“To Distinguish Between the Impure and the Pure”

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
  1. Laws of purification

Following the laws given to the Kohanim and the ceremonies of the seven days of inauguration and the eighth day, the Torah addresses the question of how one approaches the Sanctuary. Of course, the death of Nadav and Avihu makes this question an especially urgent and relevant one.

As we discover, the full answer to the question of how to approach the Sanctuary is, “In perfect purity.” In other words – with a pure body, a pure soul, a pure spirit, and pure intentions. However, this answer is not spelled out in the Torah in these words. Rather, it is expressed in the form of strict prohibitions on entering the Sanctuary in a state of any form of impurity, especially for the Kohanim (Vayikra 22:3-9).

The first directive, conveyed directly to Aharon himself, concerns purification of the spirit and consciousness of any trace of drunkenness before entering. First and foremost, this entails a prohibition on consumption of wine or any other alcohol. While the prohibition explicitly concerns entry into the Sanctuary, it also concerns the instruction that the Kohanim are meant to give to all of Bnei Yisrael in the laws of the Torah, and especially regarding the distinction between the holy and the profane, and between that which is impure and that which is pure:

And the Lord spoke to Aharon, saying: Do not drink wine or strong drink – neither you nor your sons with you – when you enter the Tent of Meeting, lest you die; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. And that you may differentiate between holy and profane, and between impure and pure. And that you may instruct Bnei Yisrael in all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them by the hand of Moshe. (Vayikra 10:8-10)

  1. The distinction between impure and pure

For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the Lord Who brings you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the teaching concerning the animals and the birds and every living creature that creeps on the earth, to make a distinction between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten. (Vayikra 11:44-47)

The Torah states that all the laws of purification are based on the foundation of holiness. Thus, the Torah draws a distinction between the impure and the pure – especially in relation to the Sanctuary and entry into it, eating impure animals, and avoiding impurity of body and soul. The distinction between Israel and the other nations in terms of prohibitions in the realm of food is not mentioned explicitly in Parashat Shemini; it is only hinted at. This hint appears in the prohibition on eating the camel, the pig, the rabbit, and the hare, and the prohibition on creeping creatures. Here the Torah distinguishes between the holy and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, in relation to the Sanctuary, with an inward orientation, towards Bnei Yisrael.

The “nationalist” significance of the differentiation of eating appears explicitly only at the end of Parashat Kedoshim:

You shall therefore distinguish between pure animals and unclean, and between impure birds and pure, and you shall not make your souls abominable by animal or by bird or by any manner of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (Vayikra 20:25-26)

The prohibitions in the realm of eating appear again with extra emphasis in Sefer Devarim, where the introduction is even more explicit:

You are children of the Lord your God… For you are a holy people unto the Lord, and the Lord has chosen you to be a special possession unto Himself, out of all the nations that are upon the earth. (Devarim 14:1-4)

Therefore, no mention is made in Sefer Devarim of the laws of purity with regard to physical contact, which in our parasha (Vayikra 10:24-40) represent a direct continuation of the subject of impurity contracted through eating. Here, the Torah seeks to draw a distinction between the impure and the pure in relation to the Sanctuary.

  1. Impure animals

And the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying to them: Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: These are the animals which you shall eat among all the animals that are upon the earth. Whatever parts the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and chews the cud, among the animals – that shall you eat. Nevertheless, these you shall not eat of them that chew the cud or of them that divide the hoof: the camel, because it chews the cud, but does not part the hoof – it is impure for you. And the coney, because it chews the cud, but does not part the hoof; it is impure for you. And the hare, because it chews the cud, but does not part the hoof – it is impure for you. And the pig, though it divides the hoof and is clovenfooted, it does not chew the cud; it is impure for you. Of their flesh you shall not eat, nor shall you touch their carcasses; they are impure for you. (Vayikra 11:1-8)

This unit has traditionally raised many questions. It has been argued that neither the coney nor the hare possesses a digestive system that includes a process of chewing the cud. In recent years, this issue has become a prominent example of the sort of heated debates conducted between those trying to encourage a religious lifestyle among Jews, and those trying to cause religious Jews to question and abandon religious practices – especially in haredi yeshiva circles.

