(This should not be relied upon for practical halacha. When a question arises a Rabbi should be consulted.)
Jewish law prohibits a kohen from coming in close proximity to any dead body or to a cemetery. In this article we will focus on the discussion amongst the poskim as to whether there is legitimate basis to allow kohanim to visit the graves of tzadikim or is this act unequivocally prohibited.
Sources which suggest a lenient ruling
1) The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 944) records an episode that occurred immediately following the brutal murder of Rav Akiva. Eliyahu Hanavi came to bury Rav Akiva. As Eliyahu carried Rav Akiva’s body on his shoulders, Rav Yehoshua, one of Rav Akiva’s main disciples, wondered how this is permitted if in fact Eliyahu was a kohen (as was indicated previously in the Midrash). Eliyahu responded: “Rav Yehoshua, my son, heaven forbid for tumah does not exist when it comes to talmidei chachamim or their sudents.” Some poskim feel that the statement of Eliyahu can serve as a source to allow kohanim to visit the graves of tzadikim.
Tosafos (Baba Metzia 114b), however, maintains that there exists a prohibition for kohanim to come in close proximity of the corpse or graves of the righteous. He addresses the Midrash and explains that Eliyahus response to Rav Yehoshua was aimed at preventing further questioning rather than expressing a true halacha. The real reason Eliyahu was permitted to bury Rav Akiva was due to the fact that Rav Akiva had the status of a “meis mitzvah” (a body without enough people for burial) which a kohen is allowed to contaminate himself for. He was considered a “meis mitzvah” because no one else would bury him out of fear of facing repercussions from the government. [The Ramban (Yevamos 61a) rejects this opinion of Tosafos on the grounds that it would seem unacceptable for Eliyahu Hanavi to offer a false response in order to avoid further questions. One who hears that statement is likely to take him literally and may issue an erroneous hallachic ruling.] In addition the Sefer Haeshkol (vol. 2 page 174) cites the lenient ruling of the Midrash and comments that we should not base our hallachic rulings upon aggadic statements of the Midrashim unless the ruling was codified by the Gemara.
2) The second source that suggests a lenient ruling is a Gemara in Kesubos (103b). The Gemara tells us that when Rav Yehuda Hanasi died, “kedusha” (holiness) was removed from the world. Tosafos cites the opinion of Rav Chaim Kohen who explains that the “holiness” in this context is referencing the holiness of the kohanim. Meaning that kohanim took place in the burial of Harav Yehuda Hanasi. He adds that if he had been present for the funeral of Rabbeinu Tam he would have attended, even though he himself was a kohen. The Rashash feels that this too would suggest that there is no prohibition for a kohen to become tamei through touching a tzaddik’s grave.
However, it should be noted that most authorities feel that one cannot extend the comments of Tosafos to allow kohanim to visit kivrei tzadikim. It could be easily argued that there is a special leniency to allow a kohen to become tamei for a Nasi (such as Rav Yehuda Hanasi) who dies, and this dispensation does not apply to other tzadikim. In fact the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 374:10) rules that a kohen is permitted to become tamei by exposing himself to come in contact with the body of a Nasi. The logic for this ruling is that the position of the Nasi is considered to be so exalted that he is always considered to be a “meis mitzvah”, as there are never a sufficient amount if people to pay him the proper respect. [The Bais Yosef comments that Rav Chaim Kohen merely felt that this leniency may be applied to any leader of klal yisroel and therefore he would have allowed himself to attend the funeral of Rabbeinu Tam.]
What’s more, this leniency to contaminate for a Nasi is only extended to allow kohanim to attend the funeral; however, to subsequently visit the grave would be prohibited. In addition it is worthy to note that Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad Hakemach- Ahava) limits this leniency even more still. He explains that this leniency applies only to Rav Yehuda Hanasi who died with G-d’s kiss (“misas neshika”). Tumah stems from the angel of death and therefore tzadikim who were worthy of dying through G-d directly do not transmit any tumah. Other tzadikim who did not merit this form of death would indeed contaminate kohanim.
Sources which suggest a stringent ruling
1) The Gemara in Sukah (25b) states that (according to some) the people who initially approached Moshe Rabbeinu about the possibility of making up for the korban pesach that was missed due to tumah, were the men carrying the body of Yosef Hatzadik. Now it is obvious that Yosef was a tremendous tzadik, yet these men became contaminated from contacting his body. It is thus clear that the corpse of a tzadik can transmit tumah and kohanim should not be allowed to visit their gravesites. [It should be noted that the Avnei Nezer (Y.D. 166:17) wishes to reconcile the fact that Yosef Hatzadik seemingly transmitted tumah while Eliyahu buried Rav Akiva (as cited in the Midrash earlier). He explains that if the tzadik was murdered, his body will not contaminate others, however, if he died naturally then he will make others tamei. He based his opinion on the words of the Zohar Hakadosh. According to the Avnei Nezer, kohanim would be allowed to visit the grave of a tzadik who was murdered, such as Rav Akiva.]
2) The Gemara in Baba Basra (58a) tells us that Rav Binah marked off the graves of the Patriarchs in Maaras Hamachpela. The Rashbam, Tosafos and the Rif all explain that the reason that Rav Binah marked off the graves was to alert the kohanim of the presence of tumah so that they can avoid those areas entirely.
[However, Rav Yaakov Emden zt”l, in his Hagaos Yaavetz, offers an alternate explanation. He writes that the purpose of marking the locations of the graves in the Maaras Hamachpela could not have been for kohanim to avoid tumah because kivrei tzadikim do not transmit tumah. Rather, the graves were marked so that Jews in future generations would be able to daven at the graves of the Avos.
3) The Gemara in Sanhedrin (39a) records a conversation that took place between a heretic and Rav Avahu. The heretic asked how G-d purified himself after burying Moshe Rabbeinu, because the pasuk indicates that G-d is a kohen. Rav Avahu responded that instead of using water, G-d purified Himself by immersing in fire. Tosafos wonders why the heretic did not question how G-d was allowed to bury Moshe in the first place if He is in fact a kohen. Tosafos explains that because the Jews are considered children of G-d (“banim lamakom”) there is no problem with G-d contaminating Himself by coming in contact with a Jewish body, the same way a kohen is allowed to bury his own son. The Gemara seems to indicate that even though Moshe Rabbeinu was both a tzadik and a talmid chacham his body would transmit tumah.
The rulings of the poskim
While some poskim permitted kohanim to visit the graves of tzadikim, however, the overwhelming majority of the poskim forbid any kohen to come in contact with the corpse or grave of a tzadik, I will list some of them here: Sefer Haeshkol, Maharil (150), Shu”t Batei Kehuna (1:23), Mishpitei Tzedek (76), Sdei Chemed (vol. 8 page 292), Hilchos Ketanos (177), Zais Ranan (Y.D. 2:27), Pe’as Hashulchan (2:16), Tuv Tam V’Daas (Rav Shlomo Kluger Y.D. 2:231), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (202:14), Divrei Yechezkel, Yaskil Avdi (vol. 8 page 192), Yechave Daas (Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l 4:48) and Tzitz Eliezer (15:58).
[See Tzitz Eliezer 15:58, 16:18,3 for a discussion as to whether Kever Rachel was constructed in a way to permit kohanim entry according to all authorities. Rav Shlomo Zalmen Auerbach zt”l (Halichos Shlomo Sefiras Haomer chapter eleven note 86) denies the claim that kohanim can enter the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. He writes that the construction does not permit entry under any circumstance.]
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