Thursday, May 08, 2008

Emor: לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו, but which am and whose am?

What is meant by לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו in the beginning of parshat Emor. The parsha begins:
א וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן; וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו. 1 And the LORD said unto Moses: Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people;
ב כִּי, אִם-לִשְׁאֵרוֹ, הַקָּרֹב, אֵלָיו: לְאִמּוֹ וּלְאָבִיו, וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבִתּוֹ וּלְאָחִיו. 2 except for his kin, that is near unto him, for his mother, and for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother;
What in the world does be'amav mean? Whose people?

Rashi cites Toras Kohanim that it is the am of the deceased. Thus:
"Let none [of you] defile himself [for a dead person] among his people. While the dead person is among his people [and therefore has people, non- kohanim, to bury him]. This comes to exclude [from the prohibition a kohen who comes across] a מֵת מִצְוָה, [a dead person for whom no one is in calling distance to attend to his burial and thus it is incumbent for people to attend to him]. — [Torath Kohanim 21:4]"
Thus, while the deceased is amongst his people, there is no need for a kohen deal with the burial, and so his religious requirement to remain ritually pure stands. But for a mes mitzvah, no.

Rashi has a few reasons to bring this, I think. First, in general, here, he is citing halachic/midrashic interpretations of the pesukim from Torat Kohanim, so this continues the trend. Second, as a practical matter, we follow halacha, and treat the results of midrash halacha as the correct meaning of the pesukim. So perhaps this close reading should be cast as the peshat. Third, Rashi cites a lot of midrash as peshat in a pasuk in general, perhaps to give over a sense of the (/a) traditional view from Chazal of the meaning of these pesukim. But fourth, perhaps there is a question on the peshat level: why specify be'amav? Let us see how Shadal treats this.

Shadal writes:

לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו : איש בעם הכהנים לא יטמא לנפש אדם , כמו ( פסוק י " ד ) בתולה מעמיו יקח אשה ( רשב " ם ) כי לפי הפשט צריך שתהיה כוהנת . .

Thus, Shadal insists that as a matter of peshat, be'amav refers to the tribe of kohanim. (This undermines the drasha of mes mitzvah, but then again, it can readily be cast as a drasha and need not accord with peshat.) This is what I would assume as a matter of peshat as well. But then Shadal is faced with a difficulty. If he cannot become impure to another random kohen, he also cannot become impure for another Jew who is not a kohen. Why this specification?

It seems that Shadal is claiming a rather awkward grammatical construction here, and is claiming that be'amav refers to the class of people who are not allowed to become ritually impure. Thus, בעמיו, in the nation of kohanim, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא, they may not become impure to a human corpse. I am not positive this is what Shadal is saying, but it certainly seems like it. But he couldn't be saying that, could he? (I am open to suggestions here. Please suggest a valid different parse in the comments, and I'll update the article. I do give my own defense below.)

I think this is awkward, for the word בעמיו means the am of a specific kohen. Just as it meant when used about a kohen marrying a betulah from his nation of kohanim, as in the peshat given by Rashbam.

Yet, to defend this point of Shadal (if he is in fact making it), I would note that he explains בַּעַל בְּעַמָּיו in
ד לֹא יִטַּמָּא, בַּעַל בְּעַמָּיו--לְהֵחַלּוֹ. 4 He shall not defile himself, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself.
to refer to the kohen gadol (as Onkelos and Weisel explain). Thus, plain בְּעַמָּיו in the first pasuk also refers to the person upon whom this mitzvah falls. And so לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו is that upon בְּעַמָּיו there falls this obligation of לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא, and this is directed towards kohanim (emor el hakohanim) about what the conduct should be beamav.

Still, I will run with the alternate peshat I gave above, namely that beamav refers to the class of deceased.

I would proffer that it means that he cannot become impure to a general kohen. Does this mean that to the corpse of a non-kohen, one may become impure? We might say from a kal vachomer, no. But not even as a formal application of a midrashic method, but rather intuitively this is restricting everyone but family members.

But then, why bother to mention specifically a kohen? It should say mibenei Yisrael! Why explicitly state a restriction (which seems like a "miut") when in reality the class of people to whom a kohen cannot become impure is much, much larger?

