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Tahara (ritual purity) and Tum'a (ritual impurity)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Chukat


Tahara (Ritual Purity) and Tum'a (Ritual Impurity)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



The first section of Parashat Chukat presents the laws of tum'at meit (ritual impurity caused by contact with a dead body).  The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot – Aseh 107) and Sefer Ha-Chinukh (Mitzva 398) counted the law of tum'at meit as a separate mitzva.  In fact, the Rambam enumerated thirteen individual mitzvot relating to tum'a (ibid 96-109).  The Ramban disagreed and argued that all these mitzvot are not obligations or prohibitions, but rather optional laws.  Of course, we are forbidden from any involvement in the Mikdash and eating kodashim while in a state of impurity.  However, there is no prohibition at all against becoming tamei, and if one indeed becomes tamei, he bears no obligation to become tahor.  He may remain in his state of tum'a, as long as he refrains from the prohibitions involved.  In the Rambam's rather lengthy introduction to this section, he appears to basically agree with the Ramban.  He writes, "The mitzva is what is stated in this law, namely, that someone who contacts this (tum'a) is tamei," and he then proceeds to explain the halakhic ramifications of tum'a.


This controversy seems to revolve around the general methodology of enumerating mitzvot.  There are certain mitzvot which are obligatory, such as Shabbat, and there are other mitzvot which merely tell us how to deal with certain given situations.  For example, the Rambam counted the laws of shomerim (people entrusted with the property of another) as three separate mitzvot.  There is certainly no obligation to appoint or become a shomer.  Rather, the mitzva is to follow the Torah's dictates when a case of shomerim arises.  Similarly, the Rambam counts the mitzva of tum'at meit (and others) even though this "mitzva" seems to involve merely the definition of tum'a and tahara, rather than an outright commandment.  Indeed, in his introduction to Hilkhot Tum'at Meit in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam states clearly that the mitzva consists of the law of tum'at meit.


The Ramban apparently disagrees and maintains that only mitzvot which are obligatory should be counted in the list of mitzvot.  However, Rav Perla (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot – Rabbenu Saadya Gaon vol. 1, p.703) questioned the consistency of the Ramban's position in this matter.  The Rambam counted kiddushin (halakhic engagement) and gerushin (divorce) as mitzvot, and the Ramban raises no objection against the inclusion of these laws among the 613 mitzvot.  Rav Perla asked, why did the Ramban agree that these are to be counted as mitzvot?  After all, they involve no absolute obligation, and serve merely to determine marital status for purposes of Halakha.  One could argue with Rav Perla about these specific examples, and the laws of shomerim would have been a better example to show that there are laws of this type which even the Ramban counted as mitzvot.  Nevertheless, Rav Perla's point is well taken.


In any event, one verse in the Chumash appears, at least at first glance, to indicate that there is an absolute prohibition against becoming tamei.  In regards to rabbits, pigs, etc., the Torah writes, "Do not eat their meat and do not touch their carcass" (VaYikra 11,8).  Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra (ad loc.) interpreted this statement literally, as introducing a prohibition against touching the meat or carcass of these animals, and he even claims that one who does so would receive makkot (lashes).  However, in his book "Yesod Mora," Ibn Ezra counts this as one of the 613 mitzvot but writes that no makkot are involved.


The Gemara (Rosh HaShana 16b), by contrast, interprets this prohibition much differently, arguing that it is inconceivable that the Torah forbade Jews from becoming tamei. The Gemara draws proof to this effect from the fact that the Torah specifically forbids kohanim from becoming temei meit, clearly implying that other Jews may become temei meit.  Now if a regular Israelite may become temei meit, which represents the highest form of tum'a, then certainly he may contract a lower form of tum'a, by coming in contact with the carcass of a non-kosher animal. The Gemara therefore arrives at a much different interpretation of this verse, that it introduces a specific prohibition against becoming tamei on Yom Tov.


The Rambam codifies this law in accordance with the gemara's explanation.   He writes (Hilkhot Tum'at Okhelin 16:10), "All Israelites are commanded to be tehorim on the Festivals, since they must be prepared to enter the Mikdash and eat kodashim.  The statement in the Torah, 'Do not touch their carcass' refers only to the Festivals.  If one did become tamei, he does not receive Makkot.  However, there is no such prohibition the rest of the year."


The Rambam appears to have understood that the biblical prohibition against being tamei on Yom Tov stems from the mitzvot of Yom Tov, which involve the Temple and sacrifices, and thus necessitate a state of ritual purity.  This point may help resolve a difficulty raised by many commentators: why does the Rambam say that no makkot are involved?  If this indeed constitutes a biblical prohibition, we would expect that a punishment would be administered to the transgressor.  It has been written in the name of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l (Mesorah vol. 8, p.29) that this prohibition does not involve makkot because its underlying purpose is to enable us to fulfill the requirements of the mitzvot of Yom Tov.  Now someone who does not fulfill those requirements would not receive makkot.  Therefore, the prohibition that serves to ensure the fulfillment of the obligation cannot be more severe than the obligation itself.  If a person who does not visit the Mikdash on a Festival does not receive makkot, then a person who becomes tamei on a Festival also does not receive makkot.  This prohibition thus becomes akin to a "lav she-ein bo ma'aseh" (a prohibition whose violation entails no concrete action), for which a person is not punishable by makkot.


The Sha'agat Aryeh (67) writes that since the Rambam viewed the law of tahara on Yom Tov as merely a means of facilitating the fulfillment of the Mitzvot involving Mikdash and kodashim, these laws do not apply today, in the absence of the Beit Ha-Mikdash.  He adds that this law would not ever apply on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur – even during Temple times - since the obligation of aliya le-regel (going to the Beit Ha-Mikdash) and related mitzvot apply only on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and not on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.


The Noda Be-Yehuda (in Tzion Le-Nefesh Chaya – Beitza 18b), however, disagreed with this interpretation and maintained that the Torah issued a general prohibition against becoming tamei.  The logic employed by the gemara in Rosh HaShana teaches us that the prohibition does not apply all year round.  If we would search for a time when it would be appropriate to be tahor, we would naturally come up with the days of Yom Tov, when we should attempt to reach a higher spiritual level.  Once, however, the Torah forbids us from being tamei on Yom Tov, this prohibition extends beyond the specific purpose of facilitating our entry into the Mikdash.  On the basis of this argument, the Noda Be-Yehuda postulated that this prohibition applies to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, as well.  It also follows that it would apply even today, even without a Beit Ha-Mikdash.


We have seen that in the time of the Mikdash, there was an obligation on Yom Tov to refrain from tum'a and become tahor, and the Acharonim debated whether this applies on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and if it applies nowadays.  The generally accepted view is that of the Rambam and the Ramban, that no such prohibition applies during the year.  The Sefer Ha-Chinukh likewise writes (mitzva 159): "There is no sin to become tamei even if you do so intentionally.  You may not touch kodashim until you become tahor.  In any case, every understanding person should distance himself from tum'a, for the soul rises in a state of tahara."