A Nation with Priests

Emor By :  Alan Cooper Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies Posted On Apr 30, 2010 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

Many Conservative synagogues no longer distinguish between members who claim descent from the priestly castes (kohenlevi) and ordinary Jews (yisra’el). The priestly blessing is recited by whoever happens to be leading the prayer service; the first two aliyot to the Torah are handed out democratically and dubbed rishon/sheni (“first/second”) instead of kohen/levi. Nevertheless, it is important to keep the old distinctions in mind as we read biblical priestly law in general and Parashat Emor in particular. Distinctions between priests and their fellow Israelites, like those between Israel and the nations, are fundamental to the biblical concept of holiness.

According to Abraham Ibn Ezra, after admonishing all Israel with regard to “holiness” in Parashat K’doshim (especially Leviticus 19:2 and 20:26), “Scripture now commands the sons of Aaron [not the daughters, according to Sotah 23b] to observe additional restrictions because they are in service to God.” In the language of the biblical text, the priests “offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God, and so must be holy” (Lev. 21:6). Their being “holy” in the immediate context means that they must eschew contact with the dead as well as any funerary rites that would mark their bodies (Lev. 21:5), either of which would render them unfit for priestly service.

With a keen eye for apparent redundancy in Scripture, traditional commentators are quick to observe the repeated injunction at the beginning of Emor (Leviticus 21:1): God commands Moses, “Tell (emor) the priests, sons of Aaron; tell (ve-amarta) them, ‘No one may defile himself for the dead among his kin.'” In Ibn Ezra’s view, “It is possible that ‘tell the priests‘ refers to the previous parashah, because teaching Torah is their responsibility, while ‘tell them‘ refers to the commandments that they alone are obligated to observe.” Accounting elegantly for the wording of the verse, Ibn Ezra calls our attention to the continuity and discontinuity between this week’s parashah and last week’s: while both are concerned with maintaining Israel’s status as a holy people, at the beginning of Emor the Torah narrows its focus from all Israel to the priests in particular. As Joseph B’khor Shor correctly observes, “The previous portion explains the distinction (havdalah) between Israel and the nations; this one explains the distinction between priests and ordinary Israelites.”

An explicit connection between the two portions may be seen in the juxtaposition of the peculiar ending of K’doshim with the beginning of Emor. Following its logical conclusion—the declaration that Israel is a people set apart for holiness (Lev. 20:26)—K’doshim appends a single dangling verse (Lev. 20:27; see also 19:31) that commands death by stoning for anyone who engages in necromancy. That commandment is followed immediately at the beginning of Emor by the special stringencies that priests must observe in order to avoid contamination from contact with a corpse. The necessity of separating life (holy) from death (profane), and the living from the dead, is a thematic link between the two parashiyot.

Bahya b. Asher asks, “Why was this section about priests attached to the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?” He finds an answer in the Tanhuma (Emor 2). The midrash begins with a vivid polemic against necromancy, with one biblical verse after another yielding the conclusion that it is absurd to consult the dead as opposed to the living God. “And if you should ask, from whom shall we inquire, Scripture says, ‘Come to the levitical priests . . . and act in accordance with the torah that they teach you'” (Deut. 17:9–11). The priests are an authentic and legitimate source of oracular teaching, in contrast to various diviners (including necromancers) who carry on the “abhorrent practices” of the nations (Deut. 18:9–14).

The Tanhuma relates the juxtaposition of K’doshim and Emor to the pathetic demise of King Saul: “God foresaw that Saul would rule over Israel, kill the priests in Nob [1 Sam. 22:17–19], and then seek a necromancer [1 Sam. 28:7].” When God reveals Saul’s death in battle to Moses, Moses protests, “The first king who is to rule over your children will be run through with a sword!?” God retorts, “You’re telling this to Me? ‘Tell (emor) the priests’ that Saul killed, who are prosecuting him for murder in Nob, the city of the priests.” A midrashic parable likens Saul to a king who enters a city and orders the slaughter of every single rooster in the place. When the king decides to leave town early the next morning, it occurs to him that there is no rooster left to awaken him, and his attendants remind him that it was his own doing. Having wiped out the living source of Torah (the priests), Saul took the desperate expedient of raising the dead prophet Samuel, violating the Torah’s (and his own) prohibition of necromancy. Already guilty of murder, he compounded that capital crime with another, doubly sealing his doom.

The threshold between life and death must not be crossed by the living—certainly not for consultation with the dead, and in the case of the priest not even to attend a funeral (at least in principle). Necromancy is an egregious transgression, intolerable under any circumstances. Forbidding attendance at the funeral of a loved one, in contrast, seems cruel. As is often the case, the divine Author graciously relents for the sake of humanity. Following the statement of principle, “No [priest] may defile himself for the dead among his kin,” we read, “except for his closest relations: for his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and his virgin [unmarried] sister” (Lev. 21:1–3). What about his wife? She is included, fortunately, under the heading of “closest relations” thanks to the rabbinic tradition (Sifra, Rashi). As the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum puts it, physically a man’s wife is his closest relative of all; B’khor Shor notes the biblical description of husband and wife as “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24.

Priestly participation in the funerals of other relatives, in-laws, or friends is forbidden, contrary to the rabbinic norm that allows even Torah study to be suspended for the sake of joining a funeral procession (Megillah 29a; Ketubbot 17a). This stringent avoidance of contact with death is observed with remarkable dedication by some descendants of the biblical priests (kohanim) to the present day. “My son the doctor” might become “my son the dentist” if “my son” is a kohen. (There is no cadaver to dissect in dental school and patients rarely die in the dentist’s chair.) Some kohanimtake precautions to avoid driving on a road that passes near a graveyard, flying in an airplane that might carry a coffin in its hold, or entering a hospital for outpatient tests. There is extensive halakhic literature on these and related topics, and there are advocacy groups that lobby on behalf of observant kohanim to help make their lives less fraught. Such punctilious observance may be vestigial in the absence of the Temple rites of sacrifice and purification, but it is persistent, and it serves as a living reminder of the deep biblical roots of Judaism.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.