"Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none defile himself for a dead person..."—Leviticus 21:1.

Contact with a human corpse causes ritual impurity. In the times of the Holy Temple, a person who was tamei (ritually impure) was not permitted to enter the Temple or partake of various holy foods. Today, while this state of ritual impurity has no relevance for most Jews, it is forbidden for a kohen (priestly descendent of Aaron) to contract this ritual impurity.

The Sefer HaChinuch1 explains that the body is naturally drawn to base desires. When the holy soul, which had been elevating it, departs, the body becomes a source of impurity. Kohanim, who were chosen to serve G‑d in a special capacity, are therefore forbidden to come in contact with a corpse.

  1. The prohibition applies to male kohanim only.2
  2. Kohanim who were chosen to serve G‑d in a special capacity are forbidden to come in contact with a corpseThe Torah repeats itself: "Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them." From this the sages extrapolate that adults are required to ensure that the children do not become tamei. Even a (male) baby kohen should not be allowed to become tamei.3
  3. If a kohen marries a women forbidden to him by Torah law (e.g., a divorcee), children from that marriage do not have the priestly status, and are not prohibited from becoming tamei.4 One who is unsure of his kohen status should consult with a halachic expert.
  4. The prohibition includes touching, carrying or being under the same roof (and, as we'll discuss soon, at times even the same building) as a dead body.5
  5. A kohen may not enter a cemetery unless he remains at least four cubits (approx. six feet) away from the graves. A kohen should also retain at least a four-cubit distance between himself and a grave or a coffin.6 (The four cubit distance applies to open-air situations. If indoors, as mentioned above, a kohen may not be under the same roof.)
  6. A kohen may not walk beneath the branches of a tree whose branches extend over a grave.7
  7. If there is a wall around a grave, cemetery or corpse, the kohen should remain at least four handbreadths (approximately 13 inches) away from the grave.8
  8. A kohen may not be in the same room as a corpse. If there is a corpse in the building, the kohen may or may not be allowed to be in another room, depending on various factors. Some of them are: Are the doors between the rooms closed? How are the hinges on those doors positioned? Will the corpse be brought out of the building through the room where the kohen is standing?9
    Speak to your rabbi before proceeding.
  9. The following buildings may be problematic for a kohen to enter:
    • A hospital—especially if it houses a morgue. However, obviously, in case of need, a kohen may enter (whether for treatment or to visit a loved one). A rabbi should be consulted to discuss the details.
    • A funeral chapel.
    • A museum which contains a human skeleton or other human remains.
    • An airplane that has a coffin in it.
  10. Although there are lenient opinions, we follow the view that a kohen may not come in contact with a non-Jewish corpse too.10
  11. There is an opinion that all the above restrictions do not apply to the bodies of holy tzaddikim. This is not the accepted halachic view.11
  12. A kohen is obligated to attend, and become tamei for, the funerals of close relatives.12 These are: His father and mother, son or daughter, wife, paternal brother, and never-married paternal sister.
  13. Many funeral homes have designated kohanim areas, from which they can follow the funeral ceremonyAfter the funeral, a kohen may not visit the relative's grave in a manner that would make him tamei.13 For this reason, relatives of kohanim are often buried at the edge of the cemetery. (See above for information on how close to the graves a kohen may approach.)
  14. If, for some reason, the relative's body being buried is not complete (i.e., missing a limb or limbs), the kohen may not become tamei.14 Discuss each individual situation with a competent rabbi.
  15. Although it is difficult, a kohen may not become tamei to attend the funeral of a grandfather, stepparent or relatives other than the ones listed above. Many Jewish funeral homes do, however, have designated kohanim areas or rooms, and from there they can follow the funeral ceremony.