Even Sinners Deserve Compassion

Vayanicheihu b’mishmar lifrosh lahem al pi Hashem (Vayikra 24:12)

Parashas Emor concludes with a tragic episode in which a man cursed and blasphemed Hashem. Initially, Moshe did not know the appropriate punishment for this sin, so the blasphemer was placed in jail while they awaited clarification from Hashem. Rashi explains that even though this incident occurred in the same period as the episode of the wood-gatherer (Bamidbar 15:32-36), the blasphemer was not placed in a jail cell together with him, but rather was incarcerated by himself. Why indeed were they not placed together?

In his sefer Ikvei Erev, Harav Azriel Lankeh explains that Rashi writes that at that time it was still unknown whether the blasphemer was liable for the death penalty altogether. In contrast, they already knew that the man who gathered wood on Shabbos was going to be put to death (Shemos 31:14), and Moshe was merely waiting for Hashem to tell him which form of execution to use.

Had they placed the blasphemer in the same cell as the wood-gatherer, it would have been tantamount to putting him on “death row” prematurely, which would cause him needless anguish and anxiety. Until Hashem informed Moshe that the blasphemer was indeed to be put to death, it would have been cruel to treat him like someone whose death sentence had already been determined, and therefore he was confined separately.

Harav Yissocher Frand adds that the sensitivity displayed by the Torah is astonishing when we realize that the person in question was not an upstanding member of society, or even a run-of-the-mill sinner, but rather a person who committed the reprehensible sin of cursing Hashem’s name. In contrast to other sins that are motivated by momentary desires, this action gave the perpetrator no personal pleasure or benefit, and represented a premeditated rebellion against Hashem.

Were we in charge of deciding the fate of such an evil person, we might be inclined to show him no mercy or compassion, placing him in jail with no concern for his emotional state. However, Moshe understood that, ultimately, the blasphemer was still a Jew and, as such, had to be treated with sensitivity. Because his punishment was not yet known, it was forbidden to cause him unnecessary suffering by treating him in a manner that could lead him to conclude that he had already been condemned to death, when that was not the case. If the Torah shows so much concern for the psychological welfare of a person who blasphemed Hashem, how much more so must we be considerate and understanding of the feelings of every Jew with whom we interact.

Q: Rashi writes (21:1) that although a Kohen is prohibited from having contact with the dead, he is required to have contact with the body of a meis mitzvah — a deceased Jew who has no one to bury him. If there are non-Jews available to perform the burial, is it still considered a meis mitzvah?

A: In his commentary on Toras Kohanim, the Chofetz Chaim writes that a Kohen may not become impure through contact with a dead body whenever a Jew is available to arrange and perform the burial. This seems to imply that even if there were non-Jews present to take care of the burial, it would nonetheless be considered a meis mitzvah and a Kohen would be obligated to perform the burial even though he becomes impure in the process.

However, Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l, notes that the Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 526:1-2) that if a Jew dies on the first day of Yom Tov, he must be buried on that day by non-Jews, and it is forbidden to wait until the next day so that Jews can bury him in a more honorable manner.

If it is permissible for non-Jews to bury a Jew on Yom Tov, they should also be allowed to do so to prevent a Kohen from becoming impure through contact with the body. Therefore, he suggests that the Chofetz Chaim is referring to the reality that non-Jews will generally be unwilling to bury the dead body, in which case it is in fact considered a meis mitzvah who must be buried by the Kohen. But if the non-Jews are willing to perform the burial, it is forbidden for the Kohen to be involved.

Q: The Torah commands us (21:8) to sanctify Kohanim and to treat them respectfully, giving them precedence in all spiritual matters. If a Kohen and a Yisrael have the same level of obligation to daven as the shaliach tzibbur, is there a mitzvah to give precedence to the Kohen?

A: The Pri Megadim rules that a Kohen has precedence to serve as shaliach tzibbur over a Levi and a Levi over a Yisrael, although a Torah scholar has precedence over all other categories. However, the Chelkas Yaakov disagrees and argues that all of those obligated to lead the prayers or say Kaddish are legally considered partners in the mitzvah, and the Magen Avraham writes that there is no obligation for the other partners to give precedence to one who is a Kohen.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.