I would suggest that it is because in other contexts, certain things are permitted for kohanim as respect to kohanim. As an example, as Rashbam said, the pashut peshat (though not necessarily the practiced halacha) is that a kohen can only marry a kohenet. Perhaps here as well, we might have said that a kohen needs to remain pure, but for another pure and elevated kohen, because of the elevated status or because he is part of the extended kohen family, a kohen could become impure. Or maybe because kohanim are mortal as well and thus die, and we might expect an exemption to allow kohanim to take care of their own. Ka Mashma Lan, therefore it informs us, that no, he may not. Even though the deceased is beamav, which elsewhere is a permitted class. Rather than having an exemption for the extended "nation," it is restricted to the immediate family.

I would offer, by the way, that not as a matter of derasha, but as peshat, we can learn the concept of mes mitzvah from these pesukim. There is a spirit of the law, and this spirit of the law is this overriding concern that someone be able to bury the dead. There is a balance of an extremely important ritual aspect of law (ben adam lamakom) and an extremely important moral/social aspect of law (ben adam lachaveiro). There is a need to define exactly who is responsible, and an assumption that since the immediate family will bury, the obligation to bury does not fall upon a general non-related kohen. But neither of these two aspects of law are summarily dismissed. One might expect that in a case in which there is in fact no one else to bury, there would be a similar weighing of the two aspects and a decision in favor of the kohen burying the mes mitzvah. I would not darshen or argue this myself, but Chazal saw fit to do this, supporting it or finding it in this textual irregularity in the first pasuk.

Indeed, on the third pasuk,

ג וְלַאֲחֹתוֹ הַבְּתוּלָה הַקְּרוֹבָה אֵלָיו, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-הָיְתָה לְאִישׁ--לָהּ, יִטַּמָּא. 3 and for his sister a virgin, that is near unto him, that hath had no husband, for her may he defile himself.
why specifically a virgin, and why specifically that has no husband? Shadal explains:

אשר לא היתה לאיש : שאם בעולה , מסתמא יש לה בנים והם יעסקו בקבורתה , והתורה לא דיברה אלא בהווה , כי רוב הבעולות יש להן בנים ; ואם אין לה בנים , אולי ייטמא לה בעלה כמת מצווה או ישכור קוברים

He claims that dibra Torah behoveh, and a non-virgin will have sons to attend to her, or her husband will attend to her under the rule of mes mitzvah (assuming he is a kohen) or hire people to bury. (Lehalacha, Chazal deduce from כִּי, אִם-לִשְׁאֵרוֹ, הַקָּרֹב, אֵלָיו. It appears Shadal is trying to achieve a similar result while staying within the bounds of peshat, and so he does not offer the derasha.)

Turning now to see what the Karaites say, as I tend to do whenever we encounter a peshat-derash or peshat-halacha tension, I see that Aharon ben Yosef the Karaite says something akin to what I said, but does not develop it in such detail. Thus, he merely says that beamav must refer to the am of kohanim, and he assumes that it refers to the class of deceased, rather than the class upon whom the mitzvah falls. The class cannot be all Israelites, but one can deduce it logically via kal vachomer. He does not attempt to explain why then only the am of kohanim was specified.


Anonymous said...

Why can't "beamav" refer to all Israelites? Wouldn't that also be a good proof that tumat met applies to Jewish corpses and not non-Jewish ones, a halacha which does not seem to be otherwise mentioned in the text?

joshwaxman said...

It is hard to explain, but it just doesn't feel right. Since it is addressing specifically kohanim, (emor el hakohanim) "am" just carries the sense of "am hakohanim." His particular nation, and this would be the class of people to whom this is being addressed, the priestly class.

I'm not exactly sure how to translate Aharon ben Yosef, but directly addresses this, saying "uminhag hamutna lihyot mimin hatenai, al kein einenu nachon lihyot 'beamav' kelal Yisrael." I think he is saying roughly the same thing.

There is also the fact that elsewhere, on a peshat level, as Shadal notes, "Am" for a kohen means the "tribe of *Kohanim*." Namely, when a kohen marries, he may marry a kohenet. This is what he attributed to Rashbam, so see that Rashbam. But see also this post on parshablog on the parsha and haftara of Emor, that this is how Yechezkel the prophet interpreted the pesukim in Emor -- that "meAmav" refers to the tribe of kohanim, as opposed to the general Israelite, and this is the cause of the halachot listed in the haftara.

Kol Tuv,


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