Frum or Krum: Mikvah for a Kohen

The time has come once again to don our cape and venture out into the weird, wild, and wacky world of contemporary Halacha, to determine whether the writ as presented to us by the establishment is truly frum or a disingenuous dose of abject religiosity cloaked in frum garb but in actuality krum. As always, this being the Jewish blogosphere, there can be no middle ground.

Today’s Question was inspired by a phone call I received a few days ago. Some of my students are on a trip to our nation’s capital, and a chaperone called me with an urgent question. It seems that two of the boys, who (like me) are Kohanim, had inadvertently been in a museum with mummies and now wanted to know if they need to go to a mikvah. I was surprised by the suggestion and responded that they absolutely do not have to go to a mikvah. It turns out that if you Google this topic, you are likely to find one short article (link) on the topic, where both in text and audio the authority on the site says and repeats that “it is proper” for a Kohen who became tamei accidentally to immerse in a mikvah. That sounds awfully frum, but is it krum? Further research has given me more insight into the topic and, as usual, ever more skepticism about the selective sourcing by some in the frum world.

Discussion: The sole source in the article linked to above is the obscure work “Torah Lishmah” by the Ben Ish Chai. This volume of Teshuvot (responsa) of the great Sefardi sage of Baghdad (1833-1909) is available on, so I took the liberty to learn the entire relevant Teshuva of the Ben Ish Chai (direct link to Teshuva #35). The discussion there is centered on a Gemara in Bechorot, 27a-b.

 ,רב נחמן, ורב עמרם, ורמי בר חמא, הוו קאזלי בארבא, סליק רב עמרם לאפנויי. אתאי ההיא איתתא עלת קמייהו. אמרה להו: “טמא מת מהו שיטבול ואוכל תרומת חוצה לארץ?” אמר ליה רב נחמן לרמי בר חמא, “וכי הזאה יש לנו?” אמר ליה רמי בר חמא, “לא ליחוש ליה לסבא?” אדהכי, אתא רב עמרם. אמר להו, הכי אמר רב: ‘טמא מת טובל ואוכל בתרומת חוצה לארץ.” ולית הלכתא כוותיה

Rav Nachman, Rav Amram, and Rami bar Chama were traveling on a boat. Rav Amram went to relieve himself. A woman came to them (Rav Nachman and Rami bar Chama) and said, “May someone who is tamei met (impure from contact with a dead body) immerse in a mikvah and then eat Terumah from outside Israel?” Rav Nachman said to Rami bar Chama, “(Why not?) Do we have (the ability to fully purify ourselves by) sprinkling from the ashes of the red cow (anyway)?!” Rami bar Chama responded, “Shouldn’t we wait for the elder, (Rav Amram, to return before we answer the woman)?” Eventually Ram Amram returned. He said to her, “Here is what Rav said: ‘A tamei met may immerse and then eat Terumah from outside Israel.” But the Halacha is not like him.

The Ben Ish Chai notes that how we understand this Gemara is contingent on a debate between Rashi and Tosafot. According to Rashi, the woman assumes per force that the tamei met needs to immerse in a mikvah; her question centered around the issue of whether he also needs to wait until the evening to eat Terumah (הערב שמש), as would have been necessary if he had access to the ashes of the red cow. Hence Rav Nachman’s answer that in the absence of the ashes, the need to wait until evening is no longer necessary. Tosafot, however, explains that the woman’s question centered on whether even immersion is necessary, given that the Terumah in question is merely Rabbinic, inasmuch as it is outside of Israel. Rav Nachman’s answer would then be that in the absence of the ashes of the red cow, even immersion is no longer necessary. Rav Amram and Rav clearly feel differently – that in fact a tamei met may immerse and eat Terumah (without הערב שמש), but the narrator of the Gemara nevertheless concludes that the Halacha does not follow their opinion and that immersion is unnecessary.

