Should a Kohen Be Afraid of Confederate Ghosts?

clip_image002When Yaakov Avinu asks his sons not to bury him in Egypt, Rashi notes three reasons for this request:

(1) The earth of Egypt would turn to lice during the Ten Plagues.

(2) To avoid the suffering of rolling to Eretz Yisroel at the time of techiyas hameisim.

(3) To prevent the Egyptians from making him into an idol.

On the other hand, although Yosef and his brothers undoubtedly had the same motives to be buried in Eretz Yisroel, they could not arrange their immediate burials there and were interred in Egypt until the Jews left. This is a classic example of the exhumation and reburial of meisim (human remains).

Our article will discuss a case where meisim were supposed to have been reburied, but apparently were not, creating a number of halachic concerns.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In a major metropolis, one section of the city included a large cemetery. About 140 years ago, this cemetery was closed to new burials and later, many of its graves were exhumed. Subsequently, the city constructed residential and commercial areas, city streets, a major park, a zoo, and museums atop the seventy-two acres of the cemetery.

Here is the historical background: In 5603/1843, the city designated a sixty acre area as a cemetery and three years later, a Jewish organization paid $45 to purchase part of this land as its own cemetery. Four years later, in 5610/1850, the city purchased an adjacent area of twelve more acres to expand the cemetery, so that it now encompassed 72 acres.

However, in the late 1850’s, a prominent physician requested that the cemetery be closed because of concern that it was too close to the city’s water supply and that it might spread disease. Until that point, this cemetery was the only authorized one in the city, and included a large “potters’ field,” or area for burying the destitute and the unidentified.

Two years later, an area immediately north of the cemetery was set aside as a park. During this time, the city gradually ceased using the cemetery. However, since the area was near a large prisoner-of-war camp housing captured Confederate soldiers, an estimated 4,000 Confederates who died in custody were interred in the cemetery’s potters’ field. At one time, the cemetery held an estimated 35,000 graves, including the resting place for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the Confederacy.

In 5626/1866 the cemetery was officially closed, partly due to the physician’s health concerns. By now, the Civil War was over and the surviving Confederate captives had been repatriated. The city officially decided to move the remains buried in this cemetery to other locations. Over the next thirty years there are numerous scattered reports of moving the graves to new locations. Despite attempts to remove graves, a conservative speculation is that the majority of the remains were never removed.

Fast forward to the modern era: In 5722/1962, workers digging a foundation for the zoo’s new barn discovered a skeleton and a casket. They reburied the casket in situ and poured the foundation right on top. During 5758/1998, workers constructing a parking lot in the area discovered 81 skeletons and an iron casket containing a cadaver. There are at least nineteen more reports of human bones found in the disused cemetery’s location.

Thus, the shaylah is whether a Kohen may walk through the streets and businesses of this old-time burial ground.

Steve Katz lives and works in this city and is well aware of the history of this park and its environs. His boss assigns him to attend a business meeting at a hotel that is located in the area that was originally the cemetery. Since Steve is a Kohen, may he attend the meeting? If he cannot, how will he explain this to his gentile employer?

Steve made an appointment to discuss the problem with his Rav, whom he knows will explain to him all the aspects of the shaylah.

WILL THE TUMAH RISE FROM THE GROUND?

Rav Goldberg begins by explaining some of the halachic background. When human remains are buried, under most circumstances the tumah rises directly above and contaminates the area above it. If a building is constructed directly above a grave, tumah may spread throughout that building, although sometimes it may spread only through the bottom floor and possibly only into the room constructed directly above the grave. We will have to leave for another time the discussion as to what factors affect how far tumah will spread through the structure.

If there is no building, tree or overhang over the gravesite, one becomes tamei only if one walks or stands directly above the gravesite.

SAFEK TUMAH BIRSHUS HARABIM

“However, the specific situation that you are asking about may be more lenient,” explains the Rav, “because of a concept called safek tumah birshus harabim, sefeiko tahor, which means, literally, that if there is doubt about whether something in a public area became tamei, the halacha is that it remains tahor (see Nazir 57a). Notwithstanding our usual assumption that safek de’oraysa lechumra, we rule strictly on doubts concerning Torah prohibitions, we rule leniently concerning a doubt of matters of tumah when the question occurred in a “public” area, a term we will define shortly.

