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Leviticus 21:1-4

The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.

I think I understand why a priest would want to stay away from a dead body. The body represents contagion. It's also spoiling in the heat.

But why is wife excluded from the list? A priest may be exalted (verse 10), but a priest is still a man and has emotions. Surely he will grieve at the death of his wife - it is a major life event. Is G-d so insensitive that he would deny the priest the opportunity to grieve at his wife's death?

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A dead body, once the soul has left it, represents a source of impurity and a Kohen (priest) is prohibited from coming in contact with such a source of impurity.

The Kohen's wife is not excluded from the list. Rashi (on 21:2) explains that "the relative that are closest to him" includes his wife. See also the gemara in Yevamot 22b that it only includes his wife if she was a permitted marriage. Finally the Rambam in Hilchot Aveilut 2:7 explicitly mentions a Kohen is forced to contact ritual impurity to tend to his deceased wife.

Note in any case that grieving and touching the body are two separate things. Even when a Kohen is forbidden to touch a body, he still grieves and goes through the other mourning rituals.

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    +1. Sourcing your last sentence would improve your post IMO. – msh210 Jul 13 at 20:24
  • @msh210 I hear you. Interestingly the laws of mourning for non-Kohanim are learned from the Kohen: just as the Kohen mourns for the seven relatives in the OP's question, so do non-Kohanim mourn (see Moed Katan 20b and SA YD 374.4) – mbloch Jul 14 at 4:33

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