The Ben Ish Chai concludes that whether or not a Kohen who accidentally becomes Tamei Met must immerse in a mikvah hinges on this debate between Rashi (that this woman and the Rabbis are discussing הערב שמש only, but immersion is certainly required) and Tosafot (that they are in fact debating the necessity even of immersion). But in actuality, given the conclusion of the Gemara, this debate is less than consequential. Whether or not הערב שמש was under the microscope, Rav Amram and Rav clearly felt that the tamei met requires immersion, while the Gemara itself concludes differently (ולית הלכתא כוותיה – but the Halacha is not like this). Yet somehow, the Ben Ish Chai, while acknowledging that Tosafot questions the need for immersion, still concludes that even Tosafot would prefer ideally that a Kohen immerse:

נמצא לפי פירוש התוספות הנזכר, הדין הוא דלא צריך טבילה הוא. ועם כל זה יש לומר גם לפירוש התוספות חיובא הוא דליכא, אבל על צד היותר טוב, נכון לעשות טבילה, כי באמת הכי סבירא ליה לרב ולרב עמרם ולרב ששת. על כן גם לסברת הש״ס, לפי פירוש התוספות הנזכר, אין להחליט ולומר שאין ממש בטבילה, שאין להרחיק הדיעות של גדולי האמוראים מצד לצד

So we see from the explanation of Tosafot mentioned earlier that the law is that immersion is not necessary. But even still, it is possible to say that even according to Tosafot, while there is no definite obligation, it is nevertheless still a meritorious practice to immerse, because in truth this is certainly how Rav and Rav Amram and Rav Sheishet held. Therefore, even according to the opinion of the Gemara, as explained by the Tosafot quoted earlier, we should not be so decisive as to say that there is no value whatsoever in immersion, so as to not simply push aside opinions of our holy Sages.

This is a difficult Gemara to follow through the Halachic process, because, as the Gemara itself says, “לית הלכתא כוותיה,” “the law does not accord with this (opinion that immersion is required),” and Halachic works do not always write things that aren’t the Halacha (although sometimes they do). But perhaps we can learn something from the absence of such a requirement in the Tur and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 369-374, which, while discussing the laws of Kohanim and Tumah at some length, never mention that a Kohen should go to a mikvah if he comes into contact with a dead body. The excellent new Hebrew book Taharat Hakohanim (link), which is essentially a commentary on that section of Shulchan Aruch, also never mentions such a requirement. The English-language version of that book, The Kohen’s Handbook, while discussing “What Happens if a Kohen Becomes Tamei-Mes?” (Chapter 2, pp. 44-46), also never mentions a requirement for a Kohen to immerse in a mikvah.

All of this makes it somewhat perplexing that the article and MP3 linked to above fixate on the Ben Ish Chai’s analysis, which in turn essentially takes a revisionist view of Tosafot’s opinion and ignores the conclusion of the Gemara and the absence of an immersion requirement from any other Halachic source such as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch. While it is certainly commendable that the Sefardi authority on the website follow the precedent of Sefardi authorities such as the Ben Ish Chai, it should be remembered that, of course, the Beit Yosef was also a Sefardi. The Ben Ish Chai may have meant his analysis to apply more in the context of what even he terms “a meritorious practice” for the particularly pious or Kabbalistic-minded set, yet the impression left by the article and MP3 is that the requirement is more universal than that. Of course, without even Rabbinic Terumah nowadays, or the ashes of the red cow, or a requirement of הערב שמש – and living as most of us do in a state of perpetual impurity brought on by being outside of Israel, or more generally by the lack of the ashes of the red cow – it is extremely difficult to explain what such an immersion would even begin to accomplish beyond the non-Halachic feel-good notion that the Ben Ish Chai seems to be trying to advance. In the Gemara’s case, the tamei met could look forward to eating Terumah. In our case, any practical outcome of the immersion seems to be null.

Verdict: Krum. Notwithstanding the Ben Ish Chai’s Teshuva in Torah Lishmah and its sole use by the website cited at the beginning of this post, I stand by my original assertion that mikvah is unnecessary for Kohanim today, in light of any reasonable read of the Gemara’s conclusion (and Tosafot’s read of the premise of the Gemara), and the absence of such a requirement in any mainstream Halachic text that discusses the subject as a whole. May we merit to see the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt, the red cow’s ashes restored, Terumah re-instituted – and my students needing to immerse for accidental tumat met so that they can perform their priestly duties properly.

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