Kohanim becoming Tamei Nowadays – What’s the Story?

Chag Samayach to all on Israel’s 63rd Birthday!

In Sunday’s post, we looked at the topic of מחמיץ אחר מחמיץ, and the general question of when the Torah is prohibiting certain actions regardless of their outcome, and when, in contrast, it is only prohibiting actions that produce certain outcomes.  In other words, is the focus on the action or on the outcome?

This question is particularly relevant when it comes to the issue of Kohanim becoming tamei.  We assume nowadays that everyone is tamei met, impure due to a dead body, because we have been at cemeteries or flown over them and have been at hospitals where there is a morgue under the same roof.   The question then arises whether a male Kohen would be prohibited to come in contact with a dead body nowadays, given that he is already tamei.  Is the prohibition the act or is it the result?  The Torah refers to both.  By a normal Kohen the Torah repeatedly refers to the problem of the result, of becoming tamei: “To any person in his nation he shall not become tamei… A husband shall not make himself tamei to desacralize himself”  (Vayikra 21:1, 4).   By the Kohen Gadol, however, the Torah also emphasizes to the act: “Neither shall he go to any dead body.” (Vayikra 21:11).  Which, then, is it?  Becoming tamei or coming in contact with the dead?

This issue is discussed in the Gemara Nazir (42a-b) and later codifiers.  The upshot is that the Gemara considers the prohibition to be result-related, i.e., to be that of becoming tamei.  However, it goes on to state that even a Kohen who is already tamei with corpse-related tumah may not again come in contact with a corpse, because in this act a new level of tumah is added.  When a Kohen has touched a dead body, he has contacted corpse-related tumah, and he is rendered an av ha’tumah, a primary source of tumah.   If he now touches any object or clothing or the like, they become a rishon li’tumah, a derivative form of impurity.  However, at the moment the Kohen is actually touching or under the roof with a dead body, not only does he become an av ha’tumah, but so does anything he is touching at the time.  This principle is called tumah bi’chiburin, impurity through concatenation.  Thus, although already a tamei met, a Kohen cannot again come in contact with (or under the same roof of) a dead body, because this will add to his degree of impurity – at this moment he will have the ability to render other things as av ha’tumah through concatenation.  If, however, he is already in contact with a dead body, then he does not transgress by touching another dead body since no tumah is added.

There are thus three possibilities of understanding the prohibition for a Kohen to become tamei:

  • (Act)  The act is inherently problematic – prohibited even if already in contact with a dead body
  • (Result 1) The prohibition is the result, i.e., creating tumah  – but it is prohibited to become tamei again if he is not already in contact with a corpse, since the new contact brings a new level of tumah
  • (Result 2) The prohibition is the result, i.e., creating tumah – and it is NOT prohibited to become tamei again, because no significant new tumah is added

Here, then is a summary of how the various sources define this prohibition, keyed to the above list.  The actual sources follow the summary. 

  1. Talmud Bavli, Nazir 42a-b
    • Rabbah – A Nazir is not prohibited to become tamei if he already is in contact with a corpse (Result – either 1 or 2)
    • Rav Huna – A Nazir is prohibited in such a case (Act)
    • Abbaye – A Nazir or Kohen transgress if they are tamei and touch, but do not transgress if they are already touching and touch again.  They only transgress when a new level of tumah is added (Result 1)
  2. Rambam, Laws of Nezirut, 5:15-17
    • A Nazir transgresses even if he is already tamei, but only if he separated from touching and then touched again, adding a level of tumah (Result 1)
  3. Ra’avad, ad. loc.
    • Rabbah is of the opinion that there is no prohibition to become tamei again if one is already tamei, and is unconcerned with the additional concatenation tumah (Result 2).
    • We rule like Rabbah, and since all Kohanim nowadays are assumed to be tamei met, there is no prohibition for them to become tamei..
  4. Dagul MeiRivava, Yoreh Deah, 372:2
  5. . Responsa of Hatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah, 338
    • Ra’avad is only exempting Kohanim nowadays from lashes. Becoming tamei again is still Biblically
  6. Tractate Semachot, 4:10
  7. Rosh, Laws of Impurity, no. 6
    • Becoming tamei again is a problem because it adds a level of tumah (Result 1)
    • The additional level of tumah is not concatenation tumah, but the fact that one can begin the process of purification on day 3 from the day of contact, and a new tumah means that the three-day count must begin again.
    • Therefore, if one already became tamei on that very day, there is no prohibition to become tamei again because no new tumah is added.