Interestingly, a 20th century Israeli zoologist named Prof. Menachem Dor, who held religious tradition in esteem, wrote the following in his book, Fauna in the Time of the Bible, the Mishna, and the Talmud (Heb.) (Tel Aviv, 5717), pp. 240-246:

The laws of what is prohibited and what is permitted in terms of eating animals are set down in the Jewish religion clearly and accurately, and might serve even today as principles of comparative anatomy.

He explains the exceptions noted in the Torah – the camel, the coney, the hare, and the pig – as supporting a broader distinction. The camel differs from cows, sheep, and goats not only in terms of the hoof:

Just as the structure of its leg [i.e., the foot noted in the Torah] differs from the leg structure of clovenfooted animals, so its digestive system also differs from the digestive system of other animals that chew the cud. Animals that chew the cud all have four stomachs, while the camel possesses only three… The number of teeth in a camel’s mouth likewise differs from the number of teeth in animals that chew the cud… In addition, it has canines and a pair of incisors.

Animals that chew the cud, on the other hand, graze with the aid of the cartilage of the upper jaw. In addition:

[The camel] does not have a cloven hoof; it walks on soft pads… In contrast to other animals that chew the cud, it has no signs of any horns.

All of these differences are interrelated, even though some of them are not apparent to the observer. The apparent “chewing of the cud” by the camel is mentioned explicitly in the Torah because it is easy to see, as is the fact that its hoof is not cloven. The differences in the structure of the stomach, the mouth, and the teeth are not immediately apparent, and therefore the observer might be led to think that this is just another animal that chews the cud. The structure of the hoof proves that it is nevertheless an impure animal.

The same idea applies to the coney and the hare. The way that they eat causes them to appear as though they chew the cud, and therefore the Torah draws attention to their feet.

The difference between a pig and the pure animals is likewise much greater than it appears. Prof. Dor asserts that the digestive system of a pig is completely different from that of ruminants, which have four stomachs, while the pig has only one. However, the structure of its leg is also different: its foreleg has two bones, while the foreleg of cattle and sheep has only one. He also explains an important point relating to the relatively less developed front part of the hoof, creating a cloven appearance.

This explains Chazal’s graphic depiction of the pig as stretching out its feet as though declaring, “I am kosher” (Vayikra Rabba 13:5). The Torah instructs us to take a closer look at the seemingly cloven front toes and notice that there are another two toes behind them.


Thus, the need to make special mention of the camel, the coney, the hare, and the pig is quite clear. In each of these cases, there is a real possibility of error: the first three might be mistakenly viewed as chewing the cud, while the pig might erroneously be regarded as having a cloven hoof. In each instance, the outward appearance is misleading.

Prof. Dor introduces his study with an interesting observation:

We find prohibitions on eating certain animals among all [ancient] peoples. The Egyptians avoided eating the flesh of anything that walked on all fours, other than animals possessing horns, and they also refrained from eating birds of prey and [carnivorous] fish. However, this law applied [in ancient Egypt] only to the priests and the aristocracy, not to the entire nation.

He contrasts this with the law of the Torah, which makes no distinction in this regard between different groups or strata. Bnei Yisrael in its entirety is a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:6).

Dor cites similar examples in the customs of the Arameans and Canaanites, the people of Sheba (Ethiopia), and the Ancient Greeks. While they observed prohibitions similar to those of the Torah, their laws were less precise. There were also significant differences where it came to borderline cases. The most conspicuous examples, of course, are the pig, the coney, and the hare – animals to which the Torah devotes special attention.

