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

Remedies for Tum'ah

Toharot outlines the ritual actions, times, places, and other details that facilitate purification. Impure status is a communal issue, and these strictures offer a code for handling problems equitably regardless of social status or the circumstances of contraction. The ritual of parah ha'adumah (the red heifer)--the ashes of which both purify that which is impure and make impure that which is pure--presents a unique perspective on deeper mysteries behind conceptions of tum'ah. Numbers 19 gives the ritual template for parah ha'adumah--slaughtered and burned completely with cedar and hyssop, its ashes mixed with water to become a purifying agent.

The Mishnah does not wish to understand the reason behind this ritual. It is hukah, a category of Jewish law seemingly holding no rational explanation but accepted without question. Despite the fact that parah ha'adumah is completely inactive outside of the Temple, the Mishnah records intensive debate on its composition. Like much of Toharot, a topic of no "practical" value is examined out of respect for tradition as well as the symbolic and pedagogical gleanings it might contain.

The Relevance of Seder Toharot for Contemporary Jews

While Seder Toharotlists detailed components of behavior linked to now obsolete temple ritual, the text remains relevant. First, Toharot follows an essential trend of rabbinic text and thought, negotiating and reinventing the essence of Temple life even after it is no longer the physical center of the Jewish people. As the classical rabbis incrementally replaced the kohanim as cultural elite, rather than introducing completely new modes of practice, they expanded and took intellectual possession of concepts linked to the Temple. Understanding this act of renewal is of vital importance to appreciating the continuing evolution of Jewish thought and practice.

Second, both niddah and priestly avoidance of human corpses as described by Toharot remain within the active legal canon. The laws determining the social status of women during menstruation in the Gemara and other commentaries on Toharot are primary though controversial sources for both traditional and non-traditional answers to questions of female ritual status--including numerous longstanding misreadings of purity laws that incorrectly limit female participation in synagogue ritual.

As for the regulation against priestly contact with the dead, in traditional communities kohanim continue to maintain a remnant of the Temple service by avoiding such contact. While traditional legal authorities agree that all Jews are classified with the status of tameh met (impurity due to contact with a corpse), preserving special status for kohanim is a gesture to the possibility of their return to ritual importance during a third Temple, as well as a vestige of their former place in the hierarchy.

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.