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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Kohen Marriages

I am a Reform Jew and am now looking to get married. I went to a few Jewish dating sites, and I saw some profiles which say "permitted to a Kohen." I am a Kohen, and therefore this caught my attention. What exactly are they talking about?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

A Kohen is not allowed to marry a divorcee, a convert, or someone classified as a "zonah." (see Leviticus 21:14; Talmud – Kiddushin 78a; Maimonides – Forbidden Relations 18:3)

A "zonah" is defined as a woman who had intimate relations with a man whom she was forbidden to marry according to Jewish law – e.g. adultery, incest, or relations with a non-Jew.

A Kohen is forbidden to marry these women, not because she is a bad person, but because there is metaphysical reality that is created which prevents a Kohen from being able to create the proper bond. Consider that H2O is water, and H2O2 is Hydrogen Peroxide. The difference may seem negligible, but is actually the difference is between life and death.

This is a very serious issue, and if a Kohen goes ahead and marries someone that he is not allowed to be married to, he is transgressing a Torah commandment every minute he remains married to her.

On a practical level, the kohanim, who are charged with being the spiritual leaders and role models for all of Jewry, must preserve a more scrutinizing level of holiness. The fact that a particular Kohen today may not see himself in such a lofty role does not diminish his obligation to live up to that.

There is another issue, however. It is important to check if the "Kohen" is a real "Kohen." How reliable is the Kohanic tradition in the family? Just because someone's last name is "Cohen" does not mean that he necessarily has the status of a Kohen. To be considered a Kohen, one must have an unbroken tradition, as well as other factors too numerous to mention here. (Nevertheless, most people who have the name Cohen also have the status as Kohen.)

Also, it may be that the Kohen is really a "chalal.” If his mother, paternal grandmother, etc., was forbidden to marry a Kohen, in that case the resulting son would be a chalal, not a Kohen – thereby disqualifying the "Kohen" (and his subsequent descendents) from the regular Kohanic rights and obligations.

Bottom line: If you have any questions about your status, or about that of any particular young woman, you need to speak with a reliable authority in Jewish law. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone you could contact.

Stones on Graves

From: WAS: Av 12

At the end of the movie Schindler's List, I saw people placing stones on the top of the headstone. What is the reason for this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

One idea is discussed in the Talmud (Eidiot 5:6): "Elazar Ben Hanoch was excommunicated. When he died, the court laid a stone on his coffin. From here we learn that if any man dies while under excommunication, they put a stone on his coffin." The Talmud (Smachot 5:11) also says: "An excommunicated person who dies is worthy of stoning. But not that they placed a heap of rocks upon him, rather a messenger of the court places a stone upon his coffin – in order to fulfill the mitzvah of stoning."

Rabbi Klonimus, who was buried next to the great Rabbi Ovadia M'Bartenura, asked that stones be placed on his grave, so that if he had committed any transgressions that warranted excommunication, this would atone for it. (Code of Jewish Law Y.D. 334:3)

But I think in today’s time, we follow a second reason for putting a stone a grave. Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi writes in Be'er Heitev, his 18th century commentary on the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 224:8), that the custom of placing stones on the grave is for the honor of the deceased person by marking the fact that his grave had been visited.

In a similar custom, the Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 376:4) says that upon visiting a gravesite, you pull up grass and toss it behind your back. This shows our belief in resurrection: Just as grass that withers can grow again, so will the dead rise in the messianic era. (source: Machzor Vitri 280)

Jephthah Sacrificing Daughter

My Bible class is studying the Book of Judges and we recently covered the story of Jephthah (Judges 11). Jephthah promises to God that if the Amonites would be delivered into his hands, then on his return home he would offer the first thing which emerges from his house as a burnt offering to God. In the end, his only daughter is the first one to come out and greet him. The Torah seems to say that after a 2-month respite, Jephthah fulfills his promise – although some in the class claimed it’s not to be taken literally. What is the meaning of the story?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are right that the story is at first glance shocking. The Torah clearly detests human sacrifice – or murder in virtually any form. Idolatrous practices which involve child sacrifice are especially abominable to God (see e.g. Leviticus 20:1-5 and Jeremiah 19:5). Likewise, one of the most difficult aspects of the binding of Isaac was that Abraham was forced to (almost) act in a way completely antithetical to the ethics and morality he had until then been preaching to the world.

In truth, the commentators to the Book of Judges unanimously explain that Jephthah (or Yiftach) did not literally sacrifice his daughter (Rashi, Radak, Ralbag, Metzudat David, Malbim). In fact, if one promises to transgress any law of the Torah, his promise is not binding (Rashi to Numbers 30:2 quoting Sifri).

(The Talmud (Ta’anit 4a) does quote an opinion that Jephthah did in fact slaughter his daughter. See also Nachmanides to Leviticus 27:29 who, following the Talmud, explains Jephthah’s (erroneous) rationale, feeling that it was within the power a ruler to put to death any subject at will.)

Rather, as the commentators explain, the promise was fulfilled in a different manner. Jephthah promised to offer up whatever emerged from his house to God. For an animal it would have meant sacrifice. For his daughter it meant devoting her life utterly to God. Jephthah’s daughter was thus not allowed to marry, raise a family, and interact normally with others. She had to live a life of isolation, fully devoted to Divine service. This is why the Torah concludes that as a result of his promise she never “knew a man.” The Torah does not state that she was put to death, but that she remained a virgin.

Even so, God was very critical of Jephthah. If a person makes an oath and afterwards finds it is impractical to fulfill due to unforeseen circumstances and the like, he can typically go to a great rabbi or a court and have it annulled. Jephthah’s promise was clearly one he regretted for good reason. Yet he and his daughter went ahead with it anyway.

God through the prophet Jeremiah later railed against Jephthah for not remedying the situation but allowing his daughter to remain single. “Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no doctor there? For why was not the healing of the daughter of My nation forthcoming?” (8:22). Gilead was Jephthah’s region. As the Sages interpret, he was punished for not seeking out “balm” for his oath and bringing about his daughter’s healing. Likewise Phinehas, then the High Priest, was punished for not coming himself to absolve Jephthah of his oath (see Talmud Ta’anit 4a, Bereishit Rabbah 60:3).