Of Umbrellas, Trees and Other Kohen Concerns

Question #1: Does tumah spread under umbrellas?

Question #2: The exit off the highway I take to work borders on a non-Jewish cemetery, and there are trees overhanging the road. One of the fellows I carpool with is a kohen, but he is not bothered about this issue. Even though I am not a kohen, should I be concerned?

INTRODUCTION

Parshas Chukas discusses tumas meis, the spiritual defilement that results from contact with a corpse or other human remains. When the parah adumah is restored and we endeavor to keep ourselves tahor whenever possible, Jews will be more mindful of how tumah spreads. In that era, every Jew will be careful to be tahor when separating challah and terumah, eating maaser sheini and korbanos, and entering the Beis HaMikdash, all of which should be performed only when tahor. (Unfortunately, today we separate challah, terumah and maaser sheni when we are tamei because we have no other option.) For these and many other reasons, the laws of tumah and taharah will then affect everyone.

In the interim, the laws of tumas meis do not directly concern most people, but they certainly affect kohanim, since the Torah prohibits them from contracting tumas meis. Nevertheless, every Jew should be familiar with these halachos since a knowledgeable non-kohen can often prevent a kohen from becoming tamei, as we will soon see. Furthermore, a non-kohen may not cause a kohen to become tamei.

SOME BASIC LAWS OF TUMAH

A person can become tamei meis in three different ways: 1) maga (touching), 2) masa (carrying or moving, even if one does not touch the remains), and 3) being under the same ohel (roof). A kohen is prohibited from becoming tamei meis by any of these methods and therefore he may not touch, move, or be in the same ohel as human remains. (There are two exceptions when a kohen must become tamei: either to a close relative, or to a meis mitzvah, the corpse of a Jew that has no one else to take care of it.)

DO REMAINS OF A NON-JEW CONVEY TUMAH?

The remains of a gentile convey tumas meis if they are touched or carried. There is a dispute whether these remains convey tumas ohel, and the Shulchan Aruch rules that it is proper to be careful (Yoreh Deah 372:2). Therefore, a kohen should not enter a room containing the remains of a non-Jew. This last halacha affects kohanim entering hospitals when it is not a life threatening emergency, and visiting museums which may have human remains. (My experience is that most museums contain some form of tumas meis.)

AN OHEL IS NOT JUST A TENT

Although the word ohel also means “tent,” or “roof,”  tumas ohel has much broader connotations and  is conveyed via almost any cover or overhang at least a tefach wide (about three inches) [Ohalos 3:7]. Therefore, a protrusion, overhang, umbrella, or branch with this width is an ohel; if it is over a grave or corpse, it conveys tumah to anyone standing anywhere underneath.

NARROW BRANCHES

Many authorities contend that an ohel that is a tefach wide at one point spreads tumah under its entirety, even under a narrower part (Rambam, Tumas Meis 12:6; 18:1; cf. the Rosh’s commentary to Ohalos 15:10, who disagrees). According to this approach, a tree branch that is a tefach-wide at one point continues to be an ohel when it narrows and can thus spread tumah rather extensively. Some contend that this is true only when the branch or protrusion is a tefach-wide for a majority of its length (Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh Deah 371:25; the Tosafos Yom Tov seems to disagree.), whereas others maintain that it becomes an ohel only if the tumah is located beneath its tefach-wide section (Sidrei Taharos, Ohalos 12:6).

CONNECTING OHEL AREAS

Tumas ohel spreads from one ohel area to any other ohel that overlaps or connects even if the different ohel “roofs” are of very different heights. Therefore, a series of overlapping or connecting roofs, ledges, caves, umbrellas, tree branches, or even people, can create a continuous ohel that transfers tumah for great distances. Indeed, what appears to be separate buildings or structures may be one large ohel connected by open doors and windows (under certain circumstances, even through closed ones), ledges or tunnels, and tumah in one building may spread across an entire complex of buildings. This is particularly common in hospitals, museums, shopping malls, university campuses and airport terminals where remains in one part of the building, or even on an airplane connected to the terminal through a jetway, may spread tumah throughout the entire facility.

Another example of this principle is that if human remains are transported into an airport terminal or medical facility that connects to a subway station, tumah spreads throughout the entire subway system and prohibits any kohen from remaining anywhere in the subway, since the entire system qualifies as one large ohel. Therefore someone dying in a Bronx subway station contaminates a kohen awaiting his commuter train in Penn Station!

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE

The human body can also function as an ohel that conveys tumah. For this reason, a person leaning out of a window over a corpse or grave becomes an ohel that transfers tumah into the house (Ohalos 11:4). Similarly, people crowded around a corpse or a grave can create a continuous ohel that transfers tumah to anyone who touches them. Because of this, a kohen attending a funeral should keep his distance from the crowd.

