Why London’s Science Museum is causing a headache for Cohanim

The explanation behind an unusual planning application


MB0MC4 England, London, South Kensington, Science Museum, The Winton Gallery, Display of 19th century Human Skulls with Phrenological Markings

Her bones are laid out for display in a glass case in the medical section in London’s Science Museum. She died 650 years ago in Denmark and the dark discolouration on the right side of her skull reveals that she suffered from leprosy.

But the presence of her remains and those of others in one of the capital’s leading educational institutions has created an unexpected problem: it is preventing some Cohanim, descendants of the ancient priesthood, from using parts of the London Underground.

Here’s why. According to the Torah, a dead body is a source of teumah, ritual impurity, and priests must not come near a dead body, except in the case of close relatives — a parent, child, brother or unmarried sister: the rabbis added wife. (There is another biblical exception that need not concern us here.)

One of the entrances to South Kensington Tube station is located at the side of the museum. Because it is part of the same building, the teumah that issues from the remains spreads from the museum itself to the Underground lines below — for those who hold to a stricter interpretation of Jewish law.

So a group that endeavours to protect the sanctity of Cohanim, the Va’ad Mishmeres Hakohanim, has proposed a solution: it has applied to erect a symbolic metal arch over the Tube entrance, which would separate it from the museum and therefore block the contaminating teumah.

“The whole Underground line that runs past or connects to that entrance is prohibited for [Cohanim] to use,” a planning application to Kensington and Chelsea council explains.

“By providing an outside archway it breaks up the one-roof phenomenon, and it will allow those deprived from using this great service called the Underground, to be able to use it.”

The application notes that a similar solution was adopted at Homerton Hospital in Hackney, the borough with the largest Chasidic population in London. (On this site, the problem was due to a mortuary.)

The concept of ritual impurity is one of the most mysterious in Torah law. Any Israelite who was made impure by proximity to a corpse has to be purified, as we read in last week’s sidrah, by the sprinkling of an elixir containing the ashes of a red heifer and hyssop.

Otherwise they could not enter the precincts of the Temple. It was the duty of the priests to conduct the purification ceremony.

Nowadays, of course, no such ceremony is possible. But observant priests will be conscious of their sacred role when the Temple is restored and therefore take care to keep their distance from sources of defilement in the meantime.

In many areas of law, different levels of stringency may be adopted. For example, some people will only eat glatt kosher beef or lamb, where others are content with “ordinary” kashrut.

And so it is the case with purity. A priest may contract it in three ways, by touching or carrying a corpse or through ohel, that is being under the same “roof” as a dead body. (The Bible says that a person who enters the tent where a dead body lies becomes impure.)

When it comes to ohel, there are differences among halachists whether this applies to non-Jewish remains as it does to Jewish. But those who follow a stricter position will take extra precautions, hence the proposal made for South Kensington.

The notion of ohel can have some surprising applications. A few years ago the Va’ad arranged for the trimming of trees that grew in the Hoop Lane Cemetery in Golders Green whose branches stretched over the adjacent road.

According to halachah, the overhanging branches formed a canopy over the adjoining road, thus posing difficulties for Cohanim who wanted to drive past.

Some found a similar problem with the road that goes past Lord’s Cricket Ground, where there was an old church graveyard in the park opposite. In this instance, the remains were not Jewish, so some would opt for greater leniency.

One of the most extraordinary instances of Cohanim taking preventative measures against teumah happened around 20 years ago, when a change of airline route out of Israel meant flying over old Jewish cemeteries. Teumah does not have an upper limit, which meant it rose to the sky.

The then head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, who was a Cohen, wrapped himself in a plastic mattress cover to protect himself from ritual impurity. Plastic is considered one of the substances that do not transfer it.

A Federation of Synagogues dayan, Berel Berkovits, queried whether this was necessary, arguing that planes were mainly aluminium, which acted as a barrier against teumah. But Dayan Ehrentreu observed that the hull was mixed with steel, which is liable to impurity.

With no Temple, some of us may think this all rather obscure. But in traditional congregations, Cohanim still play a special role, transmitting the Priestly Blessing from the steps of the ark to the community on festivals.

As agents of blessing, it is understandable why they are enjoined to be mindful of their status and avoid association with the ultimate denial of life — death.

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