The Torah Prohibitions Concerning Impurity

  • Rav Yehuda Rock
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.





The Torah Prohibitions Concerning Impurity

By Rav Yehuda Rock




The main laws concerning ritual purity and impurity appear in the parashot of Shemini, Tazria, and Metzora, and we encounter a consistent contradiction between the literal reading of these texts and halakha as we know it.


From the verses here (and elsewhere) it appears that a person is forbidden to become ritually impure: one who is pure is forbidden to become impure, and one who is impure is obligated to undergo purification. We shall review, in order, the verses that underlie this principle (see also Yochanan Breuer's article on the subject in Megadim 2):


a.     In chapter 5 of Vayikra, the Torah lists three sins that require a sacrifice of adjustable value (based on economic means). The first and the third are an oath of testimony and an oath of expression, respectively. The second is: "Or if a person touches anything that is impure – whether the carcass of an impure beast, or the carcass of an impure animal, or the carcass of an impure creeping creature – and it is hidden from him, such that he is impure an guilty; or if he touches the impurity of man – of any sort of impurity that may defile him – and it is hidden from him, and he comes to know of it, and is guilty…" (5:2-3). This would suggest that defilement is a transgression, which, if committed by mistake, requires a sacrifice of adjustable value.

b.     In Parashat Shemini we read: "But these you shall not eat… you shall not eat of their flesh, nor shall you touch their carcass; they are impure for you" (11:4-8). This tells us explicitly that one is forbidden to touch the carcass of an impure animal, because of its impurity. These verses are reiterated in Parashat Re'ei (Devarim 14:3-8).

c.     Throughout the parashot that address the various forms of impurity, we find the corresponding laws of purification. For example, in Parashat Shemini we find the following: (11:25) "…Anyone who bears any part of their carcass shall wash his clothes…"; (32) "… it must be placed in water…"; (15:5) "Anyone who touches [that person's] bed shall wash his clothes and bathe in water…"; etc. The Torah does not describe these actions as a mere precondition for purification; the literal meaning of the text suggests that a person who is rendered ritually impure is obligated to perform these actions and thereby to purify himself. In one place this is explicit (17:15-16): "… And he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he shall be impure until the evening, and then he shall be pure. But if he does not wash [his clothing] and does not bathe, then he shall bear his sin."

d.     At the end of our parasha, after the Torah lists the various types of emissions that render one impure, we read: "You shall separate (ve-hizartem) Bnei Yisrael from their impurity, so that they do not die in their impurity when they defile My Sanctuary which is in their midst." The word "warn" is derived from the root n-z-r, meaning separation. This verse tells us, then, that it is necessary to keep separate from impurity and to maintain purity; one who fails to guard himself against impurity incurs death.

e.     In the unit addressing the impurity incurred through contact with a dead body (Bamidbar 19:10-22), we read: "Anyone who touches the dead body of a person who has died, and does not purify himself – he defiles the Sanctuary of God, and that soul shall be cut off from Israel" (verse 13). Further on (verse 20), we find: "A person who is defiled and does not purify himself – that soul shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled God's Sanctuary."


In contrast to all of the above, the Oral Law paints a completely different picture. According to halakha, there is no prohibition related to the state of impurity; there are only prohibitions that apply to a person in that state in the context of the Temple, its sacrifices, and the foods that may be eaten only in its precincts (such as teruma). There is, admittedly, an opinion among the Tannaim (that of R. Yossi, which is not accepted as normative halakha) maintaining that "immersion at the proper time represents a commandment." There is also a law deduced by Chazal requiring a state of purity during pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and another law that they deduce which requires that even non-sanctified foods be eaten in a state of purity. (For an overview of the subject in general, see Mishneh Le-melekh on Hilkhot Tum'at Okhlin 16:10) But these points, even if they are to be considered as binding halakha, are of secondary status, with limited scope, representing at most a positive obligation. They can under no circumstances be regarded as falling under the category of "bearing sin," of negative and positive commandments associated with a punishment of karet, as the literal verses suggest.