There is also an inverse principle that safek tumah birshus hayachid, sefeiko tamei, which means that if there is doubt whether someone or something contracted tumah when they were in a private area, they are considered tamei.

WHAT IS PUBLIC?

For the purposes of these two principles, “public” is defined as an area to which at least three people have ready access, and “private” means a place that is accessible to less than three people. Thus, someone who discovers that he may have become tamei while walking down the street remains tahor. However, if he discovers that he may have become tamei while he was in a private area he is tamei. (All of these laws are derived from pesukim.)

“I know that there is more to explain,” interjects Steve, “but it would appear that one could have a situation in which one may enter a building, but one may not use the bathrooms, have a private office, or have a private interview.”

“It is certainly true,” responded the sage, “that someone entering a public building and discovering that he may have become tamei while there, would remain tahor, whereas if he entered a similar private area, he would be considered tamei. However, there are other factors to consider before we reach a definitive ruling.”

MAY THE KOHEN ENTER?

At this point, Steve raised a sophisticated point:

“I understand that someone who entered this area would afterwards be considered tahor. But may I enter the area knowing that I may be contaminating my kehunah?”

The Rav explained: “You are asking whether a Kohen may lichatchilah rely on the principle of safek tumah birshus harabim, or whether this principle is applied only after the fact. In general, one must be stringent when there is concern that one may be violating a Torah prohibition, and it is prohibited min hatorah for a Kohen to contact tumah from a meis. Thus, one could assume that a Kohen should not enter an area where there is a possibility of tumah. However, many authorities rule leniently when dealing with a safek tumah birshus harabim. They contend that the Torah only prohibited a Kohen from becoming tamei, but not from entering a situation where he will be ruled as tahor (Tosafos, Kesubos 28b s.v. Beis; Shu”t Rashba #83; Binas Odom, Klal 157; Pischei Teshuvah 369:4, quoting Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah; Minchas Chinuch 263:13 s.v. Vehinei). Thus, a Kohen could enter any publicly available area, including an office or residential building constructed over the city’s defunct cemetery. However, he could not enter an area restricted to less than three people.

“Others contend that since the Torah prohibits a Kohen from being in contact with a meis, he is similarly prohibited, because of safek de’oraysah lechumra, to be in a place where he might be exposed to a meis” (Tzelach, Berachos 19b; Achiezer 3:1:1, 3:65:7; Kovetz Shiurim; Teshuvos VeHanhagos).

STATUS QUO

Steve raised another point:

“In fact, we know that this area was once a cemetery, and we are fairly certain that not all the graves were exhumed. Does this make matters worse?”

“You are raising a very insightful question. Even assuming that a Kohen can rely on the principle of safek tumah bireshus harabim, this principle might not apply here since we know that this area was once a cemetery, and we are fairly certain that some graves remain. Thus we have a chazakah, status quo, that the area was once tamei meis, and we are uncertain whether the tumah was removed. In such a situation, perhaps the principle of safek tumah birshus harabim does not apply, since this rule may apply only where there is no status quo. (In Mikvaos 2:2, this seems to be the subject of a dispute between Tannayim. See also Tosafos, Niddah 2a s.v. Vehillel.)

“Nevertheless, in our particular case, we have some basis to be lenient. Although this entire area was once set aside as a cemetery, it is very unlikely that it became filled wall-to-wall with graves, and also, only the places directly above the graves were tamei. Thus, any place within the cemetery was tamei because of doubt, not because of certainty.

JEWISH VERSUS NON-JEWISH GRAVES

“There is another reason to permit entering the hotel for your meeting. People who researched the area have ascertained the exact location of the original Jewish cemetery, which is now the location of the ball fields of a local park. Thus, although I would advise you and your sons not to play ball on those particular diamonds, we can be more lenient regarding entering the hotel constructed in the area, as I will explain.”

Steve replied: “But how can we be certain that no Jews were ever buried in the non-Jewish cemetery. There definitely were some Jewish soldiers in the Confederate army, and it is likely that some Jews were buried in the non-Jewish cemetery or in the potters’ field.”

