Parashat Metzora - Immersion in a Mikveh

  • Rav Meir Shpiegelman


This shiur is dedicated to the refua sheleima of our alumnus
 Rabbi Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut Beller.


As every schoolboy knows, the obligation by Torah law to immerse oneself in a mikveh applies today only to women.[1] It is precisely for this reason that is surprising to discover that in the Torah itself, there is no obligation of immersion falling upon women. Except for one place, it is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah that women are commanded to immerse themselves. The absence of an obligation of immersion is especially interesting in those places where it might be expected – in the context of the purification processes of a woman who gave birth, of a nida, and of a zava. But even in the section dealing with a woman who was taken captive in war, for example, the Torah should have noted that the woman must immerse herself as part of her process of conversion.


The Torah mentions an obligation of immersion for a woman in only one context, in connection with a woman who had sexual relations with her husband:


The woman also with whom a man shall lie with emission of semen, they shall both bathe themselves in water and be unclean until the evening. (Vayikra 15:8).


It is reasonable to assume that in this case, the woman's obligation of immersion stems from the obligation of the man, from whom semen issued (similar to a man who has relations with a nida, who contracts her impurity and must undergo purification).[2] Except for this solitary case, there is no mention anywhere else in the Torah of an obligation falling upon a woman to undergo immersion.[3] It would appear that immersion is necessary for purification, and it is difficult to see a difference between a man and a woman in this matter. Just as there is no difference between a man who touches a creeping creature and a woman who does so, there should be no difference between the purification process of a man and that of a woman.


Two Factors that Obligate Immersion


As we all know, the Halakha establishes that even women are obligated to undergo immersion.[4] It may simply be suggested that the difference between the Halakha and the plain meaning of the Biblical verses stems from the fundamental difference between the two: The Halakha determines what one must do, whereas the Torah describes what should be. In our case, it is possible that there are two independent factors that obligate immersion. On the one hand, every impure person must immerse in order to purify himself from his impurity; on the other hand, there is another factor that obligates immersion. The Torah does not note the obligation of immersion in connection with every impure person, because the principle that every impure person requires immersion is known to all. Only when there is a second factor requiring immersion does the Torah explicitly note the obligation.


What is this second factor obligating immersion? What is the role of immersion, beyond the purification that applies to all impure people? In order to understand this, let us briefly examine the status of the person who sends the goat to Azazel. Generally speaking, the Torah mentions two separate halakhot with regard to an impure person: first, that he is impure, and second, that a person who touches or carries him is also impure. However, with regard to the person who sends the goat to Azazel, the Torah states that he is obligated to immerse himself, but nowhere is it mentioned that he is impure. It seems, then, that he is not impure, but is nevertheless obligated to undergo immersion.[5] As we shall see below, this serious difficulty is the key to understanding the role of immersion.


Immersion – Permits Entry into the Camp


The actions that must be performed in order to achieve purity are divided into two types. Some actions purify the person who performs them, while other actions do not purify the person by themselves, but they are essential for purity. The sprinkling of purification water upon one who came into physical contact with a corpse falls into the first category; the water itself purifies the impure person. In contrast, immersion falls into the second category. Therefore, in Parashat Acharei Mot, in the description of the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur, it says that the High Priest must undergo immersion when he changes from his white garments to his gold garments, even though his gold garments are less holy than his white ones. The role of immersion is not to purify or hallow; one must undergo immersion whenever he passes between two states of sanctity.


Indeed, it is not only the impure person who must undergo immersion. Any person found outside the camp who wishes to enter into it must undergo immersion, which permits him to enter the camp. This is the reason that the person who sends out the goat to Azazel must immerse himself after he returns to the camp, despite the fact that he had never become impure.


