Frum or Krum: Kohanim and Mummies

My local shul is holding its Annual Dinner in a museum which houses mummies. Being a Kohen, I have always understood that I cannot enter such a museum due to the tumah, very loosely translated as impurity, that these mummies emit. The CRC, Chicago Rabbinical Council, obviously agrees, as seen by their publishing (link) a Kohen’s guide to visiting museums in and around Chicago. But is the CRC’s warning to Kohanim an example of their being Frum, or is this an unnecessary stringency masquerading as something Frum in disguise? As usual, there can be no in between.

Kohanim and Mummies – An Appraisal

This topic properly begins in Yevamot 61a (starting with the final words of 60b), where we find a Beraita recording an argument between the Tanna Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai and the Rabbis regarding to what extent we should be concerned about tumah of a non-Jew:

תניא: וכן היה רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר, קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל, שנאמר, “ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי, אדם אתם.” אתם קרויין אדם, ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם. מיתיבי: “ונפש אדם ששה עשר אלף!” – משום בהמה. “אשר יש בה הרבה משתים עשרה רבוא אדם אשר לא ידע בין ימינו לשמאלו!” – משום בהמה. “כל הורג נפש וכל נוגע בחלל, תתחטאו!” – דלמא איקטיל חד מישראל. ורבנן – “לא נפקד ממנו איש!” ור’ שמעון בן יוחי – לא נפקד ממנו איש לעבירה. רבינא אמר, נהי דמעטינהו קרא מאטמויי באהל, דכתיב, “אדם כי ימות באהל.” ממגע ומשא, מי מעטינהו קרא?

We learned in a Beraita: Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai also said, Graves of a non-Jew do not transmit tumah by one’s being in the same enclosure as them (tumat ohel), as it says (Yechezkel 34:31), “And you, my sheep, the flock of my pasture, are men.” From here we see that you (the Jews, the pasture referred to here) are called men, and non-Jews are not called men. The Rabbis countered this argument with a different Pasuk (Bamidbar 31:40, which speaks exclusively of non-Jews): “And the souls of the (non-Jewish) men (killed in the war with Midian) were 16,000!” (Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai countered:) This is in order to distinguish them from the animals who were also killed in the war. (Relative to animals, non-Jews are men; relative to Jews, they are not.) (The Rabbis again countered with another Pasuk, Yonah 4:11, about the city of Ninveh:) “That there are there (in Ninveh) more than 120,000 men who do not know their right hand from their left!” (Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai rebutted this argument by again explaining that in this instance, as well, the word men is used only) to distinguish the people from the animals (who are mentioned after that point in the same Pasuk). (Once again, relative to animals, non-Jews are men; relative to Jews, they are not.) The Rabbis (rejoined with another Pasuk about the war with Midian, Bamidbar 31:19): “Anyone [any Jew] who kills a person, and anyone who touches a dead body, purify yourselves!” Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (retorted that this warning was given) for the eventuality that a Jew had inadvertently killed another Jew. The Rabbis (then pointed out that according to Bamidbar 31:49), “No Jews were killed” (in the war with Midian)! To which Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai (replied that that Pasuk means to say) that not one Jew was lost to sinning (during the war with Midian). Ravina said that that explanation is unnecessary because (during the war with Midian, the Jews surely touched non-Jews who died, even if they did not contract tumat ohel through them, and) tumah via direct contact is certainly forbidden, even with non-Jews (see Bamidbar 19:14), even if tumat ohel cannot be contracted from a non-Jew.

What emerges from this Gemara is that Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai excludes non-Jews from the prohibition of tumat ohel, and thus, according to him, a Kohen could enter a museum with a mummy. The majority opinion in the Gemara, however, assumes that the prohibition of tumat ohel applies equally whether a dead Jew or non-Jew is in the same ohel (building) as a Kohen. The Ein Mishpat letter in the Gemara is before the first words of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, which would lead us at first glance to believe that his lenient opinion is the accepted Halacha, but this is deceptive. The Rambam certainly agrees with him, but the Shulchan Aruch is more circumspect.

