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January 23, 2017 / 25 Tevet, 5777
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My Machberes

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Leonard Bernstein gravesite, Green-Wood Cemetery.

Kohanim ‘Do Not Fly’ Determination

Leading rabbinical authorities in Israel have issued a proclamation prohibiting kohanim from being on planes ascending from or landing at Ben Gurion Airport from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. The pronouncement is the result of the rerouting of jumbo jets leaving and arriving at that time. Those flights are routed over the cemetery of Cholon. The ruling was issued by Rabbi Nisan Karelitz of Bnei Brak; Rabbi Moshe Bransdorfer, rav of Heichal HaTorah and Badatz Dayan in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein, member dayan of Beis Din Shevet Levi.

The cemetery in Cholon has been problematic for more than ten years. Kohen protection groups have an ongoing open dialogue with Ben Gurion Airport and similar problems have been resolved in the past. In addition, halachic solutions have been contemplated, including issuing plastic body bags to kohanim that would separate them from their immediate environment. The bags have been determined to be impractical.

Protecting Kohanim

It is told of the Vilna Gaon, himself a firstborn son, that he gave five silver coins to every kohen he met, hopeful that one of them would indeed be a genuine kohen, to ensure that he would be redeemed under the rules of pidyan haben as proscribed in the Shulchan Aruch. In January 1999, the Jewish media reported widely on scientific findings identifying consistent patterns in the DNA of kohanim worldwide, distinguishing them from other Jews. Science now supports the longstanding assumption that today’s kohanim are in fact decedents of Aharon HaKohen, proof that the privileges granted and responsibilities assigned to today’s kohanim are not misplaced.

Jewish monument, Green-Wood Cemetery.

However, kohanim also have special restrictions. They cannot participate fully in funerals, nor can they marry divorced women. As a single male kohen gets older, his pool of potential marriage partners is greatly reduced. Further, if he divorces his own wife, Heaven forbid, he cannot remarry her.

A group of prominent rabbis, many of them kohanim, convened in October 2001 and established Vaad Mishmeres Kehuna, an organization whose express purpose is dealing with contemporary problems confronting kohanim. Since the mitzvah of maintaining and honoring the holiness of kohanim is biblical and obligatory upon every Jew, it is of interest to us all.

Notable among the participants were the venerable kohanim Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt”l (1913-2001), Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; and Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l (1909-2001), Rosh Yeshiva Bais Yisroel. Also participating ybch”l were the brothers Rabbi Usher Anshel Katz, Viener Rav; Rabbi Chaim Leib Katz, Serdehaly Rav; and Rabbi Shlomo Zalmen Katz, Toldos Aharon Rav of Williamsburg. Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, Karlsburger Rav and prominent posek, was also present.

The prohibition of kohanim coming into contact with cadavers, or human body parts, extends to cemeteries, funeral homes and hospitals. Airplanes carrying cadavers to be buried overseas also pose great problems for traveling kohanim. In the New York City area, several highways adjoin or travel through cemeteries. Overhanging trees may possibly prohibit kohanim from using these streets and highways. The Boro Park-Williamsburg route is adjacent to the Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the most prestigious cemeteries in the United States. In addition to famous governors, generals, authors, and politicians, Jews too are buried there, requiring serious attention to the permissibility of Kohanim using McDonald Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, the main artery of Boro Park-Williamsburg travel.

Leonard Bernstein gravesite, Green-Wood Cemetery.

Encompassing 478 pastoral acres, more than 600,000 gravesites are presently found in Green-Wood. Recently, two plots were being made available by private parties in its Jewish Section. In fact, the cemetery is non-sectarian. The noted composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is buried in Green-Wood.

Driving up 20th Street along Greenwood Cemetery, approximately 100 feet from 7th Avenue toward 8th Avenue, one can easily see a monument gravestone that has a Star of David and Hebrew lettering spelling out the name of the deceased, the name of his father. Joseph (Yosef ben Shmuel) Bausch was 47 years old when he died on June 13, 1942 (28 Sivan, 5702), and he was buried in lot no. 31394 on Border Avenue within Green-Wood Cemetery, corresponding to the opposite side of 400 20th Street, which houses a car wash. Several trees have branches overhanging both the street and the gravesite, definitely precluding ordinary travel there by kohanim. The entire perimeter of the 478-acre cemetery poses the potential of the same problem.