As is clear from the sections dealing with the census taken in the wilderness, men are connected to the camp, whereas women are connected to it only through their fathers, their husbands, or their children. When a person contracts impurity, he is detached, to a certain degree, from the framework of the holy camp. Even when he is not required to leave the camp, he must undergo immersion in order to reinforce his belonging to the camp. Therefore, a woman, who does not belong to the camp, is not required to immerse herself as part of her purification process.[6]


The difference between a man and a woman also affects the nature of their impurity, not only the nature of their purification. The Halakha distinguishes between a zav, who is impure after three sightings of ziva, and a zava, who is impure after seeing ziva over the course of three days. This distinction has a basis in the Torah, which establishes that a zav is impure as a result of his ziva ("When any man has a running issue out of his flesh, he is unclean" [Vayikra 15:2]),[7] whereas a zava becomes impure as a result of her having an issue "many days" (Vayikra 15:25). This implies a fundamental distinction between the impurity of a man and the impurity of a woman. The impurity of a woman applies to day; the days in which she sees ziva are considered days of impurity.[8] In contrast, the impurity of a man does not depend on days, but on his personal status; after three sightings of ziva, he becomes a zav. The change in his personal status impacts also on his belonging to the camp.


This, apparently, is the reason for the difference in the Torah's formulation regarding the laws governing a zav and the laws governing a nida and a zava. One who lies upon a zav's bed becomes impure, whereas one who lies upon a nida's bed does not become impure unless he touches it. The impurity of a zav is more severe than that of a zava because his impurity also has ramifications for his belonging to the camp.


Waiting Seven Days


Just as there are two factors that obligate immersion, there are two factors that obligate waiting seven days. In a previous shiur, we dealt with the difference between the purification process of a leper and the purification process of a zav: The leper brings two birds in order to enter into the camp,[9] whereas a zav enters the camp after seven days. We explained that the zav must wait seven days because every change in status requires a wait of seven days. But why is the leper not obligated to wait seven days before he enters the camp?


Entrance into the Holy requires seven days of separation. Therefore, the priests were separated for seven days, Moshe waited seven days before God called him to Mount Sinai, and the High Priest (before Yom Kippur) and the priest involved with the red heifer are separated for seven days prior to the day of their service. At the same time, a certain separation is required of a person who approaches the Holy even if he does not actually enter into it. Therefore, the priests who approached God were required to sanctify themselves before the revelation at Mount Sinai, and all the people were commanded not to approach a woman.[10] A similar situation exists in the case of a leper. A confirmed leper must sit outside the camp, and he is therefore permitted to have relations with his wife (Hilkhot Tum'at Tzara'at 10:10). After he brings his two birds and begins the purification process that allows him back into the camp, he is forbidden to have relations with his wife until he enters the camp (Hilkhot Tum'at Tzara'at 11:1).[11]


Now we can explain that there are two factors that require waiting seven days. On the one hand, one must wait seven days before entering the Holy; on the other hand, a zav must wait seven days in order to terminate his classification as "one who sees ziva." A leper is not required to wait seven days, because, on the one hand, he does not enter the Holy, but only the camp of Israel, and, on the other hand, his state of leprosy ends with the offering of his birds. After he brings his birds and enters the camp, when he later wishes to enter the Temple, he too is required to wait seven days before bringing his offerings.


There is also a halakhic difference between the two factors that require waiting seven days. In order to enter the Holy, a person must wait seven full days, and therefore the leper and the zav bring their offerings only on the eighth day. In contrast, the seven days of impurity of a zav and a zava need not be seven full days, and therefore the person is pure already on the seventh days ("part of the day is considered like a full day").[12]


The Bed of a Nida


In conclusion, I wish to add another point concerning the bed of a nida. It appears from the Torah that one who touches a nida herself becomes impure, but one who touches her bed must also wash his clothes. This indicates that the bed of a nida imparts ritual impurity that is more severe than that imparted by the nida herself. Therefore, we must say that the bed does not contract impurity from the nida; rather, it becomes impure independently as a result of being classified as "the bed of a nida."


This impurity applies also to the bed of one who has relations with a nida. What this means is that the union between a man and a woman has enormous potential. When it is done improperly, impurity is transferred between the two to the point that it impacts upon the spouse's bed. When, however, it is done properly, it transfers between them purity and holiness.


(Translated by David Strauss) 


[1] With the exception of certain special cases in which even men are obligated to undergo immersion by Torah law, e.g., when a man wishes to enter the Temple Mount, and others.

