Shaya Cohen -


Jewish Priests and the Dead

Most faiths wrestle with the concept of death and an afterlife. Indeed, as the ultimate unfalsifiable belief (since we cannot dispatch forensic teams to reconnoiter and report back), we are each free to believe whatever we want about what happens when we die.

In most religions, priests are considered critical for connection to the world of the dead. Pagan faiths have stories of the underworld, facilitated by priests. Ancient Egypt perfected spells, aided by priests, that would help the dead pass into paradise. Catholicism has Last Rites, a way to ease a person’s passage into heaven. Muslim Imams lead funeral services to achieve similar ends.

But not Judaism. At death, a priest is nowhere to be seen. “For a [dead] person, you must not render yourself spiritually unfit.” Jewish priests, Cohanim, are strictly forbidden to be anywhere near dead people or human remains (with only a very few exceptions).

Why is there such a substantial difference between the Torah and other faiths, even faiths that come from the Five Books?

We can start by answering this question in a limited way: priests exist to serve as the interlocutor between G-d and man, in G-d’s house, the tabernacle (mishkan). Cohanim serve the living. Becoming spiritually unfit, tamei, means that a person is unable to spiritually grow. Which is precisely where the dead are constrained: “The dead cannot praise You.” The dead are inert. Only the living can praise G-d, and can grow.

The mishkan itself, like mankind, is where G-d is found in this world: in each soul and in G-d’s house. It is the tying together of the physical and spiritual elements that makes holiness possible. And the cohanim are the timeless servants of that connection; their service is devoted to combining matter and energy (analogues for the physical and spiritual) in order to achieve and maintain a connection to the divine.

So in the Torah’s view of the world, there is no bridge between this world and what people call heaven (life after death). Instead, in the Torah heaven, shamayim, is where G-d dwells. But there is no explicit connection in the Torah identifying heaven as a place for life-after-death. Indeed, those in the Torah who “walk with G-d” do so while they are alive, not when they are dead.

So in the spatial dimension, priests cannot be in contact with the dead – because their core task is anathema to death. But this is also true for the temporal dimension. We see this in the word in the Torah that means “to mourn.” The word is avl, and it has the very same three letters as the word that is used for “alas.” Here is an example from the text:

Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning (avl) for his son many days.

Think of how Jacob must have suffered with regrets – he surely blamed himself for sending Joseph away in the first place. A person who has lost a loved one and blames himself is always looking backward, always playing back what actually happened against what might have been. Mourning in that state is to live in a world of counterfactual misery.

The brothers use the same word when they are being tortured by Joseph in Egypt:

They said to one another, “Alas (avl), we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”

The brothers, who had caused their father to mourn, end up as mourners themselves!

Similarly, when the Jewish people are told they will perish in the wilderness for their sins:

The people were overcome by grief (avl).

We see more regrets, and “what-if.”

We mourn when we obsess about loss, about our errors. Mourning is a period in which we look backward.

But priests are barred (with a few exceptions) from mourning. Their job is not just in the place of G-d’s house – it is in the time of G-d’s house as well: a place where people bring sacrifices in order to move on with their lives (which is why salt is always present, a reminder that the person who insisted on looking backward, Lot’s wife, was turned into a pillar of salt). The tabernacle is where we put regrets away, when we stop looking backward and turn our faces toward the future. The priests are there to help people move on from where they were before, leaving the past behind. And so the staff, the priests who serve in the tabernacle, are similarly barred from living in the world of the dead, or dwelling on the past.

There is a wider aspect to this as well:

They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh.

These are similarly ways to mark a connection to the dead. But we understand them as universal Jewish commandments as well as for the priests. We mourn, but then we get up. We make no permanent changes to our bodies to mark those who have passed away.

The same core principle of always looking forward may help explain why priests cannot serve in G-d’s house if they are blemished:

No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his G-d. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer G-d’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G-d.

A visible defect causes the priest – as well as those around him – to think on what caused the defect. It is another connection to living in the past, to living with avl, regrets. Priests are blocked from dwelling on what might have been.

Back to the original question: why is the Torah so very different from any other faith I can think of in this respect? Perhaps it comes from a human obsession with the unknown realm of the afterlife, an obsession that is a core part of almost every religion in the world. I can understand why: religions are asked to answer the questions that escape our reason and haunt our dreams.

Most Jews are similarly believers in some form of afterlife, though, as I have noted, the concept is not found in the Torah. From my personal perspective (shared with others), this tells us that even if there is an afterlife, we should live our lives as though this life is what really matters.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]

Comments are welcome!

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