In our last two editions of S.A.L.T., we noted the contemporary halakhic question of whether kohanim may visit Me’arat Ha-makhpeila, the site traditionally considered the burial place of Avraham, Sara, Yitzchak, Rivka, Yaakov and Leah. It is believed that the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried beneath the structure which stands today, and it is questionable if, or when, there is an opening from the presumed site of the graves to the contemporary structure through which the tum’a could rise. The question thus becomes whether kohanim, who are forbidden from exposing themselves to tum’at meit (the status of impurity transmitted from a human corpse), may visit this site.
One might, at first glance, apply here the well-established halakhic principle of “safeik tum’a bi-rshut ha-rabim tahor” – if somebody may have come in contact with tum’a, but is uncertain whether this indeed occurred, then he may assume he is tahor if this took place in a public area. There is a unique halakha (derived from a Biblical verse) which requires certainty when it comes to the transmission of tum’a in public areas. Therefore, a public place which might possibly have tum’a may be presumed tahor. Seemingly, then, we should perhaps permit kohanim to visit the site of Me’arat Ha-makhpeila, as it is a public area whose status of impurity is uncertain.
Rav Asher Weiss, in an essay on this subject, notes that this argument is flawed. The Minchat Chinukh (263) raises the question of whether kohanim are permitted to go to a public place of safeik tum’a – where tum’a may be present. The fact that one who goes to such a place is presumed tahor does not necessarily mean that kohanim are permitted to go there. The rule of “safeik tum’a bi-rshut ha-rabim tahor” might apply only after the fact, to a person who went to such a place, and does not necessarily dictate that such a place is considered tahor such that kohanim are permitted there. Indeed, Rav Weiss cites several Acharonim who ruled that kohanim may not go to a place of safeik tum’a. These include Rav Chanoch Eigis (Marcheshet 1:2), Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzynsky (Achiezer 3:65), and, more recently, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shelomo 2:96:21) and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot, 1:100).
In fact, Rav Weiss adds, the Rambam, in Hilkhot She’ar Avot Ha-tum’a (15:9) and his commentary to the Mishna (Eiduyot 8:4), writes that one who passes through a place of safeik tum’a should nevertheless immerse to ensure his state of purity. Although he is considered tahor even without immersion, it is nevertheless preferable for him to immerse given the possibility that he contracted tum’a. It certainly stands to reason that if a person must immerse after being present in a place of safeik tum’a, then a kohen should not go to such a place. Even though being present at such a site does not render one tamei after the fact, we would not permit a kohen from the outset to go there. As such, the factor of “safeik tum’a bi-rshut ha-rabim” is not relevant to our discussion.