Halakha interprets the verses as applying to different situations:

a.     Concerning the sacrifice of adjustable value, Chazal interpret the expression "it is hidden" (ve-ne'elam) as an indication that the Torah is talking about impurity related to the Sanctuary and its sacrifices. I.e., the situation here concerns a person who becomes impure, but forgets this and afterwards comes into contact with the Temple and/or its sacrifices (Torat Kohanim chapter 12,7; Beraita in Shevuot 14b). But these verses make no mention of the Temple or its sacrifices. Ramban comments that the context is obvious, and there is therefore no reason for the Torah to mention it. Rashi suggests that the contact with the Temple and its sacrifices is hinted to in the word "ve-ashem" ("and he is guilty"). These opinions notwithstanding, it is difficult to accept the assumption that the Torah leaves such an important point to the reader's understanding.

b.     Concerning the prohibition, "nor shall you touch their carcass," Chazal offer two interpretations. One (Torat Kohanim chapter 4,9; Beraita in Rosh Ha-shana 16b) focuses this prohibition on the pilgrim festivals (without making clear whether the prohibition is to be considered biblical in origin or not; see Ramban ad loc and the above Mishneh Le-melekh). Clearly, this has no basis in the literal text. A second interpretation (Torat Kohanim  ibid. 10) views the contact with a carcass as something "voluntary." It is possible that what the Torah means to convey here is a negative moral consideration, which is not binding (see the first chapter of Shi'urei ha-Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on Taharot). But this explanation is likewise far removed from the literal meaning of the text, which adopts the imperative case – as in all other prohibitions in the Torah. Rashbam proposes that the text refers to the context of the sacrifices in the Temple; Ramban explains that the Torah is describing the means for maintaining ritual purity, for one wishing to do so. Only Ibn Ezra adheres to the literal meaning: that the Torah is prohibiting contact with the carcass. This brings us back to the same problem: this conclusion runs counter to halakha.

c.     The verses at the end of chapter 17 in Acharei-Mot are also interpreted as referring to the context of the Temple and its sacrifices (Torat Kohanim chapter 11,14) despite that the verses make no mention of this. Once again, Rashi and Rashbam supply this as missing information, while Ibn Ezra interprets according to the literal meaning, contrary to halakha.

d.     Chazal interpret the injunction, "You shall separate Bnei Yisrael from their impurity" as referring to separation from their wives close to the time of their menstruation (Nidda 63b). The literal meaning of the text, however, as we have noted, is that a person must separate himself from impurity and maintain a state of purity. Someone who does not guard himself from impurity incurs the death sentence. Elsewhere, Chazal deduce from this verse that a grave should be marked as such (Moed Katan 5a). Obviously, this, too, has no basis in the literal text. In Torat Kohanim (chapter 9,7) Chazal connect the prohibition of "you shall separate" with the death sentence that appears in the continuation of the verse – as the literal reading undoubtedly demands. Accordingly, this Beraita in Torat Kohanim does not interpret the verse as referring to separation in anticipation of a woman's menstruation, nor to the marking of graves, but rather as a prohibition involving the death sentence – apparently, defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices (see Rashi). In this verse, in contrast to the previous ones that we discussed, we do actually find language referring to defilement of the Sanctuary: "You shall separate Bnei Yisrael from their impurity, that they not die in their impurity when they defile My Sanctuary which it in their midst." However, the defilement of the Sanctuary appears here as the reason for the punishment, rather than as a condition in committing the transgression; hence, it would seem that the transgression and the punishment are not mutually dependent.

e.     In the Sifri (Bamidbar, piska 129) the verses in the unit discussing impurity caused by a dead body are interpreted as applying in the context of defilement of the Sanctuary. Here, too, there is mention of defilement of the Sanctuary, but once again it is as a result, in the wake of the sin, rather than as a condition in committing the sin.


How, then, are we to explain the discrepancy between the literal indications of the Written Law and the normative halakha of the Oral Law?


Sanctity of the Camps


To solve the problem we need to look at another source – the discussion of those removed from the various camps, in Parashat Naso (Bamidbar 5:1-4):


"God spoke to Moshe, saying:

Command Bnei Yisrael, that they should send out of the camp anyone with tzara'at, and anyone who has experienced an issue, and anyone who is impure through contact with the dead; whether male or female you shall send them, to outside of the camp shall you send them, so that they do not defile their camps in whose midst I reside.

And Bnei Yisrael did so, and they sent them to outside of the camp. As God spoke to Moshe, so Bnei Yisrael did."


