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12 Tishrei 5764 - October 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Obligations of the Privileged Class -- Taharas Cohanim: The Organization of Cohanim in Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora

by Rabbi R. Berelson

A New Initiative

About a month ago we reported the establishment of Taharas Cohanim: the organization of Cohanim in Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora, whose aim is to work towards achieving solutions to problems involving tumas meis that are commonly encountered by cohanim. It is hoped that by approaching the relevant authorities and institutions as a group with a membership of thousands, it will be possible to obtain more effective results than hitherto, when individuals have had to try to solve these problems acting on their own.

The organization has also set up a Beis Horo'oh where answers are provided to questions involving the dinim of tumoh.

For this article, Rav Dovid Hacohen Munk, who responds to queries, discussed some of the questions and stories that he has heard, some of the common problems and possible solutions and some of the situations that make an organization like Taharas Cohanim a necessity.

The Need for Heightened Awareness

A cohen told the following story: "A very good friend of mine stopped a cab right next to me but did not ask me to join him. I continued walking. He met me a few days later and said, `Do you know why I didn't offer you a ride? I was just then on my way to the funeral parlor on Rechov Shamgar to bring them a bag that needed burial, and you are a cohen! But just listen to the end of the story: I asked the driver, "Are you a cohein?" and he answered in the affirmative, so I didn't travel with him either!' "

Rav Munk: When the Beis Hamikdosh was standing, being a cohen affected many aspects of life. Since the churban, the practical laws of being a cohen are far fewer. The main area remaining that is of concern on a day-to-day basis (besides bircas cohanim) is the prohibition against becoming defiled by the impurity of a dead body. According to a vast majority of Rishonim, this is prohibited by Torah law even nowadays and the halochoh follows this view.

People used to live in individual dwellings, not in apartment blocks. There was far less likelihood of encountering tumas meis than there is today. The large buildings in which people live nowadays give rise to problems that never used to exist. There never used to be hospitals with a thousand beds -- actually, there were no hospitals. Today, one death can make an entire complex impure.

The field of tumah is broad and difficult. It is one of the harder topics in Shas to study, about which the gemora says, "Oholos [the dinim of the spread of tumah under a roofed area] has few verses [in Chumash] but many halochos" (Chagigah 11). A certain degree of ignorance prevails among a proportion of cohanim, even with regard to elementary halochos.

R.B. For example?

Rav Cohen: I was asked, "May cohanos become tomei?" when in fact there is no prohibition whatsoever for women to become tomei (without touching on the question of a woman carrying an unborn child). I have also heard of the question whether electric cables constitute an ohel by virtue of the law of lovud, when, "It is an established halochoh that we do not apply lovud to [the laws of] tumah." Even if snow piles up over the cables closing the spaces between them, they do not constitute an ohel.

The grandson of a cohen who had passed away asked whether he was allowed to become tomei for his grandfather in view of the rule that, "Grandchildren are like children," when it is obvious that this is forbidden.

Leaving an Ohel Immediately

R.B. What is the remedy for ignorance?

Rav Cohen: To organize a national network of shiurim, just as is done for hilchos Shabbos, shemiras haloshon and the dinim in the second part of Yoreh Dei'ah.

This week, a cohen told me that he visited the cardiac rehabilitation clinic in one of the hospitals here for treatment. As well as undergoing treatment, he also davened minchah in the hospital and deposited an envelope into a branch of one of the banks there. I told him that, without any doubt, minchah and bank deposits are absolutely forbidden for him within the hospital precincts. It is forbidden to be in the hospital altogether, and having to go there for medical treatment does not permit spending any further time there that is not directly connected to the treatment. One must leave the hospital area immediately.

A story like this demonstrates how vital it is for cohanim to be aware of what they must and must not do. Sometimes cohanim have the feeling that, "It's simply impossible to avoid tumah completely," especially when medical facilities and hospitals must be used. This interferes in a very basic way with their avoidance of tumah. If a cohen has to enter a hospital, he may well feel that under the circumstances, tumah is permitted and no precautions are necessary, whereas the truth is that the prohibition is only set aside insofar as the necessary treatment is concerned and time there must be kept to the absolute minimum.

Interestingly, the cohen referred to earlier once underwent a catheterization and, in the adjacent room someone passed away. Obviously, his own condition mandated that he remain where he was, but he said that he made the effort to close the door. According to many opinions, this single measure saved him from tumah deOraisa [i.e. prohibited by Torah law]. Every such moment is of inestimable value.

One of the guests staying in a hotel by the Dead Sea passed away during Shabbos. The owner of the hotel left the deceased in a side room and informed nobody. After Shabbos, the cohanim who were staying there found out what had happened and they were angry. The owner defended himself by saying that he couldn't allow them to remain outside the building in the blistering 42-degree heat.

