Seder Toharot (Ritual Purities)

Laws regarding purity and impurity may seem obscure to modern Jews, but the concepts give us a glimpse into a world where manifestations of death within life are not sanitized away.

Print this page Print this page

At the same time, the Mishnah shows restraint in determining leprous status. "Rabbi Judah says: The rules regarding the colors of leprosy should be considered leniently (Nega'im 2:1). Later the Mishnah states, "Any doubt[ful case of] leprosy symptoms is [considered] clean…" (Nega'im 5:1).  The Mishnah's compassion for the victim of a socially disruptive, ritually contaminating affliction with spiritual overtones reveals some willingness to live with shades of gray, even when questions of life and death and purity and impurity would seem to demand strict and unforgiving answers.

Forms of Contact with Tum'ah

There are numerous modes of contracting tum'ah. "These [eight prime sources of tum'ah] convey defilement to people and vessels by contact and by the air-space inside earthenware vessels, but they do not convey defilement by carrying" (Kelim 1:1). Mishnaic use of the term "vessels" (kelim) refers to any physical object susceptible to ritual contamination. Another level of contact is brought on by enclosed spaces. "This is the procedure: When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean seven days; and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down, shall be unclean" (Numbers 19:14-15).

The Mishnah continues: "How does contamination befall four series of things? If vessels touch a corpse and a man touches the vessels, then the man touches other vessels, all three series contact seven-day defilement. The fourth, man or vessels, can contract defilement until evening" (Oholot 1:3). Interestingly, Tractate Oholot (Tents) also contains descriptions of the ultimate human "tent"--the body.  "There are 248 parts in the human body…Each one of these parts can transmit defilement by contact…When? Only when they have their appropriate flesh" (Oholot 1:8). Standards of coverings in the natural world and human body are mirrored in manmade constructions.

Laws of Food and Impurity

The title of Tractate Makshirin (Order of Preparing Food [for Status of Impurity]) is misleading. Generally, kasher (which shares a Hebrew root with "makshirin") refers to food or vessels ritually suitable for consumption. Here the meaning carries an opposite directive, signaling food or vessels that are "kosher" (that is, fit) for becoming impure. "As to any food that might be eaten, it shall become unclean if it came in contact with water…" (Leviticus 11:34).

The Mishnah elaborates: "If a sack full of fruit was put on a riverbank or by the mouth of a well, or on the edge of a cavern pool and the fruit absorbed water, the law of 'if water be put' (Leviticus 11:38) applies to all fruit which absorb water. Rabbi Judah said: It applies to fruit next to the water, but not to fruit not directly near the water" (Makshirin 3:1). No natural food is considered impure unless it is a bird, fish, or animal specifically prohibited for all consumption. Only contact of food with liquid--under proper conditions including intent of the owner--makes kosher food impure.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.