Thus, in summary, the standard approach is that the prohibition is because of the result – a new level of tumah is added (Result 1).  If this new level is concatenation tumah, then the only case where the prohibition would not apply is where a Kohen was already in contact with a dead body (Sources 1-2).  If, however, the new level is that the three-day count begins again, then there would be no new prohibition if the Kohen had already become tamei earlier that day (Sources 6-7).  The most interesting position is Ra’avad (Source 3) who states that the prohibition based on the result, and that one does not transgress if he is already tamei, since no significant new tumah is added (Result 2).  Creating the slightly increased tumah may still be prohibited, but without lashes (Sources 4-5).

In closing, it is interesting to compare this Ra’avad, who exonerates Kohanim who become tamei, with the Ra’avad in Hilchot Beit HaBechira 6:14 who states:

ולא עוד אלא שאני אומר שאפילו לרבי יוסי דאמר קדושה שנייה קדשה לעתיד לבא לא אמר אלא לשאר א”י אבל לירושלים ולמקדש לא אמר לפי שהיה יודע עזרא שהמקדש וירושלים עתידים להשתנות ולהתקדש קידוש אחר עולמי בכבוד י”י לעולם כך נגלה לי מסוד ה’ ליראיו לפיכך הנכנס עתה שם אין בו כרת.

And moreover, I say that even according to R. Yossi who states that the second sanctity of Israel [in the time of Ezra] is for all time – this was said only in reference to the Land of Israel in general, but he was not referring to  Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.  For Ezra knew that the Temple and Jerusalem would, in the future, be transformed and resanctified with a different, eternal sanctity, through the Glory of God, forever.  Thus was revealed to me by the secret of God to those who fear God.  Theref0re, a person who today enters there (the Temple grounds) [although tamei] does not incur the penalty of karet, Divine excision.

Here, like the case of a Kohen becoming tamei, Ra’avad is minimizing the consequences of tumah nowadays.  In the case of Kohanim it is not so consequential because they are already tamei.  In the case of the prohibition to enter the Temple grounds when one is tamei is not so consequential because the sanctity there is not present, or not fully present.  Note, also, that in this second case, he arrives at his position not based on any text, but on a divinely-inspired insight.  And, finally, in both cases he leaves it unclear whether he is just reducing the prohibition (no lashes, no karet) or actually eliminating it.


1. Talmud Bavli, Nazir 42a-b

מתני’. נזיר שהיה שותה יין כל היום – אינו חייב אלא אחת, אמרו לו אל תשתה אל תשתה והוא שותה – חייב על כל אחת ואחת. היה מגלח כל היום – אינו חייב אלא אחת, אמרו לו, אל תגלח אל תגלח והוא מגלח – חייב על כל אחת ואחת. היה מטמא למתים כל היום – אינו חייב אלא אחת, אמרו לו אל תטמא אל תטמא והוא מטמא – חייב על כל אחת ואחת.

גמ’. איתמר: אמר רבה אמר רב הונא, מקרא מלא דבר הכתוב: +במדבר ו+ לא יטמא, כשהוא אומר +במדבר ו+ לא יבא – להזהירו על הטומאה להזהירו על הביאה, אבל טומאה וטומאה לא; ורב יוסף אמר: האלהים! אמר רב הונא אפילו טומאה וטומאה, דאמר רב הונא: נזיר שהיה עומד בבית הקברות, והושיטו לו מתו ומת אחר ונגע בו – חייב, אמאי? הא מיטמא וקאים! אלא לאו ש”מ, אמר רב הונא אפילו טומאה וטומאה. איתיביה אביי: כהן שהיה לו מת מונח על כתיפו, והושיטו לו מתו ומת אחר ונגע בו, יכול יהא חייב? ת”ל: ולא יחלל, במי שאינו מחולל, יצא זה שהוא מחולל ועומד! א”ל: ותיקשי לך מתני’, דתנן: היה מיטמא למתים כל היום – אינו חייב אלא אחת, אמרו לו אל תטמא אל תטמא – חייב על כל אחת ואחת; ואמאי? הא מיטמא וקאים! אלא קשיא אהדדי! לא קשיא: כאן בחיבורין, כאן שלא בחיבורין

MISHNA.  If he [the Nazir] was defiling himself [by contact] with the dead all day long he incurs one penalty only. If he was told, ‘Do not defile yourself, do not defile yourself,’ and he did defile himself, he has incurred a penalty for each [warning].

GEMARA. It was stated: Rabbah, citing R. Huna, said: Scripture [speaking of the Nazir] makes the comprehensive statement, “He shall not make himself unclean”; when it adds, “He shall not enter [under a roof with a dead body],” [its intention is] to utter a [separate] warning against defilement [by contact] and a [separate] warning against entering [a tent], but not against defilement [by contact] from two sources [at the same time].

