By Jerry Kaufman
As reported to Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
My sister and her family are coming for Yom Tov for the very first time, which has us all very excited! But, we need to figure out all the logistics of having everyone together for Yom Tov — where will everyone sleep, how to arrange sufficient seating space and chairs. After all, they have a very large family, and our two boys are accustomed to each having their own room.
And we want to make sure that the visiting family is comfortable. In truth, there have been some sticky situations in the past. Well, let me put it this way. We are frum, but we do not keep all the chumros that they do. This has created some uncomfortable situations in the past. What we realized is that to have an optimal relationship with them, we need to be very accommodating to their needs, which is sometimes complicated since we are not always certain what their needs are. And to complicate matters, we have discovered that they don’t trust the opinions of our rabbi. But they are really wonderful people, and in addition, mishpacha is mishpacha!
We already know that when they come we should make sure to have plenty of cholov yisroel products available and to double check what hechsherim they accept. And we know that they will not use the eruv, which our rabbi uses himself. So, I guess, to each his own. But I want to make sure that they are comfortable; we really want to have a nice Yom Tov together, and so do they.
Since they have never been here for such an extended stay, we would really like to show them the sites of town. Our city is blessed with many really nice museums, many of them extremely child friendly. Hopefully, these will help make the Yom Tov memorable for all.
But one second. My brother-in-law Muttie is a kohen, and has told me that he is very careful about checking museums before he goes. It would be really nice if I can figure out in advance which museums he can visit so that we can plan the Chol HaMoed itinerary.
But maybe we can take his under-bar-mitzvah boys to the Children’s Museum without any concern? I am going to call the rabbi. After all, he is also a kohen.
I reached Rabbi Katz on the first try. He told me that the prohibition of making a kohen tamei also applies to a kohen who is too young to be obligated in mitzvos. An adult Yisroel may not bring a child or baby who is a kohen into a place where he would become tamei meis, such as a cemetery or funeral home. He told me that some kohanim are extremely careful not to visit people in hospitals even in places where most of the patients are not Jewish – not that we are planning any hospital visits during this Yom Tov.
While on the phone, I asked Rabbi Katz if there was any problem with a kohen going to a museum. He answered me that he himself goes, but he knows of kohanim who refrain from going. I asked him what the issue was, to which he responded that he would check it out and call me back.
Rabbi Katz telephoned a day later, having spoken to the city’s av beis din, Rav Gross. The senior rabbi had explained that there is a dispute whether a kohen may enter a museum in which there are human remains inside a glass enclosed display area. He explained that whereas Jewish remains certainly convey tumah whether they are touched, carried or in the same room as a person; and sometimes even if they are in the same building, it is disputed whether gentile remains convey tumah when they are in the same room if they are not touched or carried.
Rabbi Katz explained that the tumah that spreads throughout a room or building is called tumas ohel. This does not affect non-Kohanim today, since everyone is tamei anyway, and to remove this tumah requires ashes of the parah adumah. However, a kohen must be careful not to enter the same ohel as Jewish remains.
However, whereas the remains of a non-Jew convey tumas meis if they are touched or carried, there is a dispute whether they convey tumas ohel, that is, the tumah that spreads through a room or building. The halacha is that one should try to be careful and, therefore, a kohen should not enter a building containing the remains of a non-Jew.
When a museum contains parts of human bodies, we do not usually know whether these are from Jewish bodies or not, and we may assume that since most of the world is not Jewish, that they are from non-Jews. In addition, the remains in a museum are usually inside glass displays that can be opened when necessary. Some authorities contend that this glass enclosure is halachically equivalent to having the remains in a different room; in their opinion a kohen may enter a museum (see Shu”t Maharsham #215).
Thus, Rav Gross had concluded that a kohen wanting to visit a museum where all the remains are inside display cases has a basis to be lenient because of these two reasons.