In this regard, Chizkuni noted many centuries ago:

But concerning those which have no indications of purity, the Torah had no need to warn against them, since they are despised and avoided even by the other nations. (Chizkuni, Vayikra 11:4)

Muslims differ from Christians with regard to the prohibition of eating pork. In fact, Muslims have told me that they prefer to buy meat that is certified as kosher, knowing that kashrut supervision ensures a level of adherence that only a religious basis can provide. I have also been told that many non-Jews in the United States buy kosher meat, viewing it as superior in cleanliness and purity.

  1. Impure fish

This shall you eat of all that is in the water: Whatever has fins and scales in the water, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall you eat. And whatever does not have fins and scales in the seas and in the rivers, of all that move in the water, and of any living thing which is in the water – they are abominable to you, and they shall be abominable to you; you shall not eat of their flesh, and you shall abhor their carcasses. Whatever has no fins or scales in the water – it shall be an abomination to you. (Vayikra 11:9-12)

The mishna establishes the rule:

Whatever has scales has [also] fins, but some [species] have fins while having no scales. (Nidda 6:9)

The connection between fins and scales is a fundamental one, since fish with scales have skeletons primarily composed of bony tissue (as opposed to cartilage). They are well-developed fish that swim using the caudal fin for propulsion and the other fins for balance and direction. Thus, the two signs noted in the Torah occur together in the most developed fish that move freely in the water. Most types of fish that lack fins and scales remain at the sea bed, hiding among the rocks and waiting for prey. Prof. Dor notes that their blood contains poison that is used for defense. He also cites Ramban, who states this explicitly:

The reason for [the Torah specifying] fins and scales is that the fish possessing these always live in the upper, clearer water, growing by virtue of the air that enters there; for this reason they are slightly warm... Those without fins and scales live on the seabed, where they are susceptible to illness… (Ramban, Vayikra 11:10)

  1. Impure birds

And these you shall consider an abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are abominable: the eagle, and the bearded vulture, and the black vulture. And the kite and the buzzard after its kind; every raven after its kind, and the owl, and the kestrel, and the gull, and the sparrow hawk after its kind. And the little owl, and the fish fowl, and the great owl, and the barn owl, and the jackdaw, and the gier eagle. And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the hoopoe, and the bat. (Vayikra 11:13-19)

In contrast to the preceding lists, in which the Torah first characterized the forbidden or permitted species, when it comes to birds, no definition is offered; the Torah simply lists those that are forbidden. There is no question that this is a list of birds of prey. Birds of prey and most creeping creatures were considered abominations among most of the nations of the ancient world. (As noted above, Parashat Shemini does not to differentiate between Israel and the other nations, but rather between the impure and the pure.) Even today, birds of prey and creeping creatures are generally not eaten and these prohibitions are not unique to the Torah. What sets the laws of the Torah apart is the level of accuracy, extending to borderline cases, with very clear definitions.

Chazal teach:

The signs of [impure] birds are not stated, but the Sages taught: Every bird that seizes its prey is impure. Every bird that has an extra toe, a crop, and a gizzard that can be peeled is pure. R. Eliezer ben R. Tzadok said: Every bird that parts its toes is impure. (Mishna Chullin 3:6)

R. Shimon ben Elazar said: Every bird that catches its prey in the air is impure. (Chullin 65a)

Prof. Dor explains that a crop and a gizzard that can be peeled are characteristic of birds that eat seeds. The crop is found mainly in doves and chickens, and it serves to soften the seeds. “A gizzard that can be peeled” means that the inner layer breaks down, grows again, and is replaced; this is a sign of grinding to break down cellulose. The “extra toe” is the toe that points backwards, indicating that the bird walks on the ground to gather seeds or fruit. The development of another toe, whether among birds that grow a membrane between the toes and feed in the water or among birds of prey to seize the prey, is a sign that the bird eats meat.

All of this indicates that the Torah seeks to prohibit consumption of birds of prey, whose way of life centers around blood and cruelty.

Thus, our parasha conveys a broad and important message about the impure animals. Even when it comes to flying creatures (other than birds), the Torah permits locusts and grasshoppers, which eat plants. Among the herbivores, the Torah limits the list of those that are permissible for eating to those that are the most conspicuous grazers – in other words, those that are the furthest from attacking prey or eating carcasses.