R. Yosef, however, said: By God! R. Huna said that even for defilement [by contact] from two sources [at the same time there are separate penalties]. For R. Huna has said that a Nazir, standing in a cemetery, who was handed the corpse of his own [relative] or some other corpse, and touched it incurs a penalty. Now why should this be so? Is he not actually being defiled all the time? It follows therefore that R. Huna must have said that even for defilement [by contact] from two sources [he is to receive separate penalties].

Abaye raised an objection from the following. [A braitta teaches:] ‘A priest, carrying a corpse on his back, who was handed the corpse of his own [relative] or some other corpse and touched it, might be thought to have incurred a penalty, but the text says, “Nor profane [the sanctuary]” [prescribing a penalty] for one not already profaned [and thus] excluding this man who is already profaned? — [R. Yosef] replied: But our mishnah should cause you the same perplexity, for we learn [there], “For defiling himself [by contact] with the dead all day long he incurs one penalty only. If he was told, ‘do not defile yourself,’ ‘do not defile yourself,’ and he did defile himself, he has incurred a penalty for each [warning].” But why should this be so? Is he not already defiled? We can therefore only conclude that [the mishnah and the braitta] contradict each other.

[Abaye retorted:] There is no difficulty [in reconciling the mishnah and the braitta]. The one [the braiita regarding the Kohen] assumes that there is concatenation [i.e., the Kohen is already touching a dead body, so by touching another one, no additional tumah is incured], and the one [the mishna regarding the Nazir] assumes that there is no concatenation [i.e., that the Nazir separates from the dead body, and then touches it again, thus adding a level of tumah].

2. Rambam, Laws of Nezirut, 5:15-17

נזיר שנטמא למת טומאת שבעה, בין בטומאות שהוא מגלח עליהן כמו שיתבאר בין בטומאות שאינו מגלח עליהן הרי זה לוקה. נטמא למת פעמים הרבה אע”פ שהוא חייב מלקות על כל אחת ואחת לשמים אין בית דין מלקין אותו אלא אחת, ואם התרו בו על כל פעם ופעם והוא מטמא לוקה /על/ כל אחת ואחת. במה דברים אמורים בשנטמא ופירש וחזר ונגע או נשא או האהיל, אבל אם היה נוגע במת ועדיין המת בידו ונגע במת אחר אינו חייב אלא אחת אע”פ שהתרו בו על כל נגיעה ונגיעה שהרי מחולל ועומד.

A Nazir who became impure to a corpse a seven-day impurity, whether it is one of the impurities that he shaves for, as will be explained, or one that he does not shave for, he receives lashes.

If he became impure to a corpse numerous times, even though he is liable to heaven for lashes for each time, the court only administers one set of lashes.  But if they warned him prior to each occurrence and he became impure, he is lashed for each occurrence.

When is this true?  When he became impure and separated and went back and touched or carried or “tented”.  But if he was touching a dead body and the corpse is still in his hand and he touches another corpse, he is only liable one [set of lashes], although they warned him prior to each touching, because he is already desecrated.

3. Ra’avad, ad. loc.

נזיר שנטמא למת טומאת שבעה וכו’ בד”א בשנטמא ופירש. א”א עיינתי בשמועה במס’ נזיר וראיתי דלדעת רב יוסף טומאה וטומאה בחיבורין של אדם במת אפילו התרו בו על כל אחת ואחת אינו חייב אלא אחת כדתניא נזיר שהיה מת על כתפו והושיטו לו מת אחר פטור אבל פירש וחזר ונגע חייב שתים וטומאה וביאה אפילו בחיבורין חייב שתים …

ורבה פליג עליה בכל טומאה וטומאה אפילו שלא בחיבורין אינו חייב אלא אחת הואיל וטמא הוא ומתניתא דקתני אל תטמא והוא מטמא חייב על כל אחת ואחת מוקים לה בטומאה ובביאה והא דאמר רב הונא נזיר שהיה בבית הקברות והושיטו לו מתו ומת אחר ונגע בו חייב ליתא דהא בחיבורין הוא וכיון דקי”ל רבה ורב יוסף הלכתא כרבה מעתה טומאה וטומאה אפילו פירש וחזר ונגע פטור והכהנים בזמן הזה טמאי מת הן ועוד אין עליהן חיוב טומאה והמחייב אותם עליו להביא ראיה

