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When Blood is Thicker Than (Purifying) Water

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

At the beginning of Parshat Emor, God outlines the guidelines for the Kohanim, including restrictions on whom they can bury and marry, and blemishes which precludes them from serving in the mishkan. Within this section, the Torah lists deceased relatives for whom a Kohain maybecome spiritually impure: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and an unbetrothed sister. Chazal, however, as quoted by Rashi, add one more – his wife. They glean this from the introductory words “ ”, for, according to the words of the Sifra, “ '' ” – the word ‘’ always refers to a wife.

The difficulty with this approach is that earlier in Vayikra (18:6) the word “” denoted any blood relationship (based on its literal meaning of meat/flesh (see Tehilim 78:20 and 27, Michah 3:3) – i.e. specifically not a wife; and a few verses later in Vayikra (11 and 13, and much later in 25:49), and further on in Bemidbar (27:11) it specifically uses this word to describe either the relationship to a father and mother, or blood-relatives in general, respectively. Once again, not a wife. And it would seem because of this similar textual meaning, the midrash needed to point out that it specifically doesn’t mean that here. So why is this one the exception?

R. Hirsch quotes an opinion that seems to reconcile the textual definition and that of Chazal’s. He says that because normally “” is understood as blood-relative, the Torah’s addition here of the modifier “ ” creates an ‘artificial’ blood-relative as it were; someone who is ‘brought close’ to become an ‘honorary ’ – a wife! And this is supported in the next verse when it describes a sister who is also ‘additionally’ defined as ‘ ’ only because she has not yet been with a man, outside of their family, not yet ‘artificially removed’ from her original blood-relative status.

The difficultly with this approach is two-fold: 1) Why therefore didn’t it just say ‘wife’? Are we to accept that the Torah used two extra words to make sure that the word it did use was understood properly, when it could have simply used “” - as it has numerous times previously, including within a similar context of the laws concerning forbidden sexual relationships (Vayikra 18:14) - and wouldn’t then need to add words to fix the original faulty one?! 2) If we understand the phrase “ ” as the first of the seven relatives, then why doesn’t the Torah use the letter “” – denoting ‘in addition’ - before the word “” (as it does with the remaining additional relatives)? It would seem that his mother is truly not the second relative (after wife), but rather the first on the list.

And it’s perhaps this syntactical issue which motivates the approach of Ibn Ezra and others. They believe that in fact the words “ ” are not referring to a separate relative (e.g. the wife) but rather serve as a generalintroduction to the specific list that then follows (a classic formula). And it would therefore be read as follows: “[he cannot become spiritually impure for anyone] except for the following blood-relatives: his mother, and his father, etc.” And the absence of the ‘and’ preceding ‘his mother’ therefore, is correct; for she is, in actuality, the first on the list.

However, even according to this approach, although textually sound, we’d still have to challenge why contextually this introduction was important. Why wouldn’t the Torah just simply state: “[he cannot become spiritually impure for anyone] except for his mother, and his father, etc.” To satisfactorily employ Ibn Ezra’s understanding, the question that needs to be answered is: what do we understand more deeply about the list of the six relatives only because it was specifically introduced with the (enigmatic) phrase?

The first step in answering this question is to more accurately define our enigmatic phrase – “ ” based on other similar instances they appear. There are several different permutations of this phrase used throughout the Torah:

  1. ” (Vayikra 18:6) – This label is used as a general term which introduces an entire section of illicit sexual relationships with varying relatives, both close and distant (even including step-relatives, second wives, aunts and uncles, etc).
  2. ” – The phrase in question in our parsha.
  3. ” (Bemidbar 27:11) – This label is used within the context of the hierarchy of inheritors. The Torah states that if someone has no children, and there aren’t any uncles, then a relative from his family that is close to him would inherit. It would seem therefore that this term defines the concentric circle of relatives one step removed from the immediate family (i.e. cousins).
  4. ” (Vayikra 25:49) – This label is used to introduce the list of people who can redeem a released property, and after the Torah initially states that a brother should do it, it then continues and says that even an uncle or cousins are acceptable, or even any relative from his family. It would seem therefore that this term defines a fairly distant relation.

