Class Notes - Class #3

Mitzvot 159 – 161, 166 - 168, 175, and 178 – 183 cover most of the basics of tumah and taharah.  This is a complex and, for most, an unfamiliar area.  Our author introduces the topic by way of the shoresh of mitzvah # 159, and we will start there.  Then we will try to summarize this topic systematically, incorporating the details of the relevant mitzvah/essays as we go.

            