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May a Kohen become a surgeon?

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A dead body causes the room in which he lies to become ritually impure (Numbers 19:14). Additionally, Kohanim are forbidden to become ritually impure from those who are not immediate relatives (Leviticus 21:1).

May a Kohen become a surgeon (i.e. may he choose to go into the field initially), considering the potential for loss of life during the procedure? Does it depend on the type of surgery (ex. local vs. general anesthesia)?

Obviously if the Kohen is already a trained surgeon and is being called upon to save a life, there is no question that he should do whatever necessary to extend his patient’s life. But may he choose initially to pursue a career which may place him in contact with dead bodies, in order to possibly save someone’s life, both doubts concerning events which may or may not occur for several years, if not decades, in the future?

For the purposes of this question, I am only wondering about issues which may arise during the surgery itself after the Kohen has received his MD, ignoring any concerns regarding medical school (ex. working with cadavers).

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9 comments

Arguably, most surgery would be Pekuach Nefesh and therefore the risk acceptable since if the surgery works well there would not be Tumah and would save a life. A bigger problem may be (I have heard various things over the years) that modern medical training normally includes significant work with cadavers. manassehkatz 12 days ago

@manasseh There's a number of surgeries where not performing the surgery would not lead to a loss of life (ex. cosmetic, dental). Additionally while many situations may at some point well down the line cause a threat to life, at the time of the surgery that's only a possibility (ex. internal inflammation, or stones which require surgical removal; they could become infected, but maybe not). DonielF 12 days ago

@DonielF On the other hand, many of those same ones that are not Pekuach Nefesh - e.g., dental - would have such a minimal risk of death to be insignificant. On the other hand, there are other factors too - e.g., a modern large hospital is a place where even if you are simply visiting people you have a risk. My previous Rabbi was a Cohen, but he would visit the sick in hospitals anyway, but would leave quickly if there was any indication of a Meis. (FYI, I am a Katz but not a Cohen.) manassehkatz 12 days ago

To be clear, pikuach nefesh trumps the prohibition of being near a dead body. Is the question only about surgeons who don't deal with pikuach nefesh situations, or about choosing to do something (study) that will cause you to be called on to help in pikuach nefesh situations more often? AA​ 10 days ago

@AA If the Kohen is already a surgeon, I could hear the Pikuach Nefesh argument. But does that apply to a Kohen deciding his field of study, in order that possibly decades down the road he might save a life? DonielF 10 days ago

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