This parasha represents a source for the law of "removal from the camps" – the prohibition of anyone who is impure approaching the Sanctuary. The "camp" mentioned in the verses is applied, in practice, to the area of Jerusalem and the Temple (Sifri Bamidbar piska 1; Tosefta Kelim Bava Kama 1,12; Zevachim 116b; Rambam Bi'at Ha-Mikdash chapter 3). However, the Torah does not seem to be directly formulating a law for all future generations; rather, it is narrating an event that took place. Proof of this is to be found in the concluding words: "Bnei Yisrael did so." The Torah does not conclude every halakhic discussion with these words, and the meaning here is obviously not that throughout the generations Bnei Yisrael observed this law – nor even that they began to observe it. What the expression means is that Bnei Yisrael carried out an instruction that Moshe conveyed to them for that particular time. In other words, this text is not coming to establish a law of "removal from the camp," but rather to recount how God commanded, at that time, that anyone who was ritually impure had to be removed from the camp, and how Bnei Yisrael fulfilled this instruction and did indeed, at that time, remove all those who were impure from the camp.


Why was it specifically at that time that Bnei Yisrael were required to remove those who were impure, rather than at some earlier stage? This parasha appears after all the arrangement of the camps in the parashot of Bamidbar-Naso. Rashbam comments on the connection: "After the order of the camps and their encampments had been arranged and established, it was necessary [for God] to mention the removal of the impure from the camps." Ramban concurs: "Once the Mishkan had been established, [God] commanded the removal of the impure from the camp, so that the camp would be holy and worthy of having the Divine Presence rest there. This was a commandment that applied both with immediate effect and for all generations."


Rashbam and Ramban view the context of the arrangement of the camp merely as the reason for the law being given here. It would seem, however, that we may say more: that the very existence of the camp, with all of its arrangement and order, necessitates the removal of the impure. The prohibitions of impurity that are recorded in Sefer Vayikra, which are related to the sanctity of the camp of Israel as the encampment surrounding the Divine Presence, are dependent upon the actual arrangement of the camps around the Mishkan. For this reason it is only now, following the arrangement of the camps, that these prohibitions become applicable.


The same conclusion is supported by the Tosefta (Kelim Bava Kama 1:12): "During the journeys the camps have no status of sanctity, and one is not then punishable for matters of impurity" (see also Rashi on Gittin 60a). In other words, the prohibitions are dependent on the arrangement of the camps; when the camps break up [in order to journey onward], the prohibitions fall away.


Following the entry into the land, Bnei Yisrael no longer encamped around the Mishkan. There is a fundamental halakhic difference between the status of the place of encampment, and the status of the place of Israelite encampment in their land for all generations. The most obvious illustration of this difference concerns the license to eat "meat of desire." In the desert, while Bnei Yisrael encamped around the Mishkan, any consumption of meat required bringing the animal to the Mishkan as a sacrifice (Vayikra 17, and Ramban on verse 2). Only in preparation for entering the land were they permitted to eat "profane" meat (Devarim 12:15-22).


This, then, would seem to explain the discrepancy between the laws of impurity applicable to the generation of the desert, and the laws for future generations. The unit concerning the removal of the impure from the camp, based on the assumption that prior to the arrangement of the camps there was no such requirement, establishes that the problem of impurity arises only in the context of the encounter with the Sanctuary and its sacrifices. Only in the desert did the structure of the camps define the status of Bnei Yisrael as existing in a continuous encounter with the Sanctuary. The camp of Israel itself reflected, on a certain level, the sanctity of the Sanctuary.


According to the above explanation, the formulations in Vayikra and Bamidbar which express an absolute prohibition concerning impurity, and which make mention of the Sanctuary – if at all – only as a reason for a law or for a punishment, refer to the reality of the desert; a reality of the Israelite encampment around the Mishkan. Indeed, the parashot in Sefer Vayikra, which were given at the Ohel Mo'ed, make explicit mention of the reality of the encampment. For example, Vayikra 4:12 – "He shall carry the whole ox outside of the camp…"; Vayikra 17:3 – "Any man of the house of Israel who slaughters an ox…in the camp, or who slaughters it outside of the camp…," etc.


