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The Obligation to Purity Oneself Before Yom Tov

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Obligation to Purify Oneself Before Yom Tov


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



The general rule is that all laws of tum'a and tahara (ritual purity and impurity) relate only to the realm of the Mikdash.  In normal, mundane life, outside the Temple, there is neither a prohibition against becoming tamei (impure) nor an obligation for a tamei to become tahor.  (See Rambam Hilkhot Tum'at Okhlin 16:8, Kuzari Chapter 3 section 49 - cited and explained in Shiurei HaRav Lichtenstein – Taharot, p. 13.)


At first glance, however, a verse in Parashat Shemini appears to in fact forbid one from becoming tamei at any time.  The Torah writes concerning non-kosher animals, "you may not eat their flesh, nor shall you touch their carcass; they are impure to you" (Vayikra 11:8).


The gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) raised this problem and cites Rabbi Yitzchak as commenting that one cannot interpret this pasuk literally, given the fact that only kohanim are forbidden to become "temei meit" (impure as a result of contact with a corpse).  If a Yisrael may become temei meit (the highest degree of tum'a), he most certainly would be allowed to touch the carcass of an animal, despite the resulting status of tum'a.


Rabbi Yitzchak therefore explained this verse as referring to a special halakha related only to the three regalim (pilgrimage festivals) - Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot: "A person is obligated to purify himself on the festival, as it says 'You shall not touch their carcass.'"


The Rambam codifies this halakha of Rabbi Yitzchak and explains its underlying reason:


"All Yisrael are commanded to be pure every festival, for they must be prepared to enter the Mikdash and eat 'kodashim' (the festival sacrifices), as it says in the Torah, 'You shall not touch their carcass' [which refers] only to the festivals.  If one did become tamei, he is [nevertheless] not lashed (makkot).  However, no such prohibition applies during the rest of the year." (Hilkhot Tum'at Okhlin 16:10)


The Rambam seems to have held that this halakha relates strictly to the laws of the Mikdash and kodashim.  It therefore follows that it would not apply nowadays, in the absence of the Mikdash.  Moreover, it would only apply on the three festivals on which each Jew must go to the Mikdash and eat kodashim.  It would not apply on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which do not require traveling to the Temple or the partaking of sacrifices  (Sha'agat Aryeh 67).


This would also explain why one is not liable to makkot for neglecting this mitzva.  At first glance, the prohibition, "do not touch" should be punishable by makkot as any other general prohibition of the Torah.  The Sha'agat Aryeh explains that inasmuch as this law is intended solely as a means to facilitate the pilgrimage to the Mikdash and partaking of kodashim, its punishment cannot be more severe than that for failing to go to the Mikdash.  A person who does not go to the Mikdash on a regel has neglected a mitzvat asei (an error of omission), in which case no punishment applies.  Therefore, the Torah was not more stringent with the person who became tamei; his transgression lies in his having failed to go to the Mikdash, a sin that does not involve any punishment.


The Me'iri advances a different explanation of this halakha (Rosh Hashana 16b).  Every person must purify himself on the festival in order to eat his regular food – not the sacrificial meat – in a state of purity.  Rav A. Sofer (in his notes on the Me'iri) notes the novelty of this approach and its far-reaching ramifications.  For example, once a person came to the Mikdash and partook of kodashim, the halakha as understood by the Rambam would, presumably, no longer apply.  According to the Me'iri, however, even after one completes his consumption of the korbanot he must still eat the rest of his food in a state of purity.


Another practical difference between the Rambam and the Me'iri involves a person who, for one reason of another, is exempt from "aliya le-regel" (going to the Mikdash on Yom Tov).  Whereas the Rambam would likely exempt this individual also from becoming tahor on the festival, the Me'iri would apply the obligation even in such a case.


It would also follow that the Me'iri would apply this halakha even to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  The Tur (O.C. 603) cites a tradition from Avi Ha-ezri that one should try to eat all his food in a state of tahara during the seven days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  He explains that this tradition speaks of only seven days (rather than all ten days of repentance, including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) because it is superfluous on Rosh Hashana.  Since a person must be pure on the festivals (including Rosh Hashana), there is no need for a special tradition to require eating in a state of tahara on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Clearly, the Tur here follows the opinion of the Me'iri, which applies the obligation to all festivals.  In fact, according to the Meiri, it would apply to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur even more so than to the other festivals.  The solemnity of the Ten Days of Repentance would obviously require (or at least render worthwhile) the observance of additional measures of stringency.  (The Tur there in fact suggests a different law (or custom) that one should observe during the Ten Days of Repentance.)


Likewise, the Shibbolei Ha-leket (283) quotes the law of Rabbi Yitzchak and adds that this law applies to every festival – "and even more so on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which are days of judgement."  He go so far as to require the recitation of a berakha when one immerses in a mikveh before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as part of his process of teshuva (repentance).  The Tur (ibid. 606) records Rav Sa'adya Gaon's ruling that one recites a berakha when immersing in the mikveh before Yom Kippur.  The Rosh, however, strongly disagreed, arguing that there is no basis in the Talmud at all for this custom.  If the custom is based on Rabbi Yitzchak's halakha, it certainly does not apply today, for Rabbi Yitzchak refers only to a situation where a person could totally purify himself.  Nowadays, however, when we are all "temei meit" and do not have the "para aduma" (red heifer) to rid ourselves of this status, this law certainly does not apply.  Therefore, immersing in a mikveh before Yom Kippur constitutes only a minhag, and no berakha should be recited.


The Bach (ad loc.) attempted to justify Rav Sa'adaya's view, claiming that Rabbi Yitzchak's halakha resembles any other law instituted by Chazal, and thus indeed warrants the recitation of a berakha.  Although one cannot achieve complete tahara nowadays, the Bach argues, one should purify himself as much as possible, and a berakha may be recited even on partial purification.  The Bach advances these arguments to defend the opinion of Rav Sa'adya, but concedes that as a practical matter, in light of the machloket involved, one should not recite a berakha when immersing before Yom Kippur.


The Bach's approach appears, in my view, very difficult to accept.  Is Rabbi Yitzchak's halakha a rabbinic law, as he argues, or is it a Biblical obligation, as it seems from the Rambam?  Moreover, is there any halakhic concept of "partial tahara"?


In conclusion, we have seen that although a halakha clearly exists requiring one to become tahor on Yom Tov, there is a dispute between the Rambam and the Me'iri as to the nature of this halakha, a dispute which yields several interesting ramifications concerning its scope.