On the whole, this story is not typical -- people generally do find out when there is tumah in the same building. One cold, wintry Friday night in Teves, an elderly lady passed away in a building in Yerushalayim that housed seventy families, twelve of whom were families of cohanim.

What were they supposed to do? Did they have to take their young children outside in the freezing Yerushalayim cold?

In another case, a cohen heard on Shabbos morning that there was tumah in his building and he escaped onto an open balcony. It was summertime and he stayed there from eight in the morning until after Shabbos when the body was removed at nine o'clock that night!

R.B. Does halochoh require a cohen to do this?

Rav Munk: It appears that he acted correctly but this might not be true in every case. If there is a drainpipe overhead, going outside could involve a few moments of an even more severe transgression. This is why it's mandatory for cohanim to know the basic halachos, so that they know how to conduct themselves.

R.B. And what in fact is the right course to follow?

Rav Munk: A cohen should be informed of the presence of tumah in the building while he is on the other side of a closed door, which he should not open! If his front door is closed, he should stay inside and close all the windows.

R.B. The windows?

Rav Munk: There are often drainpipes, window boxes, bars or ledges protruding above the window that can allow tumah to enter the house. That's why windows should be kept closed. If a cohen does open his front door, he should leave the building immediately.

The Problem with Hospitals

The area of a hospital is problematic for cohanim for several reasons, such as the presence of patients that have died, aborted fetuses and severed limbs R'l. The hospital usually wants to examine a severed limb and the tests can take many hours.

Some hospitals also house laboratories belonging to medical schools, where preserved limbs and organs, some of which cause tumah, are kept. Eye clinics may store corneas. It is also forbidden for a cohen to enter a house where there is someone dying (Yore Dei'ah 370). In short, a hospital precinct poses serious problems for cohanim, without entering into a discussion of danger to life or possible danger that permits entry.

A Jew from France, one of whose legs was shorter than the other, was to be hospitalized for surgery. In every other respect he was perfectly healthy. He asked whether he was allowed to stay in hospital, where tumah is usually present, when his condition is not life endangering.

May a cohen visit a doctor whose clinic is inside the hospital complex, for treatment for a condition that is not dangerous? One cohen suffered for a time from an ingrown toenail. His doctor would only treat it in an operating theater but the patient's father was opposed to this. The result was that he suffered for months until the doctor finally agreed to bring the necessary equipment to a clinic outside the hospital.

When a cohen's children need medical care, it is preferable that their mother accompany them, as far as this is possible. One cohen asked for guidance in the following situation: his wife had recently given birth and his older son had sustained a compound fracture that necessitated surgery. He wanted to know whether he was allowed to accompany his son.

Rav Munk: In this case, there is apparently no choice but one must be aware that limbs are usually present in the area of the operating theaters and the tumah there is particularly serious. This week we had a call about a three- year-old who was injured and lost his front teeth. The question was, should he be taken to a hospital? I advised them to go first to an external emergency clinic, to make quite sure that there was no possibility of danger to life. In the event that there was not, he could be taken to a dental clinic.

It's important to realize that taking a baby into a place where there's tumah is also forbidden. A cohen once asked whether he was obliged to remove his newborn son from the hospital. I told him, "Chas vesholom!"

But at the same time, the mother may not stay in the hospital for an extra day's rest if she can have it in a convalescent home -- even if the latter will cost several hundred shekel. Similarly, if a baby needs his bilirubin level checked before his bris, the test should be done in a clinic, not in hospital, despite the extra cost. Although this adds to expenses, glatt kosher meat is also more expensive than regular kosher meat and the issue here is even more serious, involving a high probability of transgressing a Torah prohibition.


With regard to receiving medical care, the organization has hopeful news that could solve problems in the future. The heads of Taharas Cohanim have proposed a special type of medical insurance for cohanim, to several insurance agents. (Alternatively, it might be possible to implement the scheme through the usual Kupat Cholim channels.) The arrangement would enable cohanim to be treated in private hospitals, where the types of tumah that are prevalent in the large hospitals are not found.

If thousands of cohanim are united in one organization, their needs in this respect will be met, if only because of the economic interest of the various clinics and providers of health care. One need not expect the clinics to work altruistically. They need to be shown that there is something in it for them. A large grouping of cohanim is exactly the kind of economic incentive to interest them.

