Grave Concerns

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

True events and several recent passages in Nazir inspire the following story. Boruch Cohen and Shimon Levi board a plane together somewhere in the United States. They discover their seats are next to each other with a third traveler occupying the remaining seat in the row. Boruch to the third traveler: Hi! So nice to meet you. I’m Boruch Cohen. Third traveler: Hi! I’m Steve Fygoda. I’m sorry if my knapsack took up all the space in the overhead bin. I’m a skydiving instructor and that’s my parachute. Boruch to Steve: Wow! That’s really neat. I don’t think I’ll ever go skydiving in my entire life. Steve: Don’t dismiss the idea. You may actually do it one day. One never knows when one may have to jump out of a plane. (Steve chuckles to himself.) The plane takes off and Boruch and Shimon strike up a conversation. Shimon: Are you a real Cohen or is that a convenient last name? Boruch: Real Cohen here! Shimon: That’s interesting. I’ve always wondered how Kohanim take commercial flights. Aren’t you worried you might fly over a cemetery? Kohanim aren’t allowed to become tamei meis and jump over a grave because of tumas ohel. The tumah projects from the grave upwards even if no contact is made. Boruch: Well, since the plane flies really fast over the cemetery, the tumah won’t be able to catch me! Shimon: Yes, someone did actually suggest that theory, but it was virtually rejected by all poskim. Boruch: Well, according to the Ravaad, Kohanim may become tamei meis nowadays since we are all already tamei meis. Shimon: Yes, the Ravaad may hold that way. But we don’t follow his opinion. Moreover, some say the Ravaad did not actually mean that a Kohen may initially defile himself, just that if he did, he would not be subject to punishment when a Jewish court system was active. Boruch: Well, I don’t have to worry about a goyish cemetery. A goyish meis doesn’t transmit tumah. Shimon: That is mostly a myth. Goyim do transmit tumah, but only via direct contact or by carrying even indirectly. Boruch: Why do you say mostly? Shimon: There is the lone opinion of the Yireim that, in fact, a goyish meis does not transmit tumah at all. Nevertheless, at least according to the Shulchan Aruch, you are correct about not being concerned about a non-Jewish cemetery.

The Shulchan Aruch rules that non-Jews do not transmit tumah via ohel. Therefore, a kohein may travel above a non-Jewish grave. Still, the Rema rules that a Kohen should preferably be machmir that goyim do transmit tumah via ohel, therefore a Kohen should not be in the same room/ structure as a non-Jewish meis. Likewise, a Kohen would not be allowed to jump over a non-Jewish grave. Boruch: At least I’m okay according to the Shulchan Aruch. Shimon: Still, maybe this flight will fly over a Jewish cemetery? Boruch: What are the odds of that? In Torah law, we follow the majority. The majority of the land below is not cemeteries, and certainly not Jewish cemeteries. Shimon: That is a persuasive argument but not conclusive. Some suggest that we only follow the majority when what is being discussed is not in its permanent place. We can discuss a piece of meat found outside many butcher shops. But the Jewish graves are permanently in their place and can’t be ignored using the concept of rov/majority. This is the concept of kavua, which if applicable would tell us to treat this question as a 50-50 safek. But this topic is really beyond the scope of this conversation. Boruch: Well, fortunately, I recently learned the daf. I know that I am protected from tumah of a grave because this plane is itself an ohel and is similar to the large box discussed in the Gemara that protects a person from the tumah beneath it. Therefore, even if we fly over a grave, I will not be violating any halacha. Shimon: I’m surprised at you! You say that you learned the daf and yet you don’t realize the potential fallacy of your argument.

The Gemara says that there is a machlokes whether or not a moving box/ ohel can protect a person from tumah. The plane is moving, and according to Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi it cannot shield a person from a grave below. This is similar to a box being carried by an animal that may not protect the person inside it from tumah below. Boruch: I recalled that, but I wasn’t sure whose opinion we follow. Delving into the Daf Grave Concerns By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow Moreover, as with all prohibitions (even rabbinic ones), one must use any money he has to save himself from violating one! Shimon: The Rambam and most Rishonim are of the opinion that a moving ohel/box cannot protect a person from a grave below it. Boruch: Yet you admit that some Rishonim disagree. The Rashba, perhaps? Moreover, I distinctly recall an opinion that a moving box is only not a valid separation according to Rabbinic law. According to Torah law, it is. So therefore, I would argue that the plane is its own ohel and protects me from any grave.

Even if one disagrees because it’s moving, the problem is only rabbinic. Lastly, at best, it’s a doubt if the plane will travel over a grave, and therefore we can say safek d’rabbanan l’kula! This logic can be combined with the Ravaad mentioned earlier that we are all tamei meis and not enjoined from becoming tamei. (And I’ll throw in Safek Tumah Brishus HaRabbim but that is beyond the scope of this conversation…) Shimon: Your argument is very convincing. However, one could argue that your whole premise is based on a mistake. The Gemara was referring to a box made out of wood which can protect the occupant from tumah. The plane is made out of metal. Not only does the plane not protect the occupant, but it itself contracts tumah and becomes a source of tumah! Boruch: Yes, but this plane is not made of iron. It is made out of aluminum. I learned in the Igros Moshe that non-disposable utensils made out of aluminum only require tevilah rabbinically. That is because the Torah doesn’t mention aluminum as one of the metals that require tevilah. Likewise, one can argue that aluminum is not a metal capable of contracting tumah because it is not on the list of metals in the Torah! Shimon: Indeed, there are mainstream poskim that feel that way. But in a different letter, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, left this issue undecided as it relates to tumah. Moreover, while we are having this discussion, I researched the airport where this plane is landing.

This plane will most certainly fly over a Jewish cemetery because there is one very close to the runway we will be using. Boruch: Wow! In that case, I need to call my Rav, HaRav Dovid Feinstein [this conversation took place while Rav Dovid, zt”l, was alive] for a psak. Boruch uses his credit card to pay for a call on the plane. He reaches his Rav. Shimon: Nu, what did Rav Dovid pasken? Boruch: Rav Dovid ruled that it is forbidden for a Kohen to knowingly fly over a Jewish cemetery. Moreover, as with all prohibitions (even rabbinic ones), one must use any money he has to save himself from violating one! (This was his real psak.) At that point, Boruch turns to the skydiving instructor and asks him if he can quickly teach him how to jump out of a plane. The instructor agrees but says it will cost $10,000 including the use of the parachute. As per the psak of his rebbe, Boruch pays the man $10,000! Boruch asks the instructor, “Is there any danger to human life involved in this jump?” The instructor answers in the negative and opines that Israeli children jump out of planes by the time they are six! Then, Boruch jumps out of the plane. On his way down, he notices that “787 Dreamliner” is emblazoned on the side of the plane. Boruch yells to Shimon who is still on the plane, “Wait! This plane is made mostly out of carbon fiber and not aluminum! It’s basically not made out of metal! Even Rav Dovid could agree that this plane protects a person, at least according to the Rashba!” Shimon: Oh, good point. Sorry, I didn’t think of that. Don’t worry, I’ll tell your family why you aren’t on the flight. Enjoy your trip!

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@

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