2001One of the defining features of the Priesthood is the pre-occupation with purity. The first rule the Torah teaches is that the Kohen cannot engage in burying the dead.
The Priesthood, How holy is Too holy?
There are, however, exceptions.
Say to the priests, the Sons of Aharon, say to them: For a (dead-)person among his people, one is not to make oneself tamei, except for his kin, one near to him: for his mother or for his father, or for his son, or for his daughter or for his brother, or for his virgin sister, near to him, who has never belonged to a man, for her he makes himself tamei.
Rashi on the verse:
Except For His Kin: His kin refers to his wife
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1. Is the Kohen obliged to be involved in the burial of his immediate family, or is he permitted?
2. It is understandable that he would be permitted, but why would he be obliged?
Rabbi Akiva understood this verse as commanding the Kohen to be involved in the burial of his family members even if it makes him "tamei" (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 3a.) He knew if the Kohen understood that if burying family members was an option there would be those who would see this as an opportunity to demonstrate their devotion to the Torah by opting not to become "tamei," and he interprets the verses in the Torah accordingly. Later opinions, and indeed the Halacha agrees with Rabbi Akiva's interpretation.
He understood that no good could come from such a commitment to purity. It is not only inhuman to be disengaged from the burial of family members, it is ungodly.
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Director The Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.