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From: "Yeshivat Har Etzion's Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash"
Subject: INTPARSHA61 -25: Parashat Shemini
YESHIVAT HAR ETZION
ISRAEL KOSCHITZKY VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH (VBM)
INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
The Laws of 'Tuma' and 'Tahara'
By Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Shemini begins with the completion of the sacrificial ceremonies associated with the dedication of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. The unfortunate and untimely demise of Aharon's two eldest sons, who presented an unauthorized offering of incense before God, is then described, followed by a Divine injunction proscribing the consumption of intoxicants by the ministering priests. Some details of sacrificial law, made pertinent by Aharon's state of mourning, are then spelled out, before the Torah moves on to introduce the laws of permitted animals, birds, and fish.
It is within the context of the latter subject that the Torah formally (but here only fleetingly) presents a series of statutes that together constitute one of the most significant, if least understood, foundations of the Book of Vayikra:
"Every animal that walks on its paws among the four-footed animals shall be 'unclean' to you, and whoever touches its carcass shall be 'unclean' until evening. Moreover, one who lifts its carcass must wash his clothing and remain 'unclean' until evening. They are 'unclean' to you" (Vayikra 11:27-28).
The Biblical laws of Tuma and Tahara, invariably but inadequately translated as 'unclean' and 'clean,' are to be found scattered throughout many of the parashiyot of the Torah, but the core of the matter is to be found in the Book of Vayikra, and in particular within the parashiyot of Shemini, Tazria and Metzora (Vayikra Chapters 11-15). In order to emphasize that the vocabulary of unclean and clean is a deficient and misleading pair of terms, we shall intentionally use Tuma and Tahara without translation, later hoping to gain further insight through an investigation of their respective grammatical roots.
Over the course of the next two weeks, we shall examine some of these laws, with the intent of coming to a more profound appreciation of the matter, at least insofar as its broader themes are concerned. Along the way we may achieve a more cautious respect for an important aspect of Torah legislation that most people unfortunately but understandably regard as obscure, enigmatic and absolutely obsolete. The reader is advised to peruse Chapters 11-15 of the Book of Vayikra, so that the discussion that follows will be more intelligible as well as more easily recognized as being anchored in the Biblical text. For the purposes of brevity, we shall begin our discussion by listing an important series of lists pieced together from a large number of textual sources. It should be regarded as a concise but comprehensive guide that makes, however, no attempt at exhaustiveness. Above all else, we would do well to begin our investigation by recalling the sage advice of Rambam (12th century, Egypt), who concluded his discussion of the Laws of Immersion by remarking:
"It should be clear and obvious that the laws of Tuma and Tahara are decrees of the Torah that would not necessarily have been formulated by the exercise of human reason and logic. These laws are rather included among the 'Chukim' - Divine injunctions without an obvious rational basis."
Some Helpful Background
Generally speaking, we may divide up the application of the laws of Tuma and Tahara into three distinct realms. The first addresses SOURCES of Tuma, namely those items that serve as generators of this condition. What sorts of things are Tamei, and by what mechanism is Tuma transferred from one thing to another? The second speaks of PROCESSES of Tahara, namely the ritual procedure necessary to dissipate a state of Tuma and reinstate a condition of Tahara in its place. How does a person or an object overcome a state of Tuma and achieve Tahara in its stead? The third concerns the IMPACT of the circumstance of Tuma, for what limits does this curious condition impose upon the person or object so affected? It should be stated at the outset that for the most part, the laws of Tuma and Tahara are no longer practiced today in any form, with the exception of certain circumscribed circumstances that shall be enumerated.
