From Defilement to Redemption

Judaism has forged an intimate connexion between every individual Jew’s declaration of faith and the function of the Kohen.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

Dedicated to the memory of Avraham Yosef HaKohen ben Yaakov (Arnie Grant), who passed away in the USA on Rosh Chodesh Iyyar (20th April). Yehi zichro baruch.

[Note: Due to the extra day of Pesach outside of Israel which this year fell on Shabbat, Jewish communities in the countries of exile are one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading. This will continue until Shabbat 27th Iyyar (16 May), when communities in Israel will read Parashat Bechukkotay (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and communities in the exile will catch up by reading the double parashah Behar-Bechukkotay (Leviticus 25:1-27:34).

My comments until then will focus on the Torah-reading appropriate for Israel.]

Parashat Emor opens with instructions to the Kohanim (Priests): “Hashem said to Moshe: Say to the Kohanim, sons of Aaron, saying to them: None of you among your nation shall defile himself by coming into contact with the dead, except for his close relative – his mother and his father, his son and his daughter and his brother, and his virgin sister who is still close to him because she has not married another man; for her he can defile himself” (Leviticus 21:1-3).

A dead body – specifically a dead Jewish body – is ritually impure, and any Jew who comes into contact with a dead Jewish body, or who is under the same roof as a dead Jewish body, becomes ritually defiled. And having become ritually defiled with tum’at ha-met (ritual uncleanness caused by a dead body), he remains in that status until being purified by the ritual of the Red Heifer, as prescribed and described in the opening chapter of Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19).

This means, of course, that any Jew who has ever contracted tum’at ha-met at any time in the last couple of millennia has remained in that status for the rest of his life: without the Red Heifer, there can be no purification from tum’at ha-met.

This does not impinge on a Jew’s life in any practical way, in this era that we have no Holy Temple. Indeed, even when the Holy Temple stood, the ordinary Jew had no obligation to avoid tum’at ha-met, other than during the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to the Holy Temple on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The Jew who was ritually unclean with tum’at ha-met was forbidden to enter the Holy Temple and to offer the Korban Hagigah (the Festival Sacrifice), hence at those times of the year he had to be ritually pure.

The Kohen, by contrast, is forbidden to defile himself deliberately by coming into contact with the corpse of a Jew, excepting only his mother and his father, his son and his daughter and his brother, and his unmarried sister. Those are the only people whose funerals he can attend.

For the sake of halachic precision, we note that there is another exception. Burying a dead Jew is so great and important a mitzvah that if a Jew dies and there is no one else to bury him, then a Kohen, even a Kohen Gadol [High Priest], defiles himself in order to bring this Jew to proper Jewish burial: see Zevachim 100a; also the Rambam, Laws of Mourning 3:8 and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 374:1.

And subsequently, the Kohen had to purify himself at the earliest opportunity.

A Kohen who contracted ritual uncleanness – any ritual uncleanness, not just tum’at ha-met – was forbidden to eat of the Terumah (the Priestly Dues) until he was purified.

The Kohen who contracted tum’at ha-met would remain unclean for seven days. On the third day and the seventh day a mixture of the ashes of the burnt heifer and spring water would be applied, after which the person would immerse himself in the mikveh (the ritual bath), and at nightfall he would become ritually pure.

For other, lower forms, of ritual uncleanness, the Kohen would immerse himself in the mikveh during the day, and then at nightfall he would become pure.

This purification ritual was the same for a Kohen or a regular Jew; the only difference is – as we mentioned earlier – that the Kohen was obligated to purify himself immediately, while a regular Jew was under no such obligation.

Let us present a question at this juncture: What is the function of the Kohen? What is the nature of the relationship between the Kohanim and the rest of the Children of Israel?

To answer this, let us see how and in which contexts the word “kohen” appears in the Torah.

Three men are described as “Kohen”. The first was Malchi-Tzedek, the king of Shalem, who was “a Kohen to the Most High” (Genesis 14:18), the second was Poti Phera, in Egypt, a Kohen of On, the Egyptian deity (41:45-46:20), and the third was Yitro (Jethro), Moshe’s father-in-law, the Kohen of Midian (Exodus 2:16, 3:1, 18:1). Additionally, the Torah refers to the Egyptian “kohanim” (Genesis 47:22 and 26).

The Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Yitro, Masechet de-Amalek 1 and Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 169) records two opinions as to the exact meaning of “kohen” (in the context of “Yitro, Kohen of Midian”): Rabbi Yehoshua interpreted it to mean a priest of idolatry, and Rabbi Elazar the Moda’i interpreted it to mean a national leader.

(This ambiguity is carried into English with the word “minister”, meaning both a minister of religion and a government minister.)

The task of the Kohen is to be a leader; the task of the Kohanim among the Children of Israel is to be the spiritual leaders who guide the nation as a whole in G-d’s paths.