His Rav replied: “You are correct that some Jews were probably buried in the non-Jewish parts of the cemetery. Nevertheless, since we do not know this for certain, we may work with the assumption that there are no Jews there.”

“But even a non-Jewish body conveys tumah, so I still have a problem.”

“This depends on whether remains of a gentile convey tumas ohel, that is by being under the same being under the roof, cover, or overhang that is at least three inches (a tefach) wide.

DO THE REMAINS OF A NON-JEW CONVEY TUMAH?

“Although virtually all authorities agree that remains of a non-Jew convey tumah through touching and carrying, the Gemara cites the opinion of Rabbi Shimon that remains of a non-Jew do not convey tumas ohel (Yevamos 61a). The Rishonim dispute whether this position is held universally, and, in addition, whether this is the way we rule. It appears that most Rishonim conclude that a Kohen may enter a room containing the remains of a gentile because they follow Rabbi Shimon’s position. Others contend that we do not follow Rabbi Shimon’s position and that tumah of a gentile does spread through ohel. The Shulchan Aruch considers the question as unresolved and advises a Kohen not to walk over the graves of non-Jews (Yoreh Deah 372:2).”

At this point, Steve commented. “It seems from what you are saying that it is not a good idea for a Kohen to enter buildings in this area, but one may enter if there is a pressing reason” (see Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Yoreh Deah #470).

The Rav responded: “This is the conclusion of many authorities. Some are even more lenient. One famous responsum permits a Kohen to enter a field that he purchased without realizing that it contained an unmarked gentile cemetery. The author permits this by combining two different leniencies, each of which is somewhat questionable. One leniency is that perhaps a gentile does not spread tumah through ohel, and the other leniency is that some early authorities contend that once a Kohen becomes tamei, he is not forbidden from making himself tamei again (Raavad, Hil. Nezirus 5:15, as explained by Mishneh LaMelech, Hil. Aveil 3:1). Although we do not rule like this last opinion, the Avnei Nezer contends that one can combine both of these ideas to permit the Kohen who purchased this field without realizing the problem to utilize his purchase (Shu”t Avnei Nezer, Yoreh Deah #466).”

“This case of the Avnei Nezer sounds like a much more difficult situation in which to rule leniently than mine,” noted Steve. “After all, in his case there was no attempt to clear out the cemetery.”

“You are correct. For this reason, I would certainly not find fault with someone who chose to be lenient and indiscriminately enter the area that was only a gentile cemetery, relying on the ruling that gentile remains do not contaminate through ohel, and on the principle of safek tumah birshus harabim.”

“It still seems that one should avoid the ball fields that are located right over the old Jewish cemetery.”

“I would certainly advise this,” closed the Rabbi.

So Steve does not need to explain to his boss that he cannot attend business meetings at the hotel because of lost Confederate ghosts.

Although there may be little reason to panic over such issues, as we have discussed, one should be aware that it is not infrequent to discover old cemeteries beneath modern cities. Cemeteries, particularly Jewish ones, were always consecrated on sites outside the city limits in order to avoid the obvious problems of tumah affecting kohanim. Unfortunately, when Jews were exiled, the whereabouts of many cemeteries became forgotten, and in addition, as cities expand, they include areas that were originally outside the city’s limits that often include earlier cemeteries. Thus, these problems will continue to prevail. In each case, a posek must be consulted to find out whether, and to what extent, a Kohen need be concerned.

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

It is beyond our understanding to explain why Hashem commanded us to keep each specific mitzvah. However, we can and should attempt to glean a taste of Hashem’s mitzvos in order to appreciate and grow from the experience, including understanding 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 a beautiful educational insight into this mitzvah. In most religions, fear of death is a major “selling point” of the religion. Thus, the role of the priest is most important when dealing with the dying and the dead.

However, Torah emphasizes how to live like a Jew — to study Torah, perform the mitzvos, and develop ourselves in Hashem’s image. To emphasize that Hashem provided us with the blueprint for perfect living, the Torah excludes the Kohen, who is the nation’s teacher, from involvement with death. Thus, the Kohen’s role is to imbue us with the knowledge and enthusiasm to truly live!

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