It is well-known that even today, when we do not have a
The whole concept of ‘death defilement’ is alien to us. It is clear from even the earliest sources that it is to be considered some sort of transmission: there is no suggestion that the corpse actually physically contaminates someone in proximity to it. There are many discussions, some highly esoteric, as to the meaning of this body of laws. Of the modern authors, Rav Hirsch’s explanation is most well-known, but we will look at the reasons provided by two prominent earlier expositors – the Keli Yakar and the Ohr HaChaim.
The reason for the prohibition of impurity is because of the spirit of impurity that remains stuck to the human body. Therefore the verse says, ‘he shall not defile himself to any soul’ and it does not say ‘in the soul’. The soul is intrinsically pure and it has no element of impurity, yet the soul is the cause of impurity. For in every other life-form which does not have the intelligent soul, rather the animating soul, their death comes about simply by the dispersion of the four elements and the Angel of Death has no contact with them at all. Therefore, they have no serious impurity at all. (Keli Yakar VaYikra 21)
The Keli Yakar seems to understand that impurity of the body following death is a consequence of the purity of the soul that has left the body: a kind of testimony to the fact that spirituality once occupied this space. Recognising and sensing its significance is the purpose of the laws of impurity.
The difference between the Jewish people and the other nations was achieved through accepting the Torah, for without this, the House of Yisrael would be like the other nations.... Once they accepted the Torah, the Jewish people became an entity to which the low spirits like to stick. Since they have some element of holiness in their lifetime, so too in their death. In their lifetimes - for should they touch a corpse, adumbrate over it, or similar, the impurity of the corpse sticks to them and does not wish to depart without the great effort which the Torah prescribes: the mitzvah of the red cow. In their deaths - the impurity also is great…
I have already explained this in a parable. It is compared to two vessels owned by a householder - one full of honey and one full of waste. He empties them and removes them from the room. The one which contained the honey attracts a swarm of flies and insects; the one which contained the waste, although it attracts a few insects, it is not comparable to the honey. So too, when a Jew dies, since he was filled with sweet and beautiful holiness, when the soul departs and the body is emptied out, the unholy husks, which are the forces of impurity, gather without end. They always wish to stick to something holy to enjoy its sweetness. (Ohr HaChaim to BeMidbar 19:2)
Here, the Ohr HaChaim elaborates on the theme of the Keli Yakar and suggests that the nature of the Jewish soul, which is designed to attract holiness, is such that its absence attracts spiritual negativity.
We do not relate to these ideas very easily, but they formalise something that we feel quite profoundly already: the departure of a holy soul leaves a void in all sorts of ways. Apart from the absence of his or her presence, and the distress to the family, it seems that a spiritual vacuum is created by a person’s death, one that the Torah wishes us to feel in a real way.