It was clear that the prohibitions were related to and dependent upon the arrangement of the encampment (and for this reason the impure were not removed from the camp until after the encampment had actually been set up). Hence, when the Torah defines the settlement of Bnei Yisrael in their land, in Devarim 12, as a settlement of "distance" from the Temple, it thereby establishes that the applicability of the original halakha to the new reality is limited to a situation where an individual enters the Sanctuary in a state of impurity. Expressions such as, "He has defiled God's Sanctuary," are thus transformed from underlying assumptions to necessary conditions for the application of the law.


The Sanctity of Israel


The explanation that we developed above provides a good solution to four out of the five examples of impurity that we examined at the beginning of the shiur. However, it is of no value with regard to the prohibition of contact with the carcass of an impure animal (example b. above). As noted, in Parashat Shemini we are told (11:4-8): "But these you shall not eat… you shall not eat of their flesh, nor shall you touch their carcass; they are impure for you." The Torah states explicitly that it is forbidden to touch the carcass of an impure animal because of its impurity. Here we cannot claim that the prohibition is dependent on the arrangement of the camps. As we shall see, this prohibition is not dependent on the concept of "sanctity of space" at all.


Chapter 11 in Parashat Shemini represents one single speech, devoted entirely to the laws of impurity related to animals, in order of various categories of animals: beasts and cattle, birds, fish, etc. However, the laws pertinent to some categories of animals appear in two separate textual units, with differences in content. Thus, we find the laws of the "creeping things upon the earth" in verses 29-38, and then other laws concerning the "creeping things of the earth" in verses 41-43. In connection with our discussion, with regard to the impurity of impure animals, there are two halakhic units here: verses 2-8, and verses 26-28.


The reason for this is that the text here presents two types of laws; some of the laws appear twice – one appearance of each type of law. One type of law suffices with the establishment of impurity as a fact. These laws, obviously, have ramifications for the encounter with the Sanctuary and the sacrifices. Thus, the laws of the impurity of animals that appear in verses 26-28 suffice with the assertion of impurity: "The carcass of any beast that has a parted hoof but which is not cloven-footed, or which does not chews the cud, is impure to you; anyone who touches them will be defiled. And whatever goes about on paws, of all the beasts that go about on four legs – they are impure to you; anyone who touches them is impure until the evening, and one who bears the carcass of them shall wash his clothes and be impure until the evening; they are impure to you." The laws of the "creeping things" in verses 29-38 likewise belong to this type of law.


In contrast, other laws establish absolute prohibitions. This category includes the laws of impurity of animals in verses 2-8: "… These are the animals that you may eat, of all the beasts that are upon the earth – all that have parted hoofs and are cloven-footed and chew the cud, among the animals, those you may eat… but these you shall not eat… you shall not eat of their flesh, nor shall you touch their carcass; they are impure for you." This group of laws includes those addressing the "creeping things of the earth" in verses 41-43: "And every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth is abominable; it shall not be eaten… you shall not eat of them, for they are an abomination…." The explanation for the prohibitions of this type appears in the concluding words of this unit, which follow on the laws of the "creeping things" (11:43-47):


"You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, nor shall you make yourselves unclean with them, so as to be defiled by them. For I am the Lord your God; therefore you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. Nor shall you defile yourselves with any creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, for I am the Lord Who brings you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; therefore you shall be holy, for I am holy. This is the teaching of the beasts and of the birds and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and every creature that creeps upon the earth: to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten."


The Torah explains that the prohibitions concerning impurity here arise from the sanctity of Israel. Just as the sanctity of the Sanctuary and its sacrifices entails prohibitions of impurity, so likewise the sanctity of Israel. But since these are different types of sanctity, therefore the substance of the prohibitions against impurity are accordingly different. For instance, every type of creeping creature that creeps upon the earth is forbidden as food (sanctity of Israel), but only eight types of creeping creatures represent impurity with regard to the sanctity of the Sanctuary and its sacrifices. Impure animals are likewise included in both categories, and the prohibitions of impure animals also include the prohibition of touching their carcasses.


What we deduce from this is that the prohibition of becoming defiled through touching the carcass of an impure animal – which appears along with the prohibition of eating the carcass of a pure animal (that was not slaughtered according to halakha) – arises as a result of the sanctity of Israel. This being the case, it cannot be dependent on the arrangement of the camps; it must apply for future generations, too – even when Bnei Yisrael are no longer living in camps around the Mishkan.