I have looked into the discussion in tractate Nazir and I have seen that the opinion of Rav Yosef is that if one becomes impure while one is touching a corpse, even if they warned him on each event, he is only liable once, as we taught in the braitta, “A Nazir who had a corpse on his shoulder and they handed him another corpse he is exempt”.  But if he detached himself and went back and touched he is liable twice.  But touching and being in the same room is liable twice [even at the same time] because they are two different categories…

And Rabbah disagrees there and says that all cases of becoming impure after one is impure, even not when one is still touching the first corpse, the person is only liable for one transgression since he is already impure.  And the Mishna that says that he can be liable multiple times if warned before each time, would be talking about a case of touching and entering into a house [with a corpse]… And since we rule that in any debate between Rabbah and Rav Yosef the ruling is according to Rabbah, the conclusion is that any case of becoming impure and then becoming impure again, even if he detached himself from the first contact and went back and touched, he is exempt.  And Kohanim today are impure due to corpses and they no longer have a liability for becoming impure, and one who would obligate them has the burden of proof.

4. Dagul MeiRivava (R. Yehezkel Landau), Yoreh Deah, 372:2

מה שכתבתי בגליון בשני הסעיפים הנ”ל נמשכתי אחר דברי המשנה למלך הנ”ל דלדעתו סובר הראב”ד דאין איסור כלל לכהן שכבר נטמא לטמא עצמו אבל עכשיו נתתי אל לבי שאולי לא אמרה הראב”ד אלא לעניין חיוב מלקות אבל לענין איסור אולי אפילו איסור תורה מודה… לכן הדרנא בי…

What I wrote in the margin in the previous two paragraphs, I was following the words of the Mishna LiMelek who is of the opinion that the Ra’avad holds that there is absolutely no prohibition for a Kohen who is already impure to impurify himself.  But now I have reconsidered, that perhaps the Ra’avad only said it regarding the liability for lashes, but regarding a prohibition – perhaps even a Biblical prohibition – he would agree… Thus I have retracted my earlier position…

5. Responsa of Hatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah, 338

מ”ש רמכ”ת בסוף דבריו דלהראב”ד כהנים בזה”ז אינם מוזהרים על הטומאה כיון שכולנו טמאי מתים יעיין בדגול מרבבה בי”ד סי’ שע”א ד”ה אמר יחזקאל וכו’ …ואני בעניי אח”ז כמו שלשים שנים מצאתי שכ”כ הראב”ד בתמים דעים סס”י רל”ו דאסורי’ מן התורה ודברי סמ”ק סי’ מ”ח אין לו מובן וצ”ע על כל פנים אין לו למכ”ת משען בזה.

What you wrote at the end of your letter, that according to the Ra’avad Kohanim nowadays are not prohibited from impurity since we are all impure, see the Dagul MeiRivava, YD, 372 … [Here he recounts how his rebbe, R. Nathan Adler debated this with R. Yehezkel Landau until R. Landau reversed himself].  And I discovered after 30 years that the Ra’avad himself wrote in Temim Deim, end of section 236, that they are prohibited Biblically… and your suggestion thus has not support.

6. Tractate Semachot, 4:10

היה עומד וקובר את מתו, עד שהוא עומד בתוך הקבר מקבל מאחרים וקובר, פירש הרי זה לא יטמא. נטמא בו ביום, רבי טרפון אומר חייב ורבי עקיבא אומר פטור. נטמא לאחר אותו יום, הכל מודים שהוא חייב, מפני שהוא סותר יום אחד.

If a Kohen was standing and burying his relative, while he is still standing in the grave, he can receive bodies from others and bury them.  Once he has separated from the grave, he can no longer become impure.  If he became impure again on that day, R. Tarfon says, he is liable.  R. Akiva says he is exempt.  If he became impure after that day, they all admit that he is liable, since he destroyed one day.

7. Rosh, Laws of Impurity (back of Tractate Menahot), no. 6

אבל ר”ת כתב שהלכה כר”ע כההיא דאבל רבתי דנטמא בו ביום פטור ומותר לכהן להכניס מתו לבית הקברות ולקברו.  ואפילו היה ר”ע אוסר טומאה בו ביום מדבריהם גדול כבוד מתו שדוחה ל”ת דדבריהם

It is forbidden to become impure to another dead body, even when he is becoming impure to his relative’s dead body.  Therefore, a Kohen who had a relative die, must be careful to bury him at the edge of the cemetery, so that he does not enter into the cemetery and become impure through the other dead bodies when he is burying his relative’s body.

Rema: And this is a problem only after he detached himself from his relative’s body, but while he is still involved with his relative’s body, it is permissible for him to become impure even to other dead bodies.


About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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