Kenneth Cohen

Kohein Distances From Death

Parshat Emor begins with the various laws related to the Kohanim. The first law prohibits them from coming into contact with the dead.

Kohanim are not allowed to enter cemeteries or be under the same roof with a corpse. In Israel, the hospitals give warnings if there is someone deceased in the building. There is a sign that says that entrance to the building is forbidden to Kohanim.

The Keli Yakar explains why there is such great impurity in connection with the dead. We must be aware that a living person possesses a holy Neshama that comes from the כסא הכבוד, the throne of glory. This soul is what gives man the potential of achieving a level of spirituality close to that of an angel.
Death comes about when this precious, holy soul, leaves the body. This is why the lifeless body is considered אבי אבות הטומאה, the highest level of defilement.

The Kohanim were chosen to be the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Every day when they bless the nation, the Shechina, Divine Presence, passes through their outstretched arms. They are to maintain this level of sanctity at all times.

Therefore, special rules were given to them. They needed to be careful to marry women who were worthy to carry Kohein offspring. For all of these reasons, Kohanim had to distance themselves from the sadness and impurity of death. The only exceptions, were their seven close relatives, where mourning could not be avoided.

There were also laws connected to the respect that was to be given to a Kohein. Even today, we give the Kohein the first Aliya to the Torah, and ask them to lead the “Benching.” In Temple times, they were the only ones allowed to eat certain sanctified foods, such as Teruma, and certain sacrifices. They were also given the task of diagnosing the leper. They had a very important role in Jewish life. It is understandable why they needed to distance themselves from death. They needed to help people “choose life,” and the path of purity and sanctification.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at