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P7. Levitical Priests Being Near a Dead Body    [Make a Comment]

Levitical Priests are not to be in the vicinity of a dead body unless the deceased is a close relative.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed is He):

Leviticus 21:1-4,6 (Maimonides RP37, RN166; Meir MP59, MN141; Chinuch C263, 264 ADONAI said to Moshe, "Speak to the cohanim, the sons of Aharon; tell them: 'No cohen is to make himself unclean for any of his people who dies, except for his close relatives - his mother, father, son, daughter and brother; he may also make himself unclean for his virgin sister who has never married and is therefore dependent on him. He may not make himself unclean, because he is a leader among his people; doing so would profane him ... Rather, they are to be holy for their God and not profane the name of their God. For they are the ones who present ADONAI with offerings made by fire, the bread of their God; therefore they must be holy.'")

It is natural for members of a community to want to be with, and comfort members of a grieving family while they are mourning the loss of a loved one. Nevertheless, Scripture prohibits Levitical cohanim from being anywhere near a dead body lest they become ritually unclean and unfit for their Temple duties. In modern time, the Scripture has been applied in several different ways (by different rabbinical authorities), including not permitting proclaimed male descendants of Aaron to be in the same room as a dead person, nor even on cemetery grounds.

The prohibition of course had a practical purpose when the Tabernacle and Temple functioned with the Levitical Priesthood conducting sacrifices, but it is not the case today. Nevertheless, in anticipation of the Temple being rebuilt (Ezekiel 40-47) and the sacrifices being restored, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism continue the practice of not allowing men who they believe are descended from Aaron to come near to a dead body. Reform Judaism does not follow the practice because it does not recognize the continuity of priestly lineage.

There is a Scriptural exception to the prohibition of cohanim being near a dead body, and that is when the deceased person is a close relative as defined in Leviticus 21:2-3. Not only is it an exception - it is considered a positive commandment that a priest allow himself to be rendered ritually unclean in that circumstance for the sake of his deceased relative.

Some Messianic Jewish congregations follow Conservative Judaism in this, but others have not dealt with these issues. Those that follow the Conservative Jewish understanding that today's descendants of Aaron are cohanim (albeit non-functioning), also follow the practice of prohibiting them from being near a dead body unless it is one belonging to a close relative. That is because most Messianic Jewish scholars and leaders (similar to Conservative scholars) interpret Ezekiel 40-47 to be a prophetic prediction that the Holy Temple will eventually be rebuilt, and in which certain sacrifices will be resumed - possibly conducted by a restored Levitical priesthood. Believers in Yeshua know that restored sacrifices cannot be for the commission of sin (since Yeshua is our sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:1-14); furthermore, we do not know whether the priests conducting sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple will be "Levitical" or of some other priestly order. Nevertheless, in compliance with Jewish tradition, Messianic Judaism generally follows the practice of shielding "assumed" male descendants of Aaron from being near dead bodies, with the understanding that it is voluntary on the part of the alleged cohen1.


1. Since the Temple's records have been lost, there is no official record of whose unbroken patrilineal descent is traceable to Aaron. Consequently, family names such as "Cohen", "Kohen", "Cone", "Cowen", etc., in addition to family histories and traditions are relied upon.


This Mitzvah #P7 applies only to alleged male descendants of Aaron (Levitical cohanim). It does not apply to females because the operative Scriptures refer to "sons of Aaron," and only males served in the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple.

There is no analogy in this Mitzvah #P7 to New Covenant priests (i.e. to believers in Yeshua), and therefore no analogous application.

Commentators:
Maimonides, Meir, and Chinuch all take the Orthodox approach of considering Leviticus 21:1-4 and 6 to consist of two commandments - a negative one prohibiting a cohen from being in the vicinity of a dead body, and a positive one requiring that a cohen disregard the prohibition in the case where the deceased is his close relative. Also, all three commentators agree that the commandments apply only to men, and they differ only in their discussion of what degree of nearness to a dead body applies. They do not address the problem of proving genealogical descent.

NCLA: JMr (Levitical cohen); JFu KMu KFu GMu GFu

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