A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10:30–32)
In our last article, we discussed some of the potential issues going on “behind the scenes” in the story of the Good Samaritan. We pointed to the fact that most people are unaware of the implications of Yeshua’s parable. We began by exploring one potential reason the Kohen and the Levite may have chosen to pass up the opportunity to help this dying man: fear of ritual impurity. Another consideration we need to explore is an obligation of both the Kohen and Levite that Yeshua’s listeners would have known.
If the man was indeed dead, then according to the Talmud (Berachot 19b-20a) both the Kohen and the Levite would still have been obligated to stop and bury the body of a person found lying out in the open. Although the Talmud was not codified until much later than the time of Yeshua, it serves as a collective memory of thousands of years of Torah interpretation. In this situation the Talmud explains that the laws of ritual purity would have been overridden by another principle called met mitzvah, the commandment or obligation toward the dead:
You say, he should not defile himself … but he does defile himself for a met mitzvah (Berachot 19b-20a)
Within Judaism, the act of attending to the unattended dead is a very weighty matter and a strict obligation. It is considered one of the most selfless mitzvot (commandments) as it is one of the few where the recipient of the honor cannot repay the service.