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In Leviticus 21:1-3 (NASB)

1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his people, 2 except for his relatives who are nearest to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother, 3 also for his virgin sister who is near to him because she has not had a husband; for her, he may defile himself.

Does this mean a priest can bury his wife?

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Leviticus 21:1-3 specifically prohibits a priest from burying a wife, may heaven forbid he should have such a need.

The structure makes this clear:

  1. A generalized prohibition (people)
  2. a specific exception (his survivors)
  3. a limitation on the exception to a specific list

The operative terms here are a) שארו, his survivors, the same term as is used in the laws of inheritance, property redemption and blood revenge, and b) הקרוב, they that are near to him, to exclude more remote blood relatives such as uncles and aunts, as made clear in the specific list.

Here, as in the laws of inheritance and revenge, a wife is not included. Presumably because she is not a blood relation to her husband and her bond to her husband can be broken by her husband and she has (presumably) "her fathers house", her own family from which she came, and who presumably bear the obligation to bury her should the need arise.

Note the cases of Tamar, who returns to her fathers house in her widowhood with no inheritance, Ruth and Orpah. The exceptional case is Ruth, who voluntarily leaves her father's house to stick with Naomi, despite the fact that she has no legal status as an heir (though she later reaps a spiritual inheritance, the house of David).

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  • «Presumably because she is not a blood relation to her husband», could that they became "one"? (Genesis 2:24) Feb 11 at 18:37
  • @TiagoMartinsPeres李大仁 Genesis 2:24 is not a statement of legal status and is not part of the legal code of Moses. It would be hard to interpret and implement as a legal statement. The verse in question is preceded by "And the LORD said to Moses", which means that it has the status of a part of the legal code of Moses.
    – user17080
    Feb 12 at 10:17
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The answer is Yes. | Unless the wife was a divorcee, then No because the marriage would have violated Leviticus 21:7 (based on Yevamot 22b).**

In the Talmud, we read Yevamot 22b verse 3: פשיטא אחיו הוא סד"א הואיל וכתיב (ויקרא כא, ב) כי אם לשארו הקרוב אליו ואמר מר שארו זו אשתו וכתיב (ויקרא כא, ד) לא יטמא בעל בעמיו להחלו יש בעל שמטמא ויש בעל שאין מטמא הא כיצד מטמא הוא לאשתו כשרה ואין מטמא לאשתו פסולה

Since it is written with regard to priests: “None shall defile himself for the dead among his people except for his kin, that is near unto him” (Leviticus 21:1–2), and the Master said “his kin”; this is his wife, and a priest may defile himself for his wife. But it is written: “He shall not defile himself, being a husband among his people, to profane himself” (Leviticus 21:4), implying that he may not defile himself for his wife. This apparent contradiction is resolved as follows: There is a husband who does become impure for his wife, and there is a husband who does not become impure. How so? He becomes impure for his wife if she was fit and was permitted to a priest, but he does not become impure for his wife if she was unfit to marry a priest."

[ https://www.sefaria.org/Yevamot.22b?lang=bi ]

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    This is an answer from the Talmud, not from the text. The rabbis of the Talmud considered themselves free to mix and match verses (דרש) to get to the result that suited their outlook, as in this quote from יבמות. In fact, from the text itself there is no basis for this rabbinic decision.
    – user17080
    Feb 11 at 12:47
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It does appear to me that the clearest interpretation of the text is that indeed, he can't bury his wife. It can be argued, as in the commentary Tony Chan quotes, that the "kin who is near unto him" covers this case and perhaps others, further removed. However, to me it does not seem the natural interpretation. The "near kin" appears as the rule, which then covers these specific cases. If it had been the reverse, specifying the cases and then saying "and to his near kin", the text would indeed mean that other cases are also covered. But this is not the case. It does not make sense to me that a rule that covers more distant relatives such as grandmothers or nieces would be stated, and then the application to the closest relatives would still need to be specified.

We could make sense of such prohibition if we keep in mind that, unlike the parents/brother/sister/children of the priest, the wife is not "of his flesh". She is not necessarily a priest's daughter herself; to be honest, one issue with my interpretation is that it leaves a priest's daughter who's also married to a priest with no one to bury her, if her father already passed away. But at any rate, if we assume that the priest is only allowed to defile himself for others of the same priestly family who are entitled to eat the same holy offerings (which the wife, if divorced, would not be entitled anymore; perhaps death is considered to cause the same disassociation from the priesthood) we can understand the prohibition.

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