Caring For Dead Loved Ones

Despite their focus on life, priests are permitted to attend to their closest relatives in death.

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23


This week’s Torah portion begins with specific restrictions directed at the kohanim, the priests. These restrictions pertain to marriages, sexuality and mourning. Kohanim must not come into contact with the dead, except for immediate blood relatives. They are only allowed to marry certain partners, and some kinds of physical abnormalities disqualify them from service. The food that the kohanim eat may not be shared with “regular” Israelites. And, just as the sacrificial offerings must be perfect, so too the priests themselves must be physically unblemished.

In Leviticus 23, all of the “set times” or holy days are listed and described, beginning with Shabbat and continuing with Passover, the Omer period, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The portion ends with a review of the laws pertaining to the menorah, the bread of the altar, and the punishment for murder, maiming and blasphemy.

In Focus

The Eternal spoke to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among this people. (Leviticus 21:1)

Pshat (the Text)

Continuing from the previous week’s instructions to the priests, focusing on matters of holiness, Parashat Emor commences with a pronouncement that the kohanim are not to allow themselves to become tamei (ritually impure) through contact with a corpse. This is a pretty common type of impurity, which the priests are specifically warned against.

READ: How A Jewish Burial Society (Hevra Kadisha) Cares for the Dead

However, the passage continues with an exception: Priests can (and, in fact, are obligated to) tend to their immediate blood relatives (parents, children and siblings — spouses were added to this list by the later sages) when they have died. While tending to the dead is an important obligation for everyone, it does render one impure, and therefore unable to participate in the ritual life of the community. While this may not be a huge issue for most Israelites, especially when compared to the passing of a loved one, for the priests, this means they are not able to fulfill their role as the facilitators of worship.

Drash (Commentary)

One of my favorite modern commentators, Pinchas Peli (z”l) (may his memory be a blessing) reminds us that back in Egypt, death was big business. All of life in ancient Egypt, especially for the aristocracy, revolved around building one’s “house of eternity.” This “house of eternity” referred to both one’s legacy in this world and one’s place in the world to come. For many Egyptian and other pagan priests, the preparation of tombs and the rituals of the dead were their main preoccupation. Egyptian priests focused much more on the dead then the living.

But not so for the Israelite priest. The kohen’s duty is to serve the living; to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the people. The priest is actually prohibited from even coming into contact with the dead. Doing so makes him tamei (impure) and therefore unable to fulfill his priestly responsibilities.

But this “impurity” is not transmitted from the corpse. The Torah is not telling us that there is anything intrinsically dirty or evil about a dead person. Death is, so to speak, a part of life. To emphasize this point, the exemption is stated to allow the kohen to take care of the preparation and burial of those closest to him: parents, siblings and children. This is, in fact, the obligation of every Jew.

READ: The Centrality of Honoring the Dead (Kavod Ha’met)

The mitzvah, commandment, of Livayat HaMet, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act; it is the only “favor” you can do for another without any expectation of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human obligation. It will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only guess, and try our best to help.

So important is this act that no one, including the high priest, can shirk this responsibility toward close relatives, or even towards the lonely or poor who have no one else to bury them. However, we must realize that it is not death that defiles the priest and renders him incapable of tending to his duties. Rather, it is the shifting of the focus of his duties from the living to the dead that distracts the priest from his obligation to the living.

We respect and mourn our dead, but Judaism is primarily about life. As it says in the Psalms, “The dead cannot mourn the Eternal” (Psalm 115). Death is a part of life. Because of this respect for life, taking care of the dead is considered such an important duty. We don’t abdicate the responsibility to priests or professional undertakers–we take care of it ourselves. This is why the Hevra Kadisha (literally “holy fellowship” — the traditional Jewish burial society) exists, to help us meet this need. We bring holiness into our lives through our respect for life. Even after death, we continue to honor the relationships of our life.

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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