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Separating Oneself for the Sake of Purity and of Sanctity

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein








With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise


Please pray for a refua sheleima for

Gilad Hillel ben Bracha Mirel


In Loving Memory of Beloved Father and Grandfather,

Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak, Fred Stone (A"H)

whose Yahrzeit is 25 Tammuz;

Ellen and Stanley Stone and their children

Jacob, Zack, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi




Separating Oneself for the Sake of Purity and of Sanctity

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Every thing that can abide fire shall you pass through fire and it shall be pure; however, it shall be cleansed with the water of sprinkling. (Bamidbar 31:23).


This verse from this week’s parasha, which serves as the source for the obligation to immerse vessels obtained from a non-Jew before they may be used, is spoken by Elazar the Kohen and addressed “to the men of war going to battle” (ibid. 21). The command raises several questions: Is the procedure described here to be applied, as written, for all generations? Must the act of immersion be performed specifically by a Jew? Or perhaps, just as it is clear that the immersion need not be performed by a soldier, so, too, it may be performed by a non-Jew. And even if the immersion must be performed by a Jew, does it matter whether it is carried out by an adult or by a child? Is the proper intention (kavana) necessary for the immersion?


While these questions were not addressed by Chazal, they have been clarified through the responsa of Rishonim, codified in the Shulchan Arukh, and the rulings have been recorded by the later poskim. My intention here is not to provide a comprehensive review of the halakhic debates. However, some of the statements of the Rishonim on this issue are particularly relevant to understanding the purpose of studying in a yeshiva.




The Talmud Yerushalmi records that Rabbi Yirmiya was asked whether it was necessary to immerse vessels borrowed from a gentile. He answered: “It is necessary to immerse them, since they have emerged from the impurity of the gentile and entered the sanctity of a Jew” (Avoda Zara 5:15).


This teaching is quoted extensively by the Rishonim. Admittedly, the Rambam limits its ramifications by stating merely that the immersion is meant to render the use of the vessel permissible:


This [immersion] is not associated with ritual impurity and purity [in the strict legal sense]; rather, it is a rabbinic derivation… the rabbis derived that it [immersion] is required to purify the vessels from the pagans’ possession, not from impurity… (Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 17:5).


However, other Rishonim emphasize a more positive aspect to immersion implied by Rabbi Yirmiya’s teaching. Ramban, for example (Avoda Zara 75b, s.v. Gemara), in adopting the view that used vessels obtained from a gentile must undergo immersion in boiling water (hag’ala) or be scorched with fire (libbun) prior to immersion in a body of water, explains as follows:


The reason the Torah required this immersion is because [the vessels] have emerged from “the impurity of the gentile” and entered “the sanctity of Israel,” [and they do not emerge from their former status] until they discharge the gentile ownership.


A similar statement is to be found in the Responsa of the Maharach Ohr Zaru’a (63), in the midst of a discussion as to whether it is permissible to use the vessel before it is immersed:


In the Yerushalmi it is explained that [the requirement] is because they vessels have emerged from the “impurity of the gentiles” and entered “the sanctity of Israel.” It is compared to a convert who enters the sanctity [of Israel] through immersion, even though prior to the purchase [from the gentile] it was permissible to make use of the vessel.


There is further elaboration on this in the work Issur ve-Heter (58:110), in explaining why food that was cooked in a vessel that had not yet been immersed is permitted:


The immersion is not performed to discharge forbidden material embedded in the vessel, as evidenced by the fact that even a new vessel must be immersed. Rather, it is only to remove from it the spirit of impurity and the gentile name, and to bring it into the sanctity of Israel, since the Lord God has chosen us as His inheritance, and has separated us from those who are misled, and has sanctified us with His sanctity, as it is written: “I have set you apart from the nations, to be Mine,” and it is written, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”


It would seem obvious that there is a purpose worthy of reflection regarding the immersion of vessels obtained from a non-Jew. If “kavana,” proper intent, is significant in transition from impurity to purity, then how much more so must it be significant in the transition from impurity to sanctity! After all, in the hierarchy of sanctity and purity – whether on the formulation of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair in the baraita (Avoda Zara 20b) or that in the Ba’alei ha-Nefesh of the Ra’avad (“Sha’ar ha-Kedusha”) – sanctity occupies a higher level than purity. Hence, it is no wonder that the transition of the vessel into the sphere of “the sanctity of Israel” may serve as the focal intention in the act of immersion.


While in practice “kavana” may not be strictly required for this immersion, in accordance with the position of Rav in the Gemara, and as codified in the Shulchan Arukh (120:15), it is not due to its irrelevance; rather, it is based on a presumption of basic intentionality in action.




