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Purity and Impurity

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein







Purity and Impurity

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“If a woman has conceived seed and has borne a male child, she shall be impure for seven days; as in the days of her menstrual flow shall she be impure.” (Vayikra 12:2)


Purity (tahara) is the normal and natural state of the world. It is not inherently worthy or valued, but simply neutral; it is the absence of the negative.  Impurity (tum’a), on the other hand, is a deficiency or blemish. Therefore, the process of purification is a return to nature and a natural state.  It involves immersion in natural water (or in a halakhic extension of such a body of water, as in a mikveh). Water that has been pumped – and hence removed from its original, natural state – is disqualified for immersion.


A distinction must be drawn between tahara (purity) and kedusha (sanctity). Sanctity is a deviation from nature, in the positive sense: it represents an enhancement of nature through positive action and elevation. Impurity (tum’a) is the opposite: not the enhancement and elevation of nature, but a violation of the natural system. The most acute violation of the natural system is death; hence death is, in halakhic terms, the essential prototype of impurity.


The zav (a man who experiences an irregular seminal emission), the zava (a woman who experiences uterine bleeding beyond her menstrual period), a person who has contracted impurity through contact with a corpse – all of these represent unhealthy situations. The yoledet (a woman who has just given birth), in contrast, undergoes a process that is both natural and desirable; therefore her bleeding is referred to as “the blood of purification” for a certain period of time (33 days following the birth of a son, 66 days following the birth of a daughter), even though it emanates from the same source as the menstrual blood which is impure. In light of this, it is difficult to understand why the birthing mother is impure at all: what does childbirth have to do with impurity?


Rashi, analyzing the term “niddat devota” (her menstrual flow) in verse 2, comments: “[Niddat] devota – meaning, something that flows from her body. In other words, it is an expression of disease and sickness, for whenever a woman experiences bleeding her head and limbs feel heavy beforehand.” Ramban explains (ad loc.): “Menstruation is an affliction for the woman, even though it is part of her natural makeup.” In light of Ramban’s comment, we must expand our question to include menstrual bleeding, too: why does the natural process of menstruation involve impurity?


The answer would seem to be found in the following verse (3): “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” The location of this verse seems surprising: on the one hand, verse 3 is simply the continuation of the process of birth described in verse 2. On the other hand, the first two verses of the chapter introduce the subject of impurity (and specifically the impurity of the yoledet) – such that the details of circumcision for the male infant on the eighth day seem unrelated.


What the verse appears to be teaching us is that in our world nature is not perfect; it suffers from deficiencies that require repair. No physical object can be a perfect reflection of nature; hence the need for circumcision.


The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim III:8) writes: “Transient bodies are subject to destruction only through their substance and not through their form… Form can only be destroyed accidentally, i.e., on account of its connection with substance, the true nature of which consists in the property of never being without a disposition to receive form.”  Rambam argues that any attempt to bring down ideal and spirit into a material reality will inevitably lead to some loss or destruction, since substance is inherently deficient. This is the key to understanding the impurity of the menstrual woman, the birthing woman, and the man who experiences a seminal emission (ba’al keri). Although all of these situations involve natural processes, since these processes take place in our world of material and substance, they are imperfect and this is the source of their impurity. In the case of menstruation, there is a need for a rebuilding of the system which has just decomposed. The birthing mother is a fulfillment of the curse, “in pain shall you bear children” – and again we refer to Rashi’s comment that a woman’s uterine bleeding is preceded by a heaviness of head and limbs. The body of the ba’al keri emits seed that carries life.


Natural processes are not accompanied by perfection. In order to repair the deficiencies inherent in processes of change that take place in substance, man is required to take action.