Although I was glad to discover that my kohen friends who attend museums have a basis, I realized that Muttie would probably not accept the lenient approach. I remembered a time that we were visiting them and they had taken us to a neighborhood children’s museum with many “hands-on” science exhibits perfect for children. Upon turning a corner of the museum, we discovered an area described as an “Indian Burial Ground,” complete with bones for realistic affect. Assuming that the bones were artificial, Muttie had casually asked the receptionist, “Are these bones authentic?”
The receptionist answered, “Actually, they are not. They are probably not Indian bones, but acquired elsewhere.” Upon hearing this information, Muttie bee-lined an abrupt exit from the museum. Indeed, they were not authentic Indian bones, but they were authentic human bones! Unquestionably, Muttie is concerned about human bones even when they are probably of a gentile. I was also fairly certain that Muttie would not rely on the fact that the remains are inside a glass display.
At this point, I remembered a cute little theater that runs actual Shakespeare plays. What could be wrong with Shakespeare? Until I inquired, and discovered that one of the props for Hamlet is a real skull! I had just about given up on this idea, when I mentioned it to Rabbi Katz. He commented: “Check it out. I remember once discovering that these skulls are not complete, and that there is a halacha that a damaged skull does not convey tumah throughout a building.”
Off I went, to check Hamlet’s skull. Much to my surprise, they were willing to show me the actual skull that they used, although they told me that they have no crossbones. Sure enough, I discovered that the top of the skull had been replaced with a metal plate. I am no Torah scholar, and had no idea whether this would be acceptable.
I called Rav Gross, the city’s av beis din, myself and described to him the Shakespearian skull, explaining the family situation so that he would realize that I was not hunting for a lenient opinion. He told me that there was no kohen issue. “If one removes enough of an area of a skull that a live person would not be able to survive, the partial skull remaining no longer spreads tumah unless it is touched or carried. The subsequent repair with a metal plate does not cause the skull to spread tumas ohel, although it would spread tumas ohel if the removed skullcap was in the same room.”
Since I did not envision Muttie or his sons joining the cast of Hamlet, it seemed that we would be able to take them to the Shakespeare Theater as a special activity for Chol HaMoed. I thanked Rav Gross for sharing his scholarship with me, at which point he made the following observation:
“Are you sure that this is the type of entertainment that your brother-in-law and his children would appreciate?”
Admittedly, this question had not even occurred to me. What could be risqué about Shakespeare? But then again, Muttie’s priorities in education are very different from mine. I am not sure if this is the type of Chol HaMoed outing that he would consider memorable.
So I resigned myself to try to verify if any of our museums are kosher for kohanim. I asked the local Vaad Ha’Ir if they have ever researched the museums. They told me that although it is a good idea, they have never done so, but would be very eager to follow up on whatever I discover.
I called the information desk at the children’s science museum, and explained that I have company from out of town who are unable to visit the museum if it contains any human remains. I realized that they must have thought I was absolutely bonkers! I can just imagine the conversation that transpired among the receptionists on their lunch break!
Although the information desk notified me that there were no human remains to be had anywhere in the museum, I did not get any sense that they took me seriously and decided that I would have to take a trip there to check it out myself.
I decided the best way to handle the situation was to call Muttie directly, and try to get direction from him what the parameters are.
I received quite an education from Muttie. If I can paraphrase what he told me: “A close friend of mine, who is not a kohen, often visits museums to verify whether a kohen may enter. Among the most common remains he finds are mummies, human bones, skeletons, and preserved fetuses, but occasionally he has discovered preserved human organs or entire cadavers. One museum had an empty stone casket that had been found in Eretz Yisroel with an obvious Jewish name on it. Since the supports of a grave are also sometimes tamei, we had a shaylah whether this contaminates the entire museum.
“Often displays of these items are not inside glass-enclosed areas, which increases the halachic concerns. For example, he has discovered on the shelves of museums such artifacts as Aztec musical instruments carved from the femurs of captured prisoners as well as bowls hollowed out from skulls. By the way, Muttie noted, these bowls pose a problem only if the kohen touches them or picks them up – boy, was he impressed when I told him why!
