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The Purity of the Kohanim

קְדשִׁ֤ים יִֽהְיוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְלֹ֣א יְחַלְּל֔וּ שֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֑ם כִּי֩ אֶת־אִשֵּׁ֨י ה' לֶ֧חֶם אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֛ם הֵ֥ם מַקְרִיבִ֖ם וְהָ֥יוּ קֹֽדֶשׁ:

They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their God's Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food offering of their God, so they shall be holy. (Vayikra 21:6)

In Parshat Emor, we learn about the laws surrounding the purity of a Kohein (priest). These laws dictate who a Kohein can marry when he can come into contact with a corpse and other important details that are central to the Kohein's role in the community.

One of the central themes of these laws is the importance of maintaining a high level of purity. The Kohein is expected to be a model of purity and holiness, and his behavior and actions must reflect this. This is especially true when it comes to matters of marriage and death.

A Kohein is prohibited from coming into contact with a corpse unless it is the corpse of a close family member - mother, father, wife, child, brother, or unmarried sister. Other than those specific cases, the Kohein cannot even enter a cemetery or attend a funeral, because one can become tamei (impure) even by being under the same roof as a corpse. A Kohein may also become tamei in order to take care of a “met mitzvah”, a dead person who has absolutely no one else available to care for him, which in itself is a tremendous mitzvah.

Regarding marriage, the Torah teaches that a Kohein may only marry a woman who is herself pure and untainted. Thus, a Kohein may not marry a divorcee, nor may he marry someone that has had relations with anyone forbidden to her, such as a non-Jew or an immediate family member. He may also not marry a convert, but a widow is permitted to him.

Regarding the Kohein Gadol, he had even more severe restrictions. He may not even become tamei for his own parents, wife, children or siblings. He cannot attend their funerals or visit their graves. He may only become tamei for the “met mitzvah”, which just underscores how important a mitzvah this is. The Kohein Gadol may also not marry a widow, in other words, anyone who was ever married before is forbidden to him.

Despite all the glory and honor given to the Kohein, and all the more so to the Kohein Gadol, being a Kohein is not easy, and comes with many difficult responsibilities and restrictions. The people need pure Kohanim, and this is just part of the way that this happens. Of course, all of these halachot are much more complex than outlined here. So in any specific case, it is important to consult a local Orthodox Rabbi who is familiar both with these halachot, as well as the personal situation of the Kohein involved.

May we soon see the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash, and the restoration of the Kohanim to their full tasks and responsibilities.



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