The Rambam clearly sides with the lenient opinion of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai:

ואין העכו”ם מטמא באהל, ודבר זה קבלה הוא. והרי הוא אומר במלחמת מדין, “כל נוגע בחלל,” ולא הזכיר שם אהל.
A non-Jew does not emit tumah simply by one’s being in the same enclosure. And this is a matter of tradition. As it says concerning the war with Midian, “All who touch a dead body,” and it doesn’t mention anything about simply being in the same enclosure as the dead body.
The Shulchan Aruch, however, sides with the majority opinion in the Gemara, albeit tentatively:
קִבְרֵי עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים, נָכוֹן לִזָּהֵר הַכֹּהֵן מִלֵּילֵךְ עֲלֵיהֶם; (מהר”מ וְתוס’ פ’ הַמְקַבֵּל) אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁיֵּשׁ מְקִלִּין (רַמְבַּ”ם והגמי”י בְּשֵׁם ס’ יְרֵאִים)וְנָכוֹן לְהַחְמִיר.

Regarding graves of non-Jews – it is proper for Kohanim to be avoid walking on them (Tosafot), even though there are some who are lenient (Rambam). And it is proper to be strict regarding this.

The Shulchan Aruch here is uncharacteristically inconclusive. He quotes the lenient Rambam we saw earlier that non-Jews do not emit tumat ohel (tumah via enclosure), but before that he cites Tosafot on the page of Gemara that we learned earlier, to the effect that non-Jews do in fact emit tumat ohel. Here is the salient line of the Tosafot:

… ואמר ר”י דאין הלכה כרבי שמעון, דרבי שמעון בן גמליאל פליג עליה, כדתנן במסכת אהלות (פרק יח משנה ט כתובות עז.), והלכה כמותו במשנתנו, וצריכים כהנים ליזהר מקברי עובדי כוכבים. …

The Ri said that the Halacha does not follow (the lenient position of) Rabbi Shimon (Ben Yochai), because Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel argues with him, as it says in a Mishna in Oholot (18:3), and the Halacha follows him (Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel). So Kohanim need to be careful regarding graves of non-Jews.

The Mishna in Oholot which Tosafot quotes is not insignificant, as it seems that the stricter majority opinion from the Beraita in Yevamot can be found in Mishna Oholot as well:

שָׂדֶה שֶׁאָבַד קֶבֶר בְּתוֹכָהּ, נִזְרַעַת כָּל זֶרַע, וְאֵינָהּ נִטַּעַת כָּל נֶטַע. וְאֵין מְקַיְּמִין בָּהּ אִילָנוֹת, חוּץ מֵאִילַן סְרָק שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה פֵרוֹת. וּמְטַמֵּא בְמַגָּע וּבְמַשָּׂא וּבְאֹהֶל:

A field in which a grave was lost … emits tumah through direct contact (maga), carrying (massa) or enclosure (ohel).

To summarize up to this point: The stricter opinion, that non-Jews emit tumat ohel and thus a Kohen cannot be in a building with mummies, is adopted by the majority opinion in Yevamot; Mishna Oholot; Tosafot; and the equivocating Shulchan Aruch. (It is also accepted by Pitchei Teshuva on the Shulchan Aruch, 371:13.) The more lenient opinion, that non-Jews do not emit tumat ohel and thus a Kohen may enter a building with mummies, is shared by Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai in Yevamot and by the Rambam. Particularly for Ashkenazim, who generally side with Tosafot over the Rambam, this body of evidence is not encouraging, but it may provide some grist for leniency, as we will soon see.

Possible Leniency #1 – Ohel of a Non-Jew

One avenue of leniency is simply to say that, due to the equivocating nature of the Shulchan Aruch, or due to the opinion of the Rambam, or due to a time-honored lapse of attention to this issue, tumat ohel does not apply to a non-Jew. Rabbi Zvi Grumet is a senior staff member at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, editor of the journal Jewish Educational Leadership, chairman of the Bible department at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, and a faculty member at the Pardes Institute. In a thread online about this topic in the year 2000, he said the following (link):

Avram Witty asks about the ramification for Kohanim on trips to museums in
which bodies are on display.

The generally accepted halakhic opinion is that the bodies of non-Jews do
not generate Tumah in an ohel, although they do generate Tumah via direct
contact. Assuming that the students on the trip will not be handling the
mummies there should be no problem for Kohanim to attend those trips.
There is probably also no particular reason to be concerned that one of
the bodies might be that of a Jew given that the majority of residents in
the city (as well as the majority of mummies) are those of non-Jews.

If there is a Jewish body then there is a problem, unless the cases in
which the bodies are stored have more than a tefah separating between the
body and the lid of the case. (Note: This halakha prompted El Al to have
the caskets they use for transporting bodies to Israel for burial
redesigned so as to allow Kohanim to fly their airline).

Having the [Jewish – RLZ] body in a separate wing of the building is a complicated
question and depends on the design of the building. As far as children
under the age of Bar Mitzvah is concerned, aside from the educational
issue there is a prohibition for an adult to bring Tumat meit to any
Kohen, even a minor.