I would like to apply the concepts set out above to raise certain elements that bear significance to any “ben Torah” – and, in our situation, specifically, to a hesder yeshiva student.


I generally welcome new arrivals at the yeshiva with a fundamental teaching of Chazal in this regard. Concerning the Mishna which teaches (Yoma 2a), “Seven days prior to Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol is separated from his home to the counselors’ chamber,” the Gemara (8a-b) explains:


Our Sages taught: There is no difference between the Kohen who burns the [red] heifer and the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, except that one is separated for the sake of sanctity, and his fellow Kohanim may touch him, while the other is separated for the sake of purity, and his fellow Kohanim may not touch him.


The distinction here is clear. The baraita is comparing two different types of “separation.” One involves preparation in anticipation of entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and the encounter with God; as Rashi elaborates, his preparation is necessary so he may “enter the camp of the Divine Presence, so his heart should not be haughty, thus he should be removed from any light-heartedness, since he should be struck with fear through his separation from others.” The other type of separation is of a different nature: on the one hand it is more halakhically demanding, but on the other it is far more limited.


The crux of the difference lies in the aim of each separation, and this also influences its character. Separation for the sake of purity has a passive objective: it establishes a regime of passivity – (“shev ve-al ta’aseh,” refraining from action) – which is meant to protect the Kohen in question from contracting any type of impurity. Separating the Kohen Gadol for the purpose of sanctity, on the other hand, is meant not only to preserve the existing state but to build upon it, in a spirit of “kum ve-aseh” – positive action. To use the terminology of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in Mesillat Yesharim, the former represents the first stage of moral development, “caution” (zehirut), while the latter represents the second stage, “alacrity” (zerizut).


Both conceptually and practically, it may be that both types of separation, and the possibility of choosing between them, are available to a given individual or society. Sometimes, this is relevant to a student’s choice to attend a hesder yeshiva. A student may choose to come out of a desire for “separation for the purpose of purity”: he may not initially have a great desire to devote himself to Torah study, nor even perhaps the ability to succeed at this task. However, he is a God-fearing young man who hopes to continue his religious way of life. When his parents or teachers point out the dangers of heading straight for the army without the protective social network of the yeshiva, and without the ideological strengthening that he will gain during his studies, as they warn him that his religious identity is likely to be shaken or even to collapse altogether (sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy), he takes this concern to heart and adopts their recommendations.  This could also be said regarding heading to college


On the other hand, there are those who “separate themselves for the sake of sanctity” – young men who, even if they were to receive a guarantee that their religious level would be maintained until their dying day, would not turn their back on the beit midrash – because their religious level does not satisfy them. In every other area – psychological maturity, general education, professional advancement, moral sensitivity, ability to think and express themselves, social standing, financial stability – they aspire to grow and develop; how could anyone imagine that in the area of knowledge and love of Torah, “more precious than pearls” and “better than thousands of gold and silver,” they would suffice with the modest level attained with their graduation from a yeshiva high-school? They are hungry: “Not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but rather to hear the words of God.” They enter the beit midrash not out of fear of otherwise being corrupted, but rather because they hope, expect and pray that the time that they spend in this place will build them as people and as bnei Torah. They have no illusions that they will emerge, in a few years’ time, as “Kohanim Gedolim” ready – as individuals or as leaders – to enter the “Holy of Holies.” However, they are uncompromisingly devoted to the goal of developing themselves as far as possible, and their accomplishment, to the best of their ability and through whatever conditions (including the obligation to protect the nation and the land), is priceless.


To be clear, I do not look askance at those who “separate themselves for the sake of purity.” When a person’s future may be at stake – in this world and in the World to Come; his temporal life and his Eternal Life – one who seeks “shade in the daytime from the heat, a place of refuge, and a cover from storm and from rain” should certainly be encouraged. However, two points must be emphasized.


First, a student who enters as one “separating for the sake of purity” must understand and accept that all the demands of the beit midrash – qualitative and quantitative, moral and functional – apply to him just as they do to all of his colleagues, and he is obligated to invest effort, to toil, and where necessary to sweat, in order to meet these demands.


Second, the beit midrash, for its part, must strengthen those who have come with the intention of “separating for the sake of purity” and then redirect them, with time and as their spiritual development progresses, towards “separation for the sake of sanctity.” Any yeshiva worthy of the name certainly ought to make such an effort.



(This sicha was delivered to students of the yeshiva’s 36th machzor at the end of their hesder service.)