SOURCES of Tuma
According to Biblical law, there are a number of distinct objects or situations that act as sources of Tuma. The first category of things relates to physical death. Thus, the human corpse is regarded as one of the most virulent sources of Tuma (Bemidbar 19:11), as is the dead reptile or 'creeping thing' (Vayikra 11:29-31) as well as the carcass of various 'clean' animals (Vayikra 11:39), 'unclean' animals (Vayikra 11:26-28), and 'clean' birds (Vayikra 17:15). Parenthetically, in this context, 'clean' and 'unclean' refer to what we today call kosher and non-kosher, namely those creatures ritually fit for consumption and those disqualified from consumption. In all of the above cases, contact (which may include indirect carrying or, in the case of the corpse, overshadowing) with the dead object renders the person, vessel or foodstuff tamei. In some cases, that Tuma can be communicated to another object in turn, but to a lesser degree.
The second category of Tuma arises as a function of various issues emanating from the living human being. Thus, the 'Zav' (Vayikra 15:2) is a male who suffers from some sort of flux or discharge (erroneously translated as gonorrhea), the 'Zava' (Vayikra 15:25) is a female similarly afflicted, the 'Nida' (Vayikra 15:19) is the menstruating woman, the 'Yoledet' (Vayikra 12:2) is the woman who has given birth, the 'Tzarua' (Vayikra 13:2 et al) has one of a number of possible debilitating skin conditions (erroneously translated as leprosy). All of these individuals, as well as the male who has experienced a seminal emission ('shichvat zera' - Vayikra 15:16), are considered to be in a state of Tuma, and their bodily secretions are similarly tamei. Curiously, the woman who has given birth to a male child is temeia for a period of seven days, but if a female child has been born, the period of Tuma is twice as long - fourteen days.
Finally, we have forms of Tuma that are associated with specific sacrificial rites that render individuals involved with the process of their preparation tamei. The burning of the red heifer as well as contact with the resulting ash (Bemidbar 19:7 et al) are sources of Tuma, as are various bullock sacrifices (Vayikra 4:3) associated with transgressions of the High Priest ('Par Cohen Mashiach'), the Congregation of Israel ('Par Ha'alem Davar shel Tzibbur' - Vayikra 4:13), and the Yom Kippur service ('Par Yom HaKippurim' - Vayikra 16:3). In all of the above, those individuals involved with burning the sacrifice are rendered tamei for their efforts! Additionally, some he-goat sacrifices, such as that of Yom Kippur ('Sair shel Yom HaKippurim' - Vayikra 16:27) as well as that of the Congregation of Israel (Vayikra Bemidbar 15:24), have a similar effect. Lastly, the Scapegoat of the Yom Kippur service (Vayikra 16:26), banished to the desolate wilderness bearing the iniquities of the People of Israel, causes its sender to enter a state of Tuma.
The detailed regulations and contingencies associated with the above items are very involved and beyond the scope of this essay to explore. Bear in mind that the largest of the six orders of the Mishna is none other than 'Taharot,' which deals at great length with this subject matter. Our intent is to arrive at some general understanding of the conceptual framework, without attempting to entirely integrate every particular into this structure, an undertaking that would be onerous and of necessity contrived. For the present, therefore, let us content ourselves by noting that Tuma thus far seems to have some association with physical death, the functioning or malfunctioning of the male and female reproductive organs, or sacrifices associated with rather serious transgressions. Additionally, barring this last division of sacrifices, the state of Tuma does not appear to express a moral value but rather a imperative. That is to say that Tuma does not seem to be a function of a person's moral or ethical conduct, but solely a result of the body's self-regulated processes of growth and decay.
PROCESSES of Tahara
Just as the sources of Tuma include a diversified series of items and situations, so too the process of Tahara associated with each of them involves a different ritual. Thus, in order to effect Tahara for an individual who has come into contact with the human corpse, sprinkling with a solution of red heifer ashes and spring water must take place on the third and seventh day, followed by immersion in a mikva or specially constructed ritual pool of water. For contact with the carcasses enumerated above, ritual immersion is sufficient, and the Tahara is completed by the onset of nightfall. For the 'Zav,' 'Zava,' or 'Yoledet,' the presentation of special sacrifices is also ordained. The individual afflicted with 'tzara'at' undergoes a complex and involved ceremonial including the presentation of two birds, one of which is set free. It should be noted that in all cases, the Tahara does not impact on the actual source of Tuma itself, be it the corpse, the flux, the carcass etc., but rather on the person or vessel who came into contact with that source. In other words, there is no way to 'purify' the corpse from its tamei state. Only the person or object that touched, carried or overshadowed the corpse, thus becoming tamei in the process, can be restored to a state of Tahara according to the prescribed rituals.
