hospital. An example of great need would be if the patient in the hospital is a parent or child and would be greatly troubled if the kohen didn’t visit.3

Obviously, this leniency wouldn’t necessarily apply to a leisure visit to the local museum, which may contain human remains. However, as mentioned earlier, the spread of tumat ohel (being under the same covering as the remains) is dependent on the layout of the building, as well as other factors. Additionally, in certain circumstances, some rule that if the remains are in a display case, then it may be permissible for the kohen to enter the whole or parts of the museum.4

Based on the above, each specific scenario, in consultation with a competent Orthodox rabbi, needs to be investigated to determine whether it is indeed problematic for a kohen to enter.

May we merit to see the actualization of the prophecy that “your dead shall live, ‘My corpses shall rise; awaken and sing, you who dwell in the dust…’ ”5