screenshot from YouTube

Disneyland in California has a famous attraction called “Pirates of the Caribbean” wherein one rides in a log through water and sees all sorts of pirates and their exploits. The ride has pirate dolls that sing and speak. The movie series starring Johnny Depp was based upon this ride. The ride was built in 1967 and was the very last ride Walt Disney supervised himself.

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It was built at a cost of $15 million, about $106 million in today’s currency. It cost as much as the rest of Disneyland combined. They used the latest technology to design fake skeletons. But in 1967, apparently that was not enough.

The design team decided to, well, kind of improvise. They contacted some people at UCLA Medical Center, where they teach medical students all about anatomy. Some grisly additions were made to the Disney attraction that looked so realistic because they were actually real. All this is written in a book by former Disney producer Jason Surrell titled “Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies.”

Surrell writes that, eventually, as fake-skeleton technology improved, Disney workers replaced the real ones, which “were later returned to their countries of origin and given a proper burial.”

Rumor has it, however, that several of the real skeletons were never replaced.

According to an article by Cara Giaimo, “People disagree on exactly which remains remain. After an investigation, Jason Petros of the EarzUp Podcast concluded that there are exactly three denizens of Pirate Town that were previously living — two skulls on a small island right after the second waterfall, and a whole torso trapped under a beam in a burning jailhouse.

“They cite ‘extra details on the inside of the skull around the nose’ and ‘small holes and such’ as evidence. Josh of Disneyland Report points to a skull and crossbones decorating the headboard of an ornate bed, itself home to a skeletal pirate captain with a sleeping cap (“If you look closely, you’ll notice they’re darker and more aged than the rest of the skeletons on the ride,” he writes).

“David Erickson of Fresh Baked Disney has heard that this particular skull was ‘donated’ by an Imagineer. The blog DisneyDose even got a cast member to confirm this theory. ‘I’ve heard there are two more,’ she said, ‘but I haven’t found them yet.’”

The Problem

So here’s the question: May kohanim enter the ride? The Torah tells us (Vayikra, 21:1) that a kohen may not come in direct contact with or be under the same roof as a dead body.

The Gemara in Yevamos 61a records a dispute as to whether the prohibition of being metameh in an ohel is limited to Jewish bodies or to everyone. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai rules that it is limited to Jewish bodies. According to this view, since we can assume that the majority of the UCLA skeletons and skulls were from the majority of the population, the kohanim would be allowed to join the Pirates of Caribbean ride.

But do we rule like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? The Rambam in Hilchos Avel 3:3 and Hilchos Tumas Mais 1:13 rules that the halachah is indeed like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in regard to the laws of being under the same roof — but not in regard to the laws of masa u’matan, touching and carrying them. This is also the view of the Ramban, Rashba, Ritva, Nemukei Yosef, and the Yereim.

The Baalei Tosfos, however, write that the halachah is not in accordance with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This view is recorded in Tosfos Yevamos (61a Mimaga) and in Bava Metzia (114a Mahu). The Rosh (Klal 30) writes that one should be stringent.

The Tur and Shulchan Aruch record the debate between the Rambam and the Rosh (Yoreh Deah 372:2) and conclude that one should be stringent. So from Shulchan Aruch it would seem that kohanim should not go to this attraction. But there is another factor to be lenient.

The Concept of Sfeik Sfeikah

One of the tools of psak halachah (See Y.D. 110) is the concept of a double doubt — a sfeik sfeikah. When there is a double doubt, one can generally be lenient.

So here, we are unsure who is correct. Is Jason Surrell, author of the book about Disneyland, correct in his assertion that they removed all of the skulls and skeletons? Or are Jason, Josh, and David Ericson correct in that some of the skulls and skeletons are still there? That is one doubt. The second doubt is even if Jason, Josh, and David are correct, it could very well be that the halachah is not like Tosfos and it would be permitted for a kohen to enjoy the ride.

Other Issues and Complications

It could very well be that the debate between Surrell and Jason, Josh, and David does not truly constitute an actual safek. The points that the trio make are not inconsequential. Also, there is a concept of chazakah. The ride had dead people on it and we do believe them on this (based upon the halachic concept of masiach lefi tumo). The status of the Disney attraction being forbidden to kohanim would remain unless we have incontrovertible evidence that the status changed.

Another issue is whether or not we allow a sfeik sfeikah when one of the doubts goes against a law in Shulchan Aruch. Here, however, the Shulchan Aruch is not issuing a definitive ruling; he is just saying that it is proper to be stringent.

There is yet one more issue that comes into play. There is a view of the Raavad in Nezirus 5:17 that once a kohen has become impure, there is no further prohibition in becoming further impure. The Dagul Mervavah cited by the Pischei Teshuvah states that although the view of the Raavad is not in accordance with how we rule, it is perhaps enough of an opinion to be included in a sfeik sfeikah. The Dagul Mervavah seems to retract this view later on, however, and states the strong possibility that the Raavad’s view was stated only in regard to malkus — receiving lashes — but not in regard to becoming tamei again.


Any kohen who wishes to ride on this Disney attraction should ask his own rav or posek as to how he should conduct himself. It is possible that there may be a triple safek permitting it. However, it is also likely that the recommendation would be to avoid doing it. All this, of course, deals strictly with the concept of tumah of a kohen. It does not deal with the issue that the animated robots may not be dressed in accordance with a typical Bais Yaakov student handbook.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at


  1. Isn’t there a quadruple and not just a triple safek as to the best of my knowledge only those very few Kohanim that are meyuhasim with a valid tradition going all the way back to Aharon Hakohen are deemed to be a Kohen on a biblical level while the majority of Kohanim are merely presumed to be Kohanim, which may carry “only” Rabbinic status?


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