“During one visit, he noticed a display of a giant, which he assumed was a mannequin, but on closer inspection turned out to be a giant whose remains had been preserved in formaldehyde!”
Muttie’s friend feels that a kohen who would like to visit a particular museum should first have a knowledgeable non-kohen carefully research the entire museum. From first-hand experience, he can attest that one should not rely on the information desk personnel – they are often uninformed of what the museum owns. In one instance, the information desk insisted that a museum displaying ossuaries containing human bones had absolutely no human remains!
“The curators also often make mistakes. In one museum, there was a skull on display, which we asked the curator whether it was real. She told us that she knows that the museum purchased it from a supplier who sells only replicas and not real skulls or skeletons. I asked her if there was any way that one could look at a skull and tell if it was real. She responded that you can usually tell by making a very careful inspection of its teeth. To demonstrate the difference between the replica and a real skull, she opened the display to show him – and discovered, much to her surprise, that the skull was real! It turned out that the museum had purchased it at a time that the supplier sold real specimens!
“Lesson to learn: Be careful, and ask lots of probing questions.”
Muttie then told me an interesting bit of information. “When approaching a museum, one should ask if it contains any remains that fall under the NAGPRA act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This was a law passed by Congress requiring many institutions to return Native American cultural items and human remains to their respective peoples. Under one provision of this law, these institutions are required to catalog all Native American burial items and religious artifacts in their collections in order to identify the living heirs, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations of remains and artifacts.
“Someone trying to find out whether a museum contains tamei remains can easily begin his conversation with the curator or collection manager by mentioning NAGPRA. Since they are familiar with the requirements of this law, the subject of human remains and their cataloging in the museum’s collections are no longer so strange to them. One can use this as an entrée to discuss what a kohen is and what our halachic concerns are. I have found that the curators are usually very helpful; however, one must ask very specifically about each type of item, such as skeletons, skulls, bones, preserved organs, and mummies, since they are not thinking about tumah but about science.
“Furthermore, sometimes the curators themselves do not know what the museum has in storage. Here one often gets into very interesting halachic questions that one needs to discuss with a first-line posek. For example, while looking at one museum, someone discovered that a different floor of the building contained drawers filled with all sorts of human artifacts.
“By the way,” Muttie noted, “there are other things to be concerned of in museums even if one is not a kohen. Many museums contain actual idols that constitute real avodah zarah. The question arises whether one may even look at them.”
At this point, my brother-in-law educated me by pointing out that when the Torah states al tifnu el elilim, do not turn to idols (VaYikra 19:4), the prohibition includes looking at idols (Yerushalmi, Avodah Zarah 3:1; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 2:2; Sefer HaMitzvos, Lo Saaseh #10; Chinuch #213). The Magen Avraham (307:23) explains that the Torah prohibits only gazing at an idol, but does not prohibit glancing at it. Therefore, seeing it is not prohibited, but intentionally looking at it is. Thus, one must be wary of this prohibition when visiting a museum that may include icons, statues, and images.
While I was contemplating the last fact, Muttie called me back to our original topic with the following comment: “Jerry, do you know what kind of massive undertaking this is? The reason I rarely take the family to museums is that I am always uncertain what they contain, and I know how difficult it is to really determine what they have – the curators themselves often don’t know.
“I must tell you. I am so appreciative of your putting this effort into making sure we have a nice time. But you have to work and make Yom Tov. Besides, my kids are not oriented towards museum visits — they spend most of their time in Yeshiva, and they much prefer spending time playing ball and running around in the park. I am sure your wonderful boys have nice friends and the cousins and the friends can play some ball. For my kids that will be seventh heaven – and something much more memorable.”
I must admit that it had not even occurred to me that the cousins would enjoy just playing ball together. Indeed we had an absolutely wonderful Yom Tov that the cousins will all remember for years to come! And I left to someone else to research whether the local museums are kohen-appropriate. Are you interested in working on this project on behalf of klal Yisroel?