In the same vein, when a crowd of people escort a meis on a rainy day, one person whose body is partly above the casket spreads tumah via his body to the area under an umbrella, and then the tumah spreads throughout the crowd from umbrella to overlapping umbrella. Some authorities contend that a kohen must distance himself four amos (about seven feet) away from the umbrella nearest him.

I once attended a funeral in a yeshiva beis hamedrash where the tumas meis spread through an open door under the building’s awning, under umbrellas outside, and then from umbrella to umbrella for a very extended area. The tumah eventually reached an area where many kohanim had gone to avoid becoming tamei, but they were completely unaware that they had violated a Torah prohibition! All this could and should have been avoided with a little foresight and planning, such as arranging an assembly area for kohanim distant enough to keep them tahor. A well-educated yisroel could have resolved the unfortunate problem. Since many people have told me that this is not an uncommon problem, I advise that funerals be arranged for sunny days!

TREES

As we saw above, a kohen must be careful not to pass beneath a tree branch that also overshadows a grave. It is common to find large trees overhanging a cemetery and a section of roadway at the same time. As I pointed out, even if the cemetery is not Jewish the Shulchan Aruch advises that a kohen should avoid defiling himself in the ohel of a non-Jew. It is certainly a problem if the cemetery is Jewish. If this case affects you, I suggest asking a shaylah what to do.

Also, it often happens that one side or one lane of a road passes under trees that overhang a cemetery while the other side or lanes do not. Sometimes, while driving down a city street, a kohen suddenly realizes that the street ahead passes alongside a cemetery and that there are trees overhanging the roadway. Obviously, he should not swerve suddenly and endanger people in order to avoid defiling his kedusha; however, people should prevent this situation by notifying kohanim that the road is problematic.

LEAVES OR ONLY BRANCHES?

Although several places in the Mishnah and Gemara (Bava Basra 27b; Negaim 13:7; Kiddushin 33b) assume that tumas meis spreads underneath trees, the authorities dispute whether leaves and twigs create an ohel, or only branches. Some poskim contend that leaves and twigs rarely become an ohel; others make a distinction between sturdy ones that can bear weight and those that cannot; others distinguish between large leaves and small ones; and still others discriminate between leaves of deciduous trees and those of evergreens that have leaves all year round (see Sukkah 13b; Rambam, Tumas Meis 13:3).

DATELINE: LVOV, POLAND, ROSH HASHANAH, 1620

The halachic questions raised above became mired in controversy in 17th Century Lvov (more commonly known to Jews as Lemberg), Poland. (Because of the extensive shift of international borders at the end of World War II, this city is now located in the Ukraine.)

On Rosh Hashanah 5381 (corresponding to September 1620), Lvov’s new rav, Rav Yaakov Kopel Katz, noticed that people were walking into a nearby forested area. Rav Katz noticed that the dense foliage under which people were relaxing continued until the local cemetery. Rav Katz prohibited kohanim from entering this area, contending that tumah from the cemetery spread under the tree canopy, contaminating the entire area. Thus, he felt that kohanim relaxing in this area were violating the Torah prohibition of contracting tumas meis.

The townspeople claimed that the Drisha, possibly the greatest posek of his generation, who had himself been a kohen, had walked and sat under these same trees when he had served as Rav of Lvov only a few years before. Rav Katz countered that at the time of the Drisha, the tree canopy must not have extended so far, and the areas he walked under were not connected to the cemetery.

What exactly was the question? Apparently, the trees in question did not have wide branches, but did have dense foliage comprised of small leaves that touched together, leaving no space between them. Rav Katz held that even twigs and leaves not strong enough to support any weight can still combine to form an ohel. He also held that although plants that die in the winter are not significant enough to be an ohel, the deciduous leaves of trees that survive from year to year do qualify as an ohel.

Rav Katz wrote an extensive responsum outlining his halachic concerns and sent it to a different kohen in Lvov, a talmid chacham named Rav Avraham Rapaport. Rav Rapaport disagreed with Rav Katz and penned his own correspondence wherein he maintained that these trees did not spread tumah. Rav Rapaport contended that twigs and leaves form an ohel only when they fulfill the following conditions:

  1. They are strong enough to bear the weight of a layer of plaster applied to them.
  2. Each leaf is itself the size of a square tefach, approximately three inches by three inches. He maintained that one does combine different leaves and/or twigs to form an ohel, even if there is no space between them at all.
  3. The leaves are evergreen (see also Gesher HaChayim pg. 87).

According to Rav Rapaport, the Drisha might indeed have been relaxing under the same foliage that still existed in 1620! (Of course, we will never know.)

Rav Rapaport then mailed the two responsa, his own and Rav Katz’s, to a third scholar, Rav Aharon Abba HaLevi, who concluded like Rav Rapaport, although for slightly variant reasons. He agreed with Rav Katz that leaves combine to form an ohel, but in addition to remaining through the winter and being strong enough to withstand the weight of a layer of plaster, he added yet another condition: They must be sturdy enough not to be blown by a typical wind (see Tosafos, Sukkah 13b).

