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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 be He):

Key Scriptures

Leviticus 21:1-4 (Maimonides RP37; Meir MP59; Chinuch C264)
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.'"

Leviticus 21:6 (Maimonides RN166; Meir MN141; Chinuch C263)
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.

Mark 5:39-41
On entering, he said to them, "Why all this commotion and weeping? The child isn't dead, she's just asleep!" And they jeered at him. But he put them all outside, took the child's father and mother and those with him, and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand, he said to her, "Talita, kumi!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). At once the girl got up and began walking around; she was twelve years old. Everybody was utterly amazed.


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, Leviticus 21:1 prohibits Levitical cohanim from being anywhere near a dead body lest they become ritually unclean and unfit for their Temple duties. In modern times, the Scripture has been applied in several different ways by different rabbinical authorities, including not permitting supposed 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 whom they believe are descended from Aaron to come near to a dead body. Reform Judaism does not follow the practice because Reform Judaism does not recognize the continuity of priestly lineage.

Leviticus 21:2-3 is an exception to the prohibition when the deceased person is a close relative. Not only is it an exception - it is considered a positive commandment by the classical commentators, that a priest allow himself to be rendered ritually unclean in that circumstance for the sake of his relative.

Some Messianic Jewish congregations follow Conservative Judaism in this, others do not, and still others have not developed a policy on these issues at all. Messianic Jewish scholars and leaders that follow Conservative Jewish practices interpret Ezekiel chapters 40-47 to be prophecy, that the Holy Temple will eventually be rebuilt, and that certain sacrifices will be resumed - possibly conducted by a restored Levitical priesthood. All 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 a restored 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" cohanim from being near dead bodies, with the understanding that it is voluntary on their part.1.

This Mitzvah applies only to males. It does not apply to females because Leviticus 21:1 refers to "sons of Aaron", and because only males served in the Tabernacle and the Holy Temple as priests.

Messianic Judaism does not apply this Mitzvah to New Covenant priests (i.e. to believers in Yeshua).

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.

Classical 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 person is his close relative. Also, all three commentators agree that the commandments apply only to men.

NCLA: Cohanim (Levitical): JMm JFi KMi KFi GMi GFi
All others: JMi JFi KMi KFi GMi GFi

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