Using these definitions, we can now more readily define our term: “ ” (sans ‘’ but including ‘ ’) would imply relatives of the first circle, the most immediate of relations. This of course fits nicely into the enumerated list that then follows: mother, father, son, daughter, brother and sister are all the relatives that make up that immediate family circle. But, the problem is, it fits too nicely! If we accept that our phrase specifically refers to the closest relatives, then, again (and perhaps even more puzzling now) why do you need both this introductory phrase and the subsequent list? The answer must lie not in the facts (for we now know once the Torah uses this phrase it’s obvious that it’s these six relatives to whom the Torah is referring) but rather in a reflection of the rationale to why this entire law is prescribed to being with. In other words, it’s onlybecausethey are the ‘first-tier relatives’ that a Kohain is allowed to become spiritually defiled for them.

Why would this be? We can easily assume that this law followsthe same rationale as the laws that surround it, as opposed to contradicting them. In other words, whatever the reason God proscribed so much from a Kohain in this section (who he can’t marry or bury, when he’s forbidden to serve, for example), it must be the very same reason for allowing the Kohain to bury his closest relatives despite the ritual impurity it creates. In this section, the same Divine lesson is equally taught through both perspectives: the forbidden and the exceptionally permitted.

So what is the lesson being taught through the myriad of restrictions the Kohain is commanded to follow? Previously we have seen similar restrictions for the Kohanim that include the prohibition of owning land, establishment of their sustenance specifically from Bnei Yisrael’s produce, and the command of BirkhatKohanim - where they say the words, but in actuality ‘it is [God] Who is blessing them’. All of these differing laws center around one understanding: the Kohain is not an independent entity but ‘merely’ a vehicle through which Bnei Yisrael connect to their God. They cannot self-sustain; nor are their words of blessing truly their own. This theme continues here, where we are told that if a Kohain has a blemish, he cannot serve in the Mishkan; similarly, he is not his own person to decide who to marry and cannot freely become ritually impure[1]. Bringing all of these together, we are being told that the most fundamental free-choices of a self-supporting, independent member of society are specifically removed for the Kohain – because the most significant part of his existence is as a selfless devoted attendant to God, for His people; his position exists only for the service of others. This idea, of course, presents a difficulty:  if the underlying understanding of a Kohain and his role is inherently selfless - a total devotion of self to the demanded Divine service - then why should he be able to become ritually impure (and therefore unable to perform his Divine responsibilities) even for his closest relatives?! This law sounds like a blatant contradiction to everything the Torah has said the Kohain status represents!

In the original command to anoint Aharon and his sons in ParshatPekudei, there is one statement that stands out and is then repeated time and time again throughout the Torahwithin the context of Kohanim and their rules:

, -, , ; , --” 

“And you will anoint them like you anointed their father, and they will attend to Me; and this anointing will be for them for an eternal attending, for all generations” (Shemot 40:15)

The privileged status of Kohain was specifically established as an eternal truth, one in which a Kohain is born into and one that he cannot leave. According to the Torah, someone who is not descended from Aharon cannot join the Kehunah; and, by extension, Aharon’s descendants can’t separate themselves from it. And brilliantly this is exactly the same truth when it comes to one’s closest relatives! Children are the parents’ from birth and they forever remain the children of those parents no matter how far they may stray from their roots; parents always remain the parents of their children no matter how they may neglect their parental responsibilities. The same is true with one’s siblings: once a sister or brother, always a sister or brother. Therefore, far from being a contradiction of the understanding established through the myriad of Kohain laws, the specific label of ‘ ’ – ‘the blood-relatives closest to him’ is the perfect reflection of this understanding! Just like the status of parents, siblings or children is not chosen, is not reversible and is eternal, the Torah, in using this specific label to introduce these six relatives is teaching us the similar truth of the role of Kohain. The permission to (temporarily!) become ritually impure for one’s closest relatives in fact complements the true nature of the unique, privileged Kohain status: if the Kohain is born into his Divine role, eternally spiritually distinguished to serve God, then the ‘other’ role a Kohain plays – one which he is also born into, eternally andnaturally distinguished, to serve his family - must similarly remain significant.

And this ideaespecially resonates so poignantly, and so proudly, this week. Whether someone gave his/her life ', or survived the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust; whether someone gave his/her life to actualize God’s Promise of having our own homeland or supported these Divine missions from afar; whether someone celebrates the fulfillment of this Plan within our Promised Land or from outside of its borders, we are all part of the same people, all eternally connected, never to be separated from this privileged existence. Our honored statusas Jews–like the Kohain and our familial relationships - is one we are all inherently connected by; one that will forever be ours to claim and one that no one can or will ever take from us.

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[1] As to why these different facets would hinder his God-vehicle status is beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.


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