[2] These two sections teach us about the Torah's perception of sexual relations. Already in the first place that the Torah describes the union of a man and a woman, it writes: "And he cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh" (Bereishit 2:24). The halakhic expression of this union is that the halakhic status of one member of the couple is transferred to the other, in the sense of "a man's wife is like his own body." In this way, we can explain the law of levirate marriage. The Torah explicitly writes that the firstborn that the woman bears succeeds in the name of the brother who is dead. This is strange, as there is no direct connection between the son and the deceased brother, and the connection between the woman and her deceased husband ended with his death. We see from here that the connection of marriage never ends, even after the husband's death, and the woman can therefore continue the name of her husband even after he has died. This also has halakhic ramifications: A chalal who has relations with a woman passes his status to the woman, and she is thenceforth forbidden to marry a priest, even though the relations themselves were totally permitted. Similarly, in Parashat Ki Tetze, in the section dealing with a man who remarries his divorced wife, we find the same relationship between a man and his wife. The Torah explains the prohibition for a man to remarry his wife after she had been married to another man by saying that she had been defiled: "He may not take her again to be his wife, after she is defiled" (Devarim 24:4). Even though the marriage to the other man was totally permitted, the Torah relates to it, in a certain sense, as unfaithfulness. From all these passages we see that marriage creates a halakhic union, in addition to the conceptual union, that is valid to a certain extent even after death or divorce. The Torah mentions this wondrous union in Parashat Bereishit: "And He called their name Man, on the day that they were created" (5:2).

[3] For this reason, the Rishonim disagree about the source of the obligation of a nida and a zava to undergo immersion, as that obligation is not mentioned explicitly.

[4] An allusion to this is found already in the Bible. In the story of David and Batsheva, we find: "For she had purified herself from her uncleanness" (II Shemuel 11:4), after mention was made of a woman bathing on the roof. It seems that the Scripture wrote this in order to emphasize David's haste in calling for the woman, as if he called for her while she was engaged in her purification process.  

[5] The halakha is that the one who sends the goat to Azazel is impure, since he left the camp. In the gemara (Yoma 16a) there is even an opinion that the person sending the goat is impure from the moment that he leaves the camp. In any event, according to the Halakha, converts must also undergo immersion (even though this is not stated anywhere in Scripture). Once again, this is an immersion that is not intended specifically for those who are impure.

[6] We can take this even further. The obligation to undergo immersion is found only in connection with impurity the source of which is the person himself (although not every impurity whose source is the person himself obligates immersion). Therefore, the obligation of immersion is not mentioned in connection with one who touches a creeping creature or a carcass, and also not in connection with one who enters a house afflicted with leprosy. There are two exceptions to this distinction: a quarantined leper, whose impurity stems only from an uncertainty, and the impurity of one who eats the neveila of a clean animal or bird, which requires a separate discussion. It seems that one's belonging to the camp can only be impaired as a result of impurity the source of which is the person himself.

[7] The punctuation that I have adopted does not match the cantillation notes. That is a matter for a separate discussion.

[8] A man who has relations with a zava contracts her impurity, and his impurity also depends on days.

[9] The Rambam (Hilkhot Tum'at Tzara'at 11:6) rules that the law of the birds of a leper applies also outside of Israel, which proves that they are not connected to entry into the Temple, but rather entry into the camp of Israel.

[10] Therefore, one is forbidden to have relations with a woman captured in war who is waiting to enter the camp. There is an opinion that one is permitted to have relations with her one time. According to what we said above, we can understand the rationale: One is permitted to have relations with the woman before it has been decided that she will join the camp, but once it has been decided to accept her, she must sanctify herself, and one is then forbidden to have relations with her.

[11] It is not clear from the plain sense of the verses whether or not a confirmed leper is permitted to have sexual relations.

[12] In contrast to a zava, a nida is impure for seven full days (and similary a man who has relations with a nida). The difference between a nida and a zava stems from the difference between their impurity. The seven days of a nida's impurity are not seven days in which she is defined as bleeding, but rather seven days in which there is a realistic concern that she will experience bleeding. Since she is liable to experience bleeding until the end of the seventh day, she cannot purify herself until the end of that day. A nida's status does not change (like a man who has a seminal emission, whose status does not change), and therefore she is not required to bring an offering. Fundamentally, the impurity of a nida is impurity until nightfall, but it continues for seven days.