Rav Rapaport then sent the three responsa to the gadol hador, the Tosafos Yom Tov, for his ruling on the famed trees of Lvov. The Tosafos Yom Tov sided with Rav Rapaport and Rav Aharon HaLevi that the leaves involved were not an ohel. However, the Tosafos Yom Tov held a stringent opinion concerning a related issue that none of the other scholars had addressed. He contended that if the branches are a tefach wide at any point, tumah continues to spread even when they narrow. (As I mentioned above, this is subject to a dispute between the Rambam and the Rosh. Among the later authorities, most rule like the Rambam and the Tosafos Yom Tov [Dagul MeiRevavah on Shach 371:14; Chochmas Odom; Aruch HaShulchan], whereas some rule like the Rosh [Chasam Sofer, Chullin 125a].) (Rav Rapaport printed the correspondence of the four rabbonim as a chapter in his own magnum opus, Shu”t Eisan HaEzrahi #7.)

FROM LVOV TO NORTH AMERICA

This last distinction is critical. It is very common that the branches of a mature tree are a tefach wide near the trunk although they narrow as they grow. According to Tosafos Yom Tov’s conclusion, these trees will spread tumah under their boughs even if they narrow considerably, thus spreading tumah to a considerable extent. The result is that if the branch of a tree one tefach wide at one point spreads over the graves, and this branch then extends over or under a branch from another tree, which in turn stretches over or under a branch from another tree, the tumah will continue to spread as long as each branch is a tefach wide at some point. (As mentioned above, some commentaries contend that the tumah spreads from one branch to another only when both branches are a tefach wide at the point that they cross one another.) This is because beneath each branch is an ohel, and the tumah extends from one ohel to another.

In the contemporary world, this shaylah is extremely germane due to the widespread use of large trees as urban landscape. It is very common for trees to overhang cemeteries in a way that spreads tumah onto nearby highways, streets, and sidewalks. With this information, we can now address the first question raised above: “The exit off the highway I take to work borders on a non-Jewish cemetery, and there are trees that overhang the road. One of the fellows I carpool with is a kohen, but he is not concerned about this issue. Do I need to be?”

There is indeed cause for concern. Due to technical factors such as the width of the branches and the locations of the graves, and halachic factors, one should ask one’s rav what course of action to follow in this situation.

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

A shaylah very similar to our contemporary case involved a dispute between two mechutanim, both of them prominent rabbonim, Rav Yosef Hock and the Teshuvah Mei’ahavah, Rav Elazar Flekelis, who was the primary disciple and successor of the Noda BiYehudah. The case involved a shul adjacent to a cemetery that was used for fetuses and stillborns, whose unmarked graves convey tumas meis and tumas ohel. A tree’s branches extended over the cemetery and its branches brushed against the shul building. When the windows of the shul were open, if indeed the tree conveyed tumah, the tumah would now spread from the tree through open windows into the shul, creating a problem for kohanim. Rav Hock contended that the tree limbs did not require trimming since they were very weak and would not withstand any weight. Furthermore, it was uncertain whether the tree overhung the unmarked graves, since no one was certain exactly where the fetuses were laid to rest.

However, the Teshuvah Mei’ahavah took issue with many of the facts presented by his mechutan, contending that it was possible that the entire cemetery was already filled with graves, that the tree branches would eventually grow strong enough to bear weight, and that it is far better to accustom the community to trim the branches regularly and avoid any problem. Furthermore, he notes that it is not certain that a branch too weak to support any weight is not an ohel (Teshuvah Mei’ahavah Vol. 1 #89).

CONCLUSION

Certainly umbrellas and trees can convey tumas meis; the halacha discussion is whether thin branches, twigs, and leaves do. Thus, a tree overhanging both a cemetery and a highway provides good reason to research whether a halachic problem exists. The checking of the layout and other factors should be performed by a non-kohen who is highly knowledgeable in the laws of tumas meis.

WHY IS IT PROHIBITED FOR A KOHEN TO COME IN CONTACT WITH A MEIS?

Although it is beyond our ability to fathom the reasons for the mitzvos, we can and should attempt to glean a taste of Hashem’s mitzvos in order to grow from the experience of observing them. Thus, it behooves us to attempt to explain why the Torah bans a kohen from having contact with a meis under normal circumstances.

Rav Hirsch, in his commentary on Vayikra 21:5, provides us with a beautiful insight into this mitzvah. In most religions, fear of death and what happens afterwards are the major “selling points.” Thus, the role of the priest is most important when dealing with death. However, the Torah’s focus is how to live like a Jew—to learn Torah and perform mitzvos, and devote our energies to developing ourselves in Hashem’s image. To emphasize that the Torah is the blueprint of perfect living, the kohen, who is the nation’s teacher, is excluded from anything to do with death. The kohen’s role is to imbue us with the knowledge and enthusiasm to live!!