Friendship and Dignity

 And Hashem said to Moshe, “Speak to the Kohamim, [the] sons of Aharon and say to them: One should not defile oneself to a [dead] person [from] among his nation. Only to his relative who is closely related [to him] – to his mother, to his father, to his son, to his daughter, to his brother… (Sefer VaYikra 21:1-2)

I. A Kohen may not defile himself

The above passages explain that a Kohen – a priest – may not defile himself through contact or association with a dead body. These passages also state an exception. The Kohen may defile himself to bury and mourn members of his immediate family. In these and the following passages, six relatives are listed – father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and sister. The Oral Tradition teaches that he also defiles himself to bury and mourn his wife. The commentators offer various explanations for this restriction.

II. Defilement and Temple service

Rambam – Maimonides – provides the most obvious explanation. The Kohamim perform the service in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. One who is defiled is prohibited from entering the Bait HaMikdash and rendered unfit to perform the services. To restore his taharah – his ritual purity – a period of seven days is required followed by a specified procedure. Defilement through a dead body significantly interrupts the Kohen’s suitability to perform his duties in the Bait HaMikdash. This interruption is unacceptable.[1]

[The] great one of his nation should not defile himself to render himself profane. (Sefer VaYikra 21:4)

III. The dignity of the Kohen

Unkelus suggests the above translation. It describes the Kohen as “the great one of his nation”. It relates the prohibition against defilement to the Kohen’s standing in the nation. 

Based on this passage, Ramban – Nachmanides – rejects Rambam’s explanation. He comments:

It says that the honored one among his nation should not defile himself to desecrate his honor. The passage explains that because of the elevated status of the Kohen – because he is fit to be the great one and the honored one in his nation – he is prohibited from desecrating his elevated status through defilement with the dead bodies. The passage intends with this [statement] to [say that] we should not think that the prohibition is only [applicable] when they come to the Ohel Moed (the Tabernacle) to serve in the sanctified area. (Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 21:1)

The Kohen is a leader and prince of the people. His conduct must correspond with this status. This restricts him from contact with dead bodies. The Torah identifies this contact as contrary to his exalted status.[2] 

IV. Designation and status

This discussion suggests that Rambam and Ramban have very different views on the nature of the Kohen’s prohibition. According to Rambam, the Kohen is designated for service in the Bait HaMikdash. He is prohibited to defile himself through a dead body because this defilement conflicts with this designation. Ramban argues that the defilement is not prohibited because it conflicts with the Kohen’s designation. Instead, the Kohen is an exalted and honored member of the community. His conduct must conform with this status. Contact with the dead is inconsistent with his status. 

An analogy will help illustrate their positions. We have expectations of our political leaders. Among these are that they will not accept bribes and that they will not engage in demeaning activities. When a political leader accepts gratuities, he compromises his capacity to function in the best interests of his constituents. This behavior interferes with his function as a political leader. If he engages in an inappropriate relationship with an employee or subordinate, he may not have compromised his capacity to function. Nonetheless, the behavior is unacceptable. A leader must behave with dignity. He has disgraced his office. 

According to Rambam, defilement is like accepting a bribe. It conflicts with the designation of the Kohen to serve in the Bait HaMikdash. According to Ramban, contact with the dead should be compared to a political leader’s illicit relationship. It may not interfere with his function, but it certainly disgraces his office.  

V. The Kohen is a Torah teacher and leader

Rabbaynu Ovadia Soforno’s position is very interesting. He writes:

The reason the Kohen should only defile himself for [immediate] relatives is that he is a great one among his nation. [He is] to understand and teach [the Torah]. [As the prophet teaches] “For a Kohen's lips shall guard knowledge, and teaching should be sought from his mouth…”[3] It is fitting for such a person to act in a princely manner so that they will be attentive to his words. (Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 21:4)

In addition to his responsibilities in the Bait HaMikdash, the Kohen is a teacher. The Kohamim are to be the teachers and spiritual leaders of the nation. This does not mean that one must be a Kohen to teach others or be a spiritual guide. Anyone can take on this role. But the Kohamim are assigned this role. They do not elect to be teachers and spiritual leaders. Those who provide Torah leadership must conduct themselves with dignity. A Torah leader’s behavior impacts his influence. A leader who demeans himself cannot expect to be taken seriously. The Kohen may not defile himself through a dead body because of his role as a Torah leader.[4] 

Sforno’s position is similar to Ramban’s. Both agree that the Kohen must act in a princely manner. They agree that defilement through dead bodies conflicts with the Kohen’s dignity. However, Sforno specifically identifies the role that demands dignity. The Kohen’s role as a Torah teacher elevates his status. It places upon him the responsibility to act with the dignity appropriate for his role. Furthermore, Sforno explains the importance of maintaining dignity. The Torah teacher can only influence the community through earning and sustaining the people’s respect. 

VI. Friends and leaders

Sforno’s comments are interesting viewed from the perspective of the modern milieu. Many communities specifically seek spiritual leaders with whom the members can relate. This is expressed more specifically in an expectation that the leader will act more like the members and less like an elevated spiritual personality and Torah scholar. In these congregations, it is crucial to the members that its rabbi can discuss baseball statistics or market trends. His erudition in Talmud or his devotion to its study is of secondary importance. How would Sforno respond to the modern attitude?

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 47.

[2] Ramban applies the same reasoning to the Nazir – the Nazirite. He is prohibited from consuming grapes and products made from grapes. He may not cut his hair. He is also prohibited from contact with dead bodies. What is the reason for this final element? He does not serve in the Bait HaMikdash. His defilement does not compromise his capacity to perform any function assigned to him. The Nazir’s prohibition demonstrates that defilement through a dead body is inherently a desecration of his status. Ramban applies the same concept to the Kohen. Like the Nazir, his defilement inherently conflicts with his exalted status. 

[3] Melachi 2:7.

[4] See Sforno’s further comments. These further comments are most easily understood as an additional explanation of the prohibition. This second explanation is similar to Rambam’s.