Parasha Inspiration – Emor

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּֽהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַֽהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו: כִּ֚י אִם־לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו לְאִמּ֣וֹ וּלְאָבִ֔יו וְלִבְנ֥וֹ וּלְבִתּ֖וֹ וּלְאָחִֽיו: וְלַֽאֲחֹת֤וֹ הַבְּתוּלָה֙ הַקְּרוֹבָ֣ה אֵלָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־הָֽיְתָ֖ה לְאִ֑ישׁ לָ֖הּ יִטַּמָּֽא:

And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and for his virgin sister who is close to him, who was not [yet] with a man for her, he shall defile himself.

Leviticus 21:1-3

This week’s Torah portion begins with instructions to the Kohayns regarding when it is permissible to intentionally become ritually unclean. The Kohayn, in general, is not allowed to become contaminated, that is, ritually unclean. This means that a Kohayn is not allowed to come into contact with, or in proximity of, a dead body.

There are notable exceptions to this general rule. In the case of the passing of a close family member, and the Kohayn is in mourning, the Kohayn may come in the proximity with the deceased, even though this will make the Kohayn contaminated. However, other than these exceptions for close family members, Kohayns are not allowed to attend funerals. In modern times, a lack of understanding of this principle may lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. It is therefore important to understand that no matter how close a friend a person is, no matter how greatly they would desire to attend the funeral of a lifelong friend, if they are a Kohayn, it is forbidden.

The exceptions to this rule are close relatives. They are specifically defined as the mother, father, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister. The term “close relatives” is used, so that we may understand that the death of children and grandparents are also exceptions. Torah, therefore, gives us a definition of “close relatives.” In current day practice, this definition outlines the saying of Kaddish for a yahrzeit in the synagogue. The Halacha is simple, the people that stand for the Kaddish in the synagogue on a yahrzeit must be close relatives. Not just relatives, not friends, not honored acquaintances, but close relatives. The beginning of Leviticus chapter 21 details for us who should stand for the Kaddish during a yahrzeit. So, when we see someone standing for the Kaddish in the synagogue, we understand their relationship to the deceased. Because of this, we may honor them and the deceased. Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Steven Bernstein

Steve was born on Lag B’Omer in Ann Arbor, MI but was raised in Gainesville, FL. The son of two University of Florida professors, he excelled in the sciences in school. In addition to his normal academic studies, he pursued his Jewish education studying with many Rabbis and professors of Judaic Studies from the University including visiting Rabbis such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Shlomo Carlebach.