Can a Kohain Visit a Science Museum

Kashrus Kurrents Summer 2011

Q: Can a Kohain enter the Maryland Science Center, located in downtown Baltimore?

A: A male Kohain is not allowed to be in a location which would render him tamei meis.1 If a Kohain completely disregards the halachos regarding tumas meis, he no longer receives the first aliyah to the Torah and may not duchen.2  A person becomes tamei meis by touching or moving a meis (corpse), by being located directly above or under a meis, or by being under the same ohel (covered area) as a meis.3  A Kohain‘s wife may enter an ohel containing a meis, even if she is pregnant.4
A meis is usually placed in a casket or other container.  Even if the container completely encloses the meis, a Kohein cannot be under the same ohel as the container if any of the following conditions are met: (i) There is less than a tefach (approximately 10 cm) of airspace between the top of the meis and the roof of the container,5 (ii) the container is mekabel tumah,6 or (iii) the meis is going to permanently remain in that casket.7 However, if the container is not mekabel tumah, and there is more than a tefach of airspace between its roof and the meis, and the meis is not going to permanently remain there, then the tumah will not spread beyond the container.
Most buildings consist of a number of rooms which are under one common ohelTumas ohel will spread from one room to the next if there is an opening of at least one square tefach between the rooms.8  A closed door will prevent tumah from spreading from one room to the next, if there is no hole or gap of one square tefach.9  Although metal hinges generally are mekabel tumah, door hinges which are made to be attached to a building are not mekabel tumah.10 However, museums generally do not have closed doors between the rooms, so that there is no barrier to stop tumah from spreading throughout the building.
The halachos of tumas ohel apply if the following parts of a meis are present:  A kezayis (approximately 1 oz) of flesh, even if the flesh has dried out;11 a quarter kav (a little more than 10 oz) of bones;12 the majority of a skeleton;13 a complete spinal column with the vertebrae;14 a complete skull;15 a reviis (approximately 3 oz) of blood which was removed after misah.16  The halachos also apply to a Kohain who is under the same ohel as a limb, whether from a meis or severed from a live person, if the limb is complete with bones, tendons and flesh.17
The halachos of tumas ohel apply to any Jewish meis, even that of a mummar (apostate).18  There are different opinions as to whether or not these halachos apply to a non-Jewish meis.  The Rambam paskens that the halachos of tumas ohel do not apply,19 whereas Tosafos paskens that they do20  Although the majority of Rishonim concur with the Rambam,21 the Shulchan Aruch states that it is proper for a Kohain to avoid this.22  The Rema and other poskim concur that a Kohain should be stringent.23
It is quite common for a museum to display parts of a meis to which the halachos of tumas ohel apply.  This is especially true regarding museums that cover areas of natural history, anthropology, zoology, Egyptology, or those that have exhibits on the human body.24  Tumah from this item will spread throughout the ohel, unless all of the following are true: (i) The item is fully enclosed in a display case which has no opening the size of a tefach; (ii) There is more than a tefach between the item and the top of the display case; (iii) No component of the display case is able to be mekabel tumah;25 and (iv) The museum does not plan to leave the item in the display case permanently.26  As it is difficult to ensure that all these conditions are met, a Kohain should avoid entering a museum which contains any item which could act as a source of tumas meis.
Even if it has been ascertained that a particular museum does not display any such item, there is still the possibility that a Kohain may be precluded from entering the museum. This is because many museums have on-site storage and research areas, which contain thousands of items that are not on display and are not in display cases.  If any of these items is a source of tumas meis, the tumah will spread from the storage area to the display area of the museum if they are under the same ohel and there is an open door or window between them.  Rabbi Heinemann, shlit”a, feels that a curator who has knowledge of all the items in the museum collection can be believed if he states that there are no human remains present.27  However, not all curators are knowledgeable regarding all the items in the collection, and the operators at the museum answering the phone are typically not fully knowledgeable of all the items in the collection.28

The Maryland Science Center does have human body parts on display. On the second floor of the building there is an exhibit entitled “Cells: The Universe Inside Us”, in which various body parts such as lungs and bones are displayed, in order to explain the inner workings of the cells in the human body.  This was confirmed by Ms. Brenda Lewis, the Director of Exhibits at the Maryland Science Center, who informed me that there are “actual body parts on display including lungs, a plastinated brain, and a bone displaying the affects of osteoporosis”.  For this reason, a Kohain should not visit this museum.


דע שרוב החומר ומראה מקומות לקוחים מספר ‘מדרכי הכהנים’ לר’ מרדכי שמחה מלנצ’יק שליט”א, שביאר כל ענין זה בטוב טעם ודעת.  כל הציונים לרמב”ם סתם הם להל’ טומאת מת, וכל הציונים לשו”ע ונו”כ סתם הם לחלק יורה דעה.

1.שו”ע סי’ שסט סעי’ א וסי’ שעג סעי’ ב 

2.שו”ע או”ח סי’ קכח סעי’ מא ומ”ב שם ס”ק קנ וביה”ל שם 

3.עי’ ברמב”ם פ”א 

4. ש”ך סי’ שעא ס”ק א ומ”ב סי’ שמג ס”ק ג

5.  רמב”ם פ”ז הל’ ה 

6.רמ”א סי’ שעא סעי’ א 

7.רמב”ם פ”ב הל’ טו ופ”ז הל’ א, ועי’ ט”ז סי’ שעב ס”ק א 

8.שו”ע סי’ שעא סעי’ א, ועי’ ש”ך סי’ שעב ס”ק ב ומגן אברהם או”ח סי’ שיא ס”ק יד 

9.עי’ ט”ז סי’ שעא ס”ק א וש”ך שם ס”ק ב  

10.הט”ז שם ס”ק ג כתב שאף זה מקבל טומאה, אבל הש”ך בנקודות הכסף חולק, וכן פסקו הנו”ב הובא בפת”ש שם ס”ק ט והחזו”א אהלות סי’ ג ס”ק יג 

11.רמב”ם פ”ב הל’ א 

12.רמב”ם שם הל’ ט 

13.בין רוב מנין בין רוב בנין 

14.רמב”ם שם הל’ ח 

15.רמב”ם שם, ועי’ במנחת חינוך מצוה רסג ס”ק ט 

16.רמב”ם שם הל’ יב 

17.רמב”ם שם הל’ ג-ד 

18.רמ”א סי’ שעב סעי’ ב 

19.רמב”ם פ”א הל’ יב-יג 

20.תוספות יבמות דף סא ע”א ד”ה ממגע

21.עי’ שו”ת אבני נזר יו”ד סי’ תסו ס”ק טז 

22.השו”ע סי’ שעב סעי’ ב כתב “נכון ליזהר” 

23.הרמ”א שם כתב “נכון להחמיר”, ובשו”ת ושב הכהן סי’ עה הובא בפ”ת שם ס”ק ו כתב שמדינא יש לפסוק כתוס’, אולם בשו”ת אגרות משה יו”ד ח”א סי’ רל ענף ג וח”ב סי’ קסו כתב שמעיקר הדין ההלכה כדעת המקילים אלא שיש להחמיר כמש”כ המחבר ורמ”א 

24.מדרכי הכהנים עמ’ 65 הערה 265 

25.עי’ שם עמ’ 69 הערה 276 

26.עי’ שו”ת מהרש”ם ח”א סי’ רטו 

27.שמעתי ממו”ר ר’ היינעמאן שליט”א