This common denominator may be explained in two ways. First, there is the issue of hygiene: Animals that eat meat – hunting or catching their prey, or living off dead, decaying matter or refuse – are known to transmit diseases. As the gemara teaches:

Ten measures of disease descended into the world; nine were taken by swine, and one by all the rest of the world. (Kiddushin 49b)

The Ramban adopts this explanation, asserting that the impure animals are abominable and dangerous. However, R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch notes that this characterization does not apply to every species included in the category of impure animals, and there is room for a different explanation.

A second interpretation is that the restrictions on which animals may or may not be eaten pertains not only to physical hygiene, but also to spiritual hygiene. By forbidding animals that feed on carcasses, the Torah distances us from their negative traits.

  1. Impurity through contact

And through these you shall become impure; whoever touches the carcass of them shall be impure until the evening. And whoever bears anything of their carcasses shall wash his clothes and be impure until evening. The carcasses of every animal that parts the hoof but is not clovenfooted, nor chews the cud, are impure to you; everything that touches them shall be unclean. And whatever goes upon its paws, among all manner of animals that go on all four – those are impure to you; whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until evening. And he who bears their carcass shall wash his clothes, and be impure until evening; they are impure to you. (Vayikra 11:24-28)

Here the Torah moves from impurity contracted through eating to impurity through contact. Two important points should be noted. First, this unit concerning purity and impurity is given, as noted, in connection with the Sanctuary. It is forbidden to enter the Sanctuary in a state of ritual impurity, and someone in this state may not eat sacrificial meat. Our unit is not talking about the difference between Israel and the other nations. It moves from impurity of eating to impurity of contact and carrying, continuing on to other types of impurity relating to pure and impure animals.

Second, no type of animal causes impurity while it is alive. Even an animal defined as “impure” causes impurity only once it is dead, either through consumption of its meat or through contact with its carcass. The “pure” animals may be slaughtered and eaten; the “impure” animals may not be eaten, and they convey impurity – either on the inside (through eating) or on the outside (through physical contact).

The outward impurity can be removed through immersion. The impurity that is ingested through eating affects the soul and has no remedy, as emphasized in the exhortation, “Nor shall you make yourselves impure with them and be defiled by them” (Vayikra 11:43).

  1. Impurity of creeping things

And these shall be impure to you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth: the rat (choled) and the mouse (akhbar) and the tortoise (tzav) after its kind. And the gecko (anaka), and the monitor (koach), and the lizard (leta’a), and the skink (chomet), and the chameleon (tinshemet). These are impure to you among all that creep; whoever touches them, when they are dead, shall be impure until evening. And whatever any of them falls upon, when they are dead, shall be impure, whether it be any vessel of wood, or clothing, or skin, or sack, whatever vessel it may be, in which any work is done – it must be put into water, and it shall be impure until evening, then it shall be pure. And every earthen vessel into which any of them fall, whatever is in it shall be unclean, and you shall break it. Of all food which may be eaten, that on which water comes shall be impure, and all drink that may be drunk in every vessel shall be impure. And everything upon which any part of their carcass falls shall be unclean, whether it is an oven, or ranges, they shall be broken down, for they are impure, and shall be impure to you. Nevertheless a fountain or pit wherein there is a collection of water shall be pure, but that which touches their carcass shall be impure. And if any part of their carcass falls upon any sowing seed which is to be sown, it shall be clean. But if any water is put upon the seed, and any part of their carcass falls on it, it shall be impure to you. (Vayikra 11:29-38)

In his book, Prof. Dor addresses the eight creeping creatures listed here by name as exceptions to the systematic classification of the Torah. Why are these species mentioned by name, if all creeping creatures are impure anyway?

