The death of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir over the weekend and the government’s decision to have his body lie in state inside the Knesset building presented a religious problem for the country’s kohanim.
Generally, deceased Israeli leaders lie in state in the Knesset’s courtyard, but the summer heat necessitated that Shamir’s body be placed indoors, officials said.
To prevent ritual impurity, the parliament, as well as newspapers and bloggers, advised all kohanim, including lawmakers and employees, to steer clear of the building on Monday, the day the public paid their respects to Shamir, who died Saturday at the age of 96. He was buried that evening. (According to Jewish law, a kohanim cannot be in the same enclosed space as a deceased body.)
While kohanim needed to work around the government’s priorities this time around, it’s the government that often tries to accommodate the kohanim’s needs.
In the past, El Al, the national airline, has rerouted its flights to avoid flying over cemeteries. And earlier this year, after removing a pathway designed for kohanim at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron, the government said it would build another kohen-friendly route in time for the annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, at a cost of $160,000.
Last year, the municipality of Tiberias, in the north, announced it would build a traffic thoroughfare for kohanim to circumvent several ancient cemeteries around the town’s old city. According to Haaretz, the project entailed the “excavation of the entire width of the road, removal of trees along its perimeter as well as underground infrastructure, and construction of installations in conformity with Jewish religious law.”
The city had already constructed two other kohanim-related projects.
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