Rabbi Tzvi Steinberg, a Posek in my hometown of Denver, recently weighed in on the issue. He feels that although it is a valid chumrah for Kohanim to avoid being in a building with mummies (based on the Shulchan Aruch’s strict but tentative verdict), it is unnecessary to be strict if the mummies are encased in any sort of enclosure, as they usually are in a museum.

Thus, according to Rabbi Grumet and Rabbi Steinberg, a Kohen could safely visit virtually any museum with a mummy, provided that he does not touch the body. If the mummy was found to not be encased at all, the Kohen could rely on the Rambam and the tentative nature of the Shulchan Aruch rather than exit the building. If the mummy was encased, all the better.

Possible Leniency #2 – Sof Tumah Latzeit and Non-Jews

My own Posek, Rabbi Boruch Simon of Yeshiva University/RIETS, feels that it is proper to assume that tumat ohel does apply to non-Jews, like Tosafot and the Shulchan Aruch but unlike the Rambam. However, Rabbi Simon finds room to be lenient for a different reason. Within the rules of tumah, there is a concept known as sof tumah latzeit, which posits that tumah spreads to all areas of a building even if all doors or windows are closed between the Kohen and the dead body, on account of the fact that ultimately (סוף) the dead body (טומאה) will leave the building (לצאת) to be buried. However, Rabbi Simon, with whom I discussed this issue, cites a Tifferet Yisrael (a commentary on the Mishna) that sof tumah latzeit does not apply to non-Jews. Since we assume that mummies are not Jewish, this leniency would allow Kohanim to visit a museum with a mummy. However, it must be noted that this leniency is far less sweeping than the one employed by Rabbi Grumet and Rabbi Steinberg, because it would not apply to a situation in which doors or other openings were open between the Kohen and the mummy. A Kohen would need to ascertain the layout of the museum in question and be certain that no doors or openings could or would be open between where he would be and the room with the mummy. And of course, according to Rabbi Simon, a Kohen certainly could not be in the same room as the mummy, whereas this would be allowed according to the earlier line of reasoning that tumat ohel does not apply to a non-Jew. Naturally, neither leniency would allow a Kohen to touch a mummy.

Posek Leniency Based on … Applies to …
Rabbi Grumet
Rabbi Steinberg
Tumat Ohel does not apply to non-Jews Rambam, tentativeness of Shulchan Aruch Being in same building as a mummy
Rabbi Simon Sof Tumah Latzeit does not apply to non-Jews Tifferet Yisrael Being in same building as a mummy, if doors between Kohen and mummy are closed


There are two possible ways that I have found for Kohanim to be lenient regarding visiting museums with mummies. If we assume that tumat ohel does not apply to non-Jews – like the Rambam but unlike the Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Oholot, Tosafot, and the majority opinion in Yevamot – a Kohen could be in the same building and even the same room as a mummy. If we assume that sof tumah latzeit does not apply to non-Jews, a Kohen could be in the same building as a mummy, provided that he is not in the same room and that there are no direct openings between him and the mummy. With regard to my specific issue of the shul Dinner in the museum, the practical difference between the two leniencies is instructive. According to Rabbi Steinberg and Rabbi Grumet, I could certainly attend the Dinner, simply being careful not to touch a mummy while I am there. Rabbi Simon’s leniency, while trickier during the day when doors are being opened and closed all the time, applies quite well to a Dinner situation, when most of the museum is closed and the event primarily takes place in a single area. Still, research would need to be done beforehand on the layout of the museum. Of course, it is valid to hold that both tumat ohel and sof tumah latzeit apply to non-Jews, in which case there is simply no way for a Kohen to visit a museum with mummies. Hence the CRC’s Kohanic guide to the museums of Chicago, which is not Krum and even quite possibly Frum, but perhaps more Halachic guidance would have been in order to explain the specific nature of the prohibition and potential areas of leniency.

The life of the modern Kohen has its privileges and occasional setbacks, but ultimately all Kohanim should feel privileged to be part of the special group chosen by Hashem to represent the Jewish nation in coming close to Him each day. By keeping ourselves in a state of purity, we affirm our allegiance to the rules which govern our membership in this special caste. This in turn maintains the relationship which is so central to the lives of the Kohanim and the entire nation. Where there are valid leniencies, they may be utilized. But let us remember that our lives as a whole, and as Kohanim in particular, should be oriented toward higher levels of Divine service, not avoiding that service altogether. May we all, Kohen and non-Kohen alike, strive to reach such a level and to take pride in our having achieved it.

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