In the category of animals, the Torah provided the signs of those that are pure. In the category of birds, we find a list of those that are impure, and in flying insects – those that are pure. The gemara (Chullin 63b) states that the Torah always enumerates the smaller group. Hence, we must try to find the common denominator amongst this group of eight creeping creatures. If we proceed according to their names as they are known to us today, it is very difficult to find anything that they all share. However, Prof. Dor points out that in the ancient translations of this list, five of the eight creatures are identified differently from the way we understand the names today. At least five of these species are still eaten to this day by different peoples. Moreover, these eight species represent all the creeping creatures that used to be eaten – and this alone would explain why they are listed separately.

The choled is a group that includes the badger, which is considered a delicacy. The akhbar includes types of gerbils that are eaten to this day by Bedouins. The tzav refers to the uromastyx, also a delicacy among the Bedouin. The anaka is the hedgehog, including the Indian crested hedgehog, which is a popular food among many populations in the Middle East. The koach is a lizard that is still eaten today. Chomet is a snail, a very common dietary item in many places. The tinshemet is the rat mole, likewise eaten to this day.

The concept of animals that are “impure” and therefore avoided as food is a universal one and not unique to Jews, as noted. However, there are borderline instances of animals that are consumed by other nations, yet forbidden by the Torah. In listing these eight creeping creatures, the Torah not only forbids their consumption, but also warns that their carcasses convey impurity through contact, even just by falling onto or into any vessel. Therefore, care must be taken to keep vessels, clothing, and foods far away from them.

The eight creeping creatures are associated with a series of actions required for purification. Here the Torah begins to set down the methods of purification: all vessels require immersion, except for earthen vessels, which must be broken, since there is no way of purifying them of absorbed substances. An earthen stove or cooking range must likewise be broken if it contracts impurity; there is no option but to rebuild it. (In ancient times, this entailed significant expense.) A spring or pit where water collects is pure by definition, and therefore whatever is impure may be purified through immersion in it.

  1. Who can be purified, and who can not be purified?

And if any animal of which you may eat dies, he that touches its carcass shall be impure until evening. And he that eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and be impure until evening; also he that bears its carcass shall wash his clothes and be impure until evening. And every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth is abominable; it shall not be eaten. Whatever goes upon its belly, and whatever goes upon four, or whatever has many feet, among all creeping things that creep upon the earth – you shall not eat them, for they are an abomination. You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, nor shall you make yourselves impure with them, and be defiled by them. (Vayikra 11:39-43)

We might think that if an animal is defined as “pure”, its carcass is likewise pure. The Torah explains here that this is not the case. A carcass is impure even if the animal belongs to the category of those permitted as food, and whoever eats, touches, or carries the carcass becomes impure. Only slaughter in the manner prescribed by the Torah (shechita) prevents a pure animal from becoming impure, and thus forbidden as food.

Here the Torah makes general reference once again to the prohibition on creeping creatures: whatever goes upon its belly, or on four, or possesses many legs. All these are abominations that convey impurity. Someone who merely touches or carries them can undergo purification in water, and his impurity passes, but someone who eats them is defiled inwardly. Inward impurity of the body and soul has no means of purification; quite simply, there is no mikve for the intestines or the stomach. A person may undertake prolonged fasting, and thereby cleanse his insides; this is an important act of repentance that is accepted by God, and the person will be permitted to enter the Sanctuary. However, purification is effected only through water. A spring or pit where water collects (mikve) does not contract impurity; only these effect purification.

What is so special about water that gives it this power?

A person who is in a state of ritual purity and who then touches something impure becomes impure. Impurity spreads (like physical disease), while purity does not. Only water can purify other water and impure vessels and people. The mishna in Massekhet Mikvaot (chapter 1) teaches that rainwater purifies the water in pits, springwater purifies rainwater, and the water of a mikve purifies drawn (pumped) water (under certain well-defined halakhic conditions).

Water is what facilitates life on earth. Planets that have no water cannot support life. Water is liquid because of its unusual molecular structure, with a bond angle of approximately 108 degrees between the hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom. In his youth, the great German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss wrote that the world exists “thanks to a 108-degree angle.”

Death is impurity. Water, which supports and facilitates life, represents purity.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)