The first time that the Torah ever applies the concept of Kohen to the Jewish nation is immediately before the Giving of the Torah: “So now, if you will diligently hearken to My Voice and keep My Covenant…then you will be My Kingdom of Kohanim and holy Nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

That is to say, Israel’s national task vis-à-vis the other nations parallels the Kohanim’s task vis-à-vis the rest of the nation of Israel. Just as the Kohanim among the Children of Israel are charged to lead the rest of the nation to devotion to G-d, so too Israel’s national task is to lead the rest of the world to acknowledge G-d. This is what it means to be “a light unto the nations”.

It is, therefore, supremely appropriate that Judaism has forged an intimate connexion between every individual Jew’s declaration of faith and the function of the Kohen.

The single most fundamental declaration of faith that we have, the first words that a Jewish baby learns from his mother and the last words he says as his soul is about to depart his body, are “Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

So fundamental is this declaration that the Mishnah opens with a discussion on the correct time to recite the Shema, and connects it with the Kohanim: “From when can we recite the Shema of the Evening Service? – From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat of their terumah, until the end of the third watch; this is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. And the Sages say, until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says, until the first hint of dawn” (Berachot 1:1).

(The terumah is the Priestly-dues, the tithe taken from agricultural produce that every Jew is commanded to donate to the Kohanim.)

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (Italy and Israel, late 15th century) explains the phrase “…the time that the Kohanim enter to eat of their terumah”: “Kohanim who had become impure and then immersed themselves in the mikveh could not eat of the terumah until nightfall, which is to say the time that the stars come out”.

As we noted above, the Kohen who was impure was forbidden to eat of the terumah. He had to immerse himself in the mikveh and then wait for nightfall (i.e. for the stars to come out), and only after that could he enter the Holy Temple and eat of the terumah.

“Those who are ritually impure do not eat of the terumah until the sun has set and three medium-sized stars have come out, which time is about a third of an hour after sunset, as it says ‘and when the sun sets he will be cleansed’ – until the sky is ‘cleansed’ of light – ‘and afterwards he will eat of the holy foods, for that is his bread’ (Leviticus 22:7)” (Rambam, Laws of Terumot 7:2).

That is to say, the earliest time for reciting the Shema is the earliest time that a Kohen who had become ritually impure during the day could be purified, which is the time that the stars come out, only after which he could enter the Holy Temple and eat of the terumah.

This raises an obvious question: why does the Mishnah define the earliest time for reciting the Shema as “the time that the Kohanim enter to eat of their terumah”? Why not say directly that the earliest time is sunset? Why does the Mishnah make this connexion between reading the Shema and the Kohen’s entering the Holy Temple to eat of the terumah?

The Gemara explains: “‘From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat of their terumah’ – when do the Kohanim enter to eat of their terumah? – From the time that the stars come out. So let the Tanna say that [we can recite the Shema of the Evening Service] from the time that the stars come out! This teaches another halachah in passing: When do the Kohanim eat of their terumah? – From the time that the stars come out” (Berachot 2a).

Thus the Gemara explains that the Mishnah connects the terumah with the recital of the Shema.

This leads to the next question: Why are the terumah and the recital of the Shema connected?

I suggest that the answer lies in the mitzvah of terumah.

Whenever the Talmud refers to terumah without qualification, it invariably refers to the terumah gedolah, the portion of the produce which the ordinary Jew must give to the Kohen.

(There are three other forms of terumah: [1] the terumat ma’aser is the one-tenth which the Levites remove from the first tithe that is given to them and then give to the Kohanim; [2] the terumat ha-deshen, also called terumat ha-mizbe’ach, is the procedure with which Service in the Holy Temple would begin each morning, when the ashes would be removed from the pyre on the Altar and put to the east of the ramp leading up to the Altar; and [3] the terumat ha-lishkah is the amount which is removed from the annual half-shekel donations to buy the animals for communal sacrifices.)

Though the Torah does not specify what percentage of his produce a Jew must donate for the terumah, Mishnah offers guidelines: “The amount of the terumah is for a generous person one-fortieth of the produce, though Beit Shammai says one-thirtieth; and for an average person, one-fiftieth; and for a stingy person, one-sixtieth” (Terumot 4:3, and see also the Rambam, Laws of Terumot 4:7).

The Torah decrees: “All the best oil, and all the best wine and grain – their first, which they give to Hashem – to you (Aaron, and by extension all the Kohanim throughout the generations) I have given them” (Numbers 18:12).

The Torah only commands that terumah be taken from oil, wine, and grain, though the Sages extended the terumah to all produce (see the Rambam, Laws of Terumot 4:6).

And in the second paragraph of the Shema, oil, wine, and grain are precisely what G-d promises as reward for obeying His mitzvot: “And I will give the rain of your Land in its appropriate season – the first rains and the last rains – thus you will harvest your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:14).

Thus the Mishnah forges an intimate connexion between reciting the Shema and the Kohanim. The time for reciting the Shema, evening by evening, begins at the time that the Kohanim who had become impure during the day would become purified and could enter the Holy Temple to eat of the terumah.

And thus every Jew, every day at nightfall as the new day begins, as he recites the Shema, is elevated by the knowledge that he is a citizen of G-d’s Kingdom of Kohanim.





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