The Vaad Mishmeres Kehuna has worked with the cemetery to have those tree branches, and similar problematic branches along McDonald Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, busy thoroughfares used by Jewish commuters, cut in such ways to avoid problems for kohanim.

Flights Over Cemeteries

In October 2001, the problem of flight patterns of planes leaving Ben Gurion Airport and flying over the cemetery in Cholon came to public attention. Previously, since maps of those flight patterns were generally unavailable to the public, a definite determination could not have been made. Those maps became available around that time and were presented to leading rabbis for review.

On Chol Hamoed Sukkos 2001, Rabbi Mayer Bransdorfer, zt”l, a member dayan of the Jerusalem Badatz and author of Knei Bosem, after careful and deliberate analysis issued a ruling prohibiting kohanim from departing or landing at Lod on regularly scheduled commercial flights. Announcements were made in Jerusalem shtiebels of the ban, advising kohanim visiting from abroad to sail to Cyprus, a six-hour trip, and board homebound flights there.

The ruling was quickly followed by the proscription of Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, (zt”l 1925-2003), Jerusalem Badatz Rosh Beis Din. Many kohanim sailed to Cyprus in accordance with the rabbinic determinations. Others sought to introduce the use of body bags by kohanim to hermetically separate themselves from contamination during the over-flights. El Al, among other airlines, forbade use of body bags for fear of suffocation, even if they were perforated in halachically accepted areas. Since then, flight patterns of most commercial flights to and from Israel have been changed by as little as one third of a mile to avert cemetery over-flights.

Major Development in Meron

In Meron, most roads were found to be paved-over gravesites. A method was desperately sought that would get kohanim up to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and keep them from contaminating themselves through trespassing over a grave. Concerned rabbis decided a permissible method of access must be made available. They therefore proposed a path that would be made upon archways on top of archways (kipin al gabei chipin – Mishnayos Parah 3:6 and Rambam Hilchos Beis Habechirah 5:1). This construction effectively intervenes and neutralizes the contamination of any graves that may be found underneath.

In order to understand this concept, we should bear in mind that a building that contains a corpse, or a structure that is built on property that includes a grave, is contaminated by the corpse or the grave within the building. The contamination does not “exit” the building; however, if a wall is built directly upon a grave, its contamination is continued up through the wall above and beyond. Therefore, if archways, each with a minimum height of a tefach (4 inches), are erected upon archways, with the top archways built upon the summits of two archways underneath, then the contamination of a wall built directly upon a grave is encased and limited by the archway immediately above it.

Kohanim are permitted to walk on archways built upon archways even if graves are known to be underneath. Such construction was used to build the Beis HaMikdash as well as bridges leading to the Temple Mount.

Lucena: Reburial in Ancient Jewish Cemetery

Following intense negotiations by the American organization Admas Kodesh and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) with the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain (FCJE), in collaboration with local government authorities, the remains of more than 170 graves of kedoshim which were unfortunately exhumed during work on the nearby site in Lucena, Spain, were reburied on Sunday, December 18.

Reburial in Lucena

The reburial was carried out by members of the Chevra Kadisha of Madrid, in co-operation with Admas Kodesh and a team of experts from the London based CPJCE, with full halachic guidance of the Rabbinical Board of the CPJCE, headed by Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, dean of Yeshiva Horomo and universally respected halachic authority. The ceremony and special prayers were led by Rabbi Moshe Ben Dahan, chief rabbi of Madrid; Rabbi Meir Zwiebel of Admas Kodesh; and Rabbi Moshe Hershaft of the CPJCE.

Gershon Schlesinger, executive board chairman of UJCare of Williamsburg, expressed his deep gratitude and thanks to the administrative team of the FCJE for their invaluable assistance and active help in resolving this challenge as quickly as possible. He also added that this once again demonstrated the remarkable success of diplomacy and considerate dialogue between all parties concerned.

In light of the successful resolution, UJcare is intensifying its negotiations with the Spanish government and regional authorities, together with the FCJE, to accelerate legislation that would protect Jewish cemeteries in Spain.

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

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  1. Yishar Koach on a very nice article. It was brought to my attention by several people who pointed out that the information about current flights is erroneous – all night flights go over the cemetery (from 20 minutes before sunset until 20 minutes before sunrise) except the outgoing flights between 1-2 AM which do not fly over the cemetery. Outgoing flights actually take off roughly 20-30 minutes after time schedule on ticket.

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