The above outline illustrates that it is difficult to speak of a general process of Tahara that is universally applicable. What can be ascertained, however, is that all forms of Tahara involve the element of WATER, whether it be the spring water of the sprinkled ashes of the red heifer, the immersion in the waters of the mikva, or the 'living waters' associated with the Tahara of the 'Tzarua.'
The IMPACT of Tuma
Of what consequence is it to be in a state of Tuma? It should be obvious by this point that the state of Tuma does not express itself in the realm of the physical, but is rather a state of being. Significantly, with some notable exceptions, the state of Tuma imposes absolutely no qualifying factors upon the individual so affected, except with respect to one critical limitation. One who is in a state of Tuma is denied entry into the precincts of the Mishkan/Mikdash (Tabernacle in the wilderness and later Temple at Jerusalem) and is not permitted to participate in the associated activity of partaking of sacrificial meats or sanctified foods. The degree to which one's entry is curtailed is a function of the specific Tuma with which one is affected, for the Temple compound contains varying areas of sanctity. This qualification is such a glaring feature of the state of Tuma that the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) adopted it as the underlying rational for this otherwise inexplicable series of laws.
Writing in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:37) he remarks:
"We have already explained that the purpose of the
Temple was to inspire the visitor with feelings of
reverence and awe (of God). It is well known that any
encounter, no matter how exalted or noble, loses its
efficacy when it is experienced regularly, and its
effect on the human soul and personality
correspondingly decreases. Therefore our Sages have
suggested that it is not preferable to visit the Temple
too regularly. This being the case, the Torah legislated
such a multitude of forms of Tuma and barred those
individuals in a state of Tuma from entering the
Temple, in order to limit the possibility of being in a state of Tahara and therefore the opportunity of entry. If a person is able to avoid contact with an animal carcass, he will be less able to avoid contact with a dead reptile or creeping thing, for they are quite commonly found in houses and in foodstuffs. If he succeeds in averting them, he will surely come into contact with a 'Nida,' 'Zava,' 'Zav' or 'Yoledet' or touch the objects upon which they have alighted. All of these regulations are a means of limiting one's access to the Temple and discouraging habitual entry to its precincts thus preserving the reverential character of the place and safeguarding the purpose of instilling humility before God."
Thus, although we may disagree with Rambam's underlying thesis that the incredibly complex and involved laws of Tuma are simply legislated as impediments to Temple entry, we can not deny the linkage. Being in a state of Tuma effectively bars one from treading upon its hallowed ground. It is for this very reason that observant Jews to this day will not ascend the Temple Mount, for certain forms of Tuma (such as that associated with corpse contact) cannot be removed in the absence of as-of-yet-unrestored rituals. It is not disconnection for the place but rather, paradoxically, intense reverence for it that self-excludes many Jews from the area of the Temple Mount.
This week we have investigated some of the basic foundations of the laws of Tuma and Tahara as they appear in Parashat Shemini and as we shall encounter them in next week's section as well. We have so far made no attempt to integrate what we have seen into any sort of a larger idea, although we have already begun to notice certain repeating motifs that may in fact be intertwined. The death quality of Tuma, the water element of Tahara and the looming presence of the Temple are all factors in this complex equation. What can be stated conclusively at this point, is that Tuma and Tahara appear to exist in some sort of a binary relationship; either one is in a state of Tuma or else one is in a state of Tahara, there being no other middle ground between the two. Next week we shall continue our attempts to define the terms with greater accuracy and precision, and to present an argument for their eternal relevance for us as well.
YESHIVAT HAR ETZION
ISRAEL KOSCHITZKY VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH
ALON SHEVUT, GUSH ETZION 90433
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