We must therefore seek some other explanation for why the prohibition of touching the carcass of an impure animal is not practiced as halakha. Let us turn our attention to the unit in Sefer Devarim that parallels Parashat Shemini:


"You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves… for you are a holy nation unto the Lord your God, and God chose you to be His special nation of all the nations that are upon the earth.

You shall not eat any abominable thing. These are the animals which you may eat…

And any animal that has a parted hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, of the animals – you may eat it.

But these you shall not eat… they are impure to you... you shall not eat of their flesh, nor shall you touch their carcass…

You shall not eat any thing that dies of itself; you shall give it to the stranger who is in your gates as food, or sell it to a foreigner.

For you are a holy nation unto the Lord your God…." (Devarim 14:1-21)


In terms of both language and substance, it is clear that this unit is built on the unit in Vayikra 11. For the purposes of our discussion, too, the prohibitions of impurity are based upon the sanctity of Israel, and here, too, we find the prohibition of contact with the carcass of an impure animal.


Here, however, we find an additional detail concerning the carcass of a pure animal: the Torah explicitly permits giving the carcass to a non-Jew (a ger toshav), or selling it to him. This, appears, is the key to solving our problem. If it were forbidden to touch the carcass of a pure animal, it would be impossible to handle it and transfer it to a non-Jew. The practical significance of this would be that a Jew could enjoy no monetary or other benefit from the carcass. Hence there is a practical contradiction between the prohibition of touching the carcass of a pure animal – which would entail the nullification of the monetary value of the carcass, and an actual loss of money to the owner of the carcass – and the license to sell it to a non-Jew, representing the Torah's consideration of this monetary loss, and its recognition of the financial need to handle the corpse. The unit in Vayikra presents only the prohibition of contact with the corpse, while the unit in Devarim (chapter 14) includes both sides of this contradiction. The inclusion of both within the same unit means that there is a difference between the ideal, preferred situation, and the Torah's actual, practical recognition of human needs. The Oral Law confirms that the practical result of the contradiction is that the end of the unit (verse 21) prevails over the first part (verse 8), and the sole prohibition concerns eating, while in terms of normative halakhic practice, there is no prohibition involved in touching or handling the carcass.


Sanctity and Mercy


Let us summarize the two main points that we have addressed, and then consider what is common to them.


We saw, in the beginning, that the parshiyot of Sefer Vayikra and Sefer Bamidbar, conveyed at the Ohel Mo'ed, are formulated on the basis of the reality of the Israelite encampment around the Mishkan. This reality involves the "sanctity of space" that applies to the entire camp, and this point has two halakhic ramifications: the first concerns the obligation of bringing any animal that is to be slaughtered for food, to the Ohel Mo'ed first as a sacrifice (prohibition of "meat of desire"); the other entails certain prohibitions of impurity (or obligation to purify oneself from impurity). Only in Sefer Devarim does the Torah announce that the reality in Eretz Yisrael will be different: it will be a reality of "distance" from the Sanctuary, such that the sanctity of the Divine Presence – insofar as it requires purification of the body and prohibits profane meat – is limited to the Temple precincts.


Thereafter we saw that the unit discussing the sanctity of Israel, in Parashat Shemini, requires in principle that a person refrain from contact with the carcass of a pure animal; only in Sefer Devarim is there an easing of this requirement, based on consideration of monetary loss.


In both cases we observe the Torah's approach with regard to sanctity: on one hand, it presents – in principle - a high standard of sanctity and purity; only afterwards are some of the requirements eased so as to enable the reasonable existence of Israelite society in their land.


This has dual significance for us.


Firstly, we learn about God's mercy. He gives us a Torah of mercy, a Torah that includes the attribute of mercy and seeks normal, reasonable social interaction.


Secondly, we learn the extent of God's desire for us to draw close to Him, the level of sanctity that Bnei Yisrael are worthy of attaining, and how important it is for their dwelling place to be holy. This conveys a message of aspiration towards purity and sanctity even beyond the formal requirements of the law, even in the domain of that which is "voluntary": "Sanctify yourself [even] with regard to that which is permitted to you."



Translated by Kaeren Fish