On the Streets of Yerushalayim

The Sanhedria cemetery is located at the corner of Yerushalayim's busy Bar Ilan intersection, where Bar Ilan and Shmuel Hanovi streets meet as the latter leads onto the main thoroughfare that carries traffic to the sprawling Ramot and Ramat Shlomo neighborhoods. Many of the trees that stand inside the wall sheltering the graves have branches that extend outwards, over the adjacent sidewalk. A cohen might walk innocently along the street without realizing that he is entering an ohel hameis.

There was a similar case decades ago in Yerushalayim's Hanevi'im Street. The Bikur Cholim Hospital's morgue used to be situated where the Yad Sarah railway carriage stands today. Trees extended from over the morgue to the sidewalk. When someone asked HaRav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss zt'l, author of ShuT Minchas Yitzchok, about this, the rov visited the site, measured the tree and ruled that it was apparently forbidden by Torah law for cohanim to walk along that part of the street. HaRav Weiss himself approached the relevant authorities and the tree was cut down the following day.

At the end of Rechov Malchei Yisroel, in the site where a major Kupat Cholim clinic was recently built, burial caves were found. When that building was recently erected on this site, during the construction, a crane with a forty-two meter long arm was used.

It was suddenly noticed that the crane was acting as an ohel when its arm was situated above both the caves and the adjacent Yakirei Yerushalayim yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva and a number of the talmidim are cohanim. The metal bars from which the crane was assembled were twelve centimeters wide, more than the tefach's width that will convey tumah everywhere beneath itself. The solution to the problem took the shape of several plasterboard partitions that prevented tumah under the crane's arm from entering the yeshiva.

At Kivrei Hatzaddikim

According to halochoh, the burial places of the righteous do convey tumah. However we do not rely on this. At many of these sites, arrangements have been made for shelter for cohanim, consisting of a piece of roofing that is separate from the main ohel which stands over the actual grave. Often though, the gap between the two roofs is very small and if someone stands under the space, he will `join' the small roof to the main ohel, bringing tumah to all the cohanim who are standing outside. This is a very serious problem. Even a chair or a bench between the small roof and the ohel can connect the two of them.

At the grave of a certain Rebbe, the roof of the ohel itself protrudes quite a bit from the building, constituting a major hazard for cohanim standing outside the ohel who can easily step underneath it without realizing. Steps are currently being taken to provide adequate warning signs, telling cohanim to keep their distance from the edge of the roof.

Effecting Change

Another of the organization's objectives is to act, as far as is possible, to smooth difficulties that are encountered in public thoroughfares. One example involves the removal of deceased patients from their beds.

Several months ago, a cohen accompanied his wife to the delivery ward in a hospital in Yerushalayim. They arrived at midnight and found a sign on the door announcing that "Entrance to Cohanim is Forbidden." A female relative of theirs happened to be there and she accompanied the wife inside the hospital. The cohen, who waited outside in the rain, called the hospital's security officer and asked when the body would be removed. "In an hour-and-a-half, or two hours," was the reply.

The cohen explained that it was imperative that he enter the hospital, to which the security officer responded that the deceased's family had not yet arrived. The cohen did not give up and called the hospital rabbi. The body was moved within half-an- hour!

On occasion, the removal of a body can take several hours. The input of an official organization will definitely contribute to the speeding up of the process in such cases. If the civil law requires a body to be left for half-an-hour before removal, why should it take hours? Why is Bnei Brak's Maayanei Yeshu'oh Hospital the only place where the removal is not delayed?

Much has already been done by numerous bodies and individuals to alleviate the problems. Improvements have been made all over the country, some of them by hospital rabbonim. Yet it can be said that all the approaches that have been made to public bodies hitherto have been by private individuals and the response they met with was accordingly weak. Such applications have to be made in the name of an organized group.

The message must be conveyed that there is an entire sector that wishes to observe halochoh but encounters difficulties. In order to streamline the process of removal of bodies, it is not funds that are missing. The solution is simply organizational. If thousands of cohanim belonging to an official organization request changes, they will surely meet with a fitting response.

The existence of such a group will benefit all those who are involved in areas that affect cohanim. Once there is awareness that cohanim have the backing of an organization, even when they have to deal with matters as individuals, they will find that they are being paid more attention.

Not for Nothing!

Rav Munk: Staying clear of tumah affects many aspects of life. Museums may house skulls and bones that are sources of tumah. Cohanim have to be more careful about travelling abroad because of the tumah that Chazal decreed on the gentile lands. At a levaya during the winter, a `roof' of umbrellas may be formed around the bier, constituting an ohel hameis that can extend quite a distance away.

There are other topics that we have not mentioned at all, such as the tumah of a deceased gentile, a cohen identifying a dead body, whether a cohen may become tomei for one of his seven closest relatives when he'll become tomei because of another meis at the same time, the tumah of gentile dwellings, travelling inside a tunnel at the same time as a Chevra Kadisha van, and numerous others.

As Rav Munk listed all the restrictions that apply to members of the cehunah, I voiced my thoughts, "It's not simple being a cohen during the golus . . ."

Rav Munk was silent for a moment and then opened a Rambam and turned to the first perek of Hilchos Bikkurim and excitedly pointed to the list of the twenty-four priestly gifts that the cohanim receive. "May the Mikdosh be rebuilt speedily!" he both exclaimed and wished. "We won't receive these twenty-four gifts for free. They come with a price. If my daughters do not marry cohanim and they come to visit with their families for Shabbos, they will have to bring their own food from home; I will be eating soup made with carrots of terumoh and meat from shelomim!

"It's also not for nothing that we stand along the mizrach and bless Klal Yisroel. Do we merit this for nothing? We have to do something for it -- we have to give something! By avoiding tumah we express our faith in the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh and this itself will be the means whereby we soon merit the fulfillment of the prayer to `return the cohanim to their service,' omein!"

Registration is Underway!

At the founding meeting of Taharas Cohanim: the organization of Cohanim in Eretz Yisroel and the Diaspora, all the members of the organization's Rabbinical Advisory Board, which heads the group, were present. The board's members are: HaRav Yosef Hacohen Roth, av beis din on the beis din of HaRav Nissim Karelitz and head of Beis Dovid Institutions, HaRav Nosson Hacohen Kopshitz, rov of the Nachaloh Umenuchoh neighborhood in Beit Shemesh, HaRav Shmuel Boruch Hacohen Deutsch, one of the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivas Kol Torah and HaRav Shlomo Hacohen Kahn, one of the rabbonim from the beis din of HaRav Shmuel Wosner.

The blessings of gedolei Yisroel were read out at the meeting. Letters from HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, HaRav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg, HaRav Shmuel Halevi Wosner and HaRav Nissim Karelitz were read.

The organization's principal objectives are:

* To deepen awareness of taharoh among the community of cohanim,

* To remove common obstacles and limitations with which cohanim must contend and

* To issue a publication that will supply members with up-to- date information.

A beis horo'oh named Taharas Cohanim was opened several months ago and it has already become a major source of guidance for cohanim seeking directions about how to handle a variety of situations involving issues of tumoh and taharoh. Difficult shailos are referred to the leading poskim for their ruling. The number to call for the beis horo'oh is 02- 586- 2153.

Registration of members has begun. With the backing of a strong membership, the organization's representatives will be able to work together with the relevant authorities and groups to achieve recognition of the various aspects of the special needs of cohanim. Registration for Taharas Cohanim and the organization's other activities are being conducted in the offices of Halochoh Umaaseh in Yerushalayim. The telephone number for registration is 02-5710832.

The Difference Between `Ohel' and `Tumah that Will Eventually Come Out'

Rav Munk: The most common area where mistakes are made is in the laws governing the tumah of ohel hameis. There is a certain amount of confusion regarding the halachic principles of ohel and `tumah that will eventually come out' (sof tumoh lotzeis). I will give a brief definition:

`Ohel' refers to every place that is under a roof that is sheltering a dead body. `Tumah that will eventually come out' refers, for example, to the situation where a dead body is in a room and the door is closed, preventing tumah from spreading. Since the body will eventually leave via this entrance however, the situation is regarded as though the door was open and the tumah spreads.

What is the Percentage of Cohanim in the General Community?

We tried to clarify what percentage of the community at large are cohanim. We asked the gabboim of several botei knesses how many people daven there and how many cohanim say bircas cohanim.

The smallest percentage we found was in Beis Haknesses Chofetz Chaim in Kiryat Sefer, where there are only six cohanim out of a congregation of one hundred and twenty. According to information provided by other places however, it seems that about ten percent of the various congregations are cohanim.

There are roughly eight hundred mispalelim at minchah in Yeshivas Ponevezh on a fast day and around seventy of them say bircas cohanim. At Beis Haknesses Beis Shmuel in Unsdorf, Yerushalayim, with a hundred mispalelim, there are ten cohanim. At the Gra shul in Bayit Vegan, there are a hundred and fifty mispalelim and fifteen cohanim.

At the Lederman shul in Bnei Brak, around a hundred and twenty people daven shacharis kevosikin on Shabbos morning and there are twelve cohanim. Two hundred and fifty people daven in Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel in Yerushalayim and approximately twenty say bircas cohanim.

If, as it seems, cohanim constitute approximately ten percent of the community, this would mean that there are tens of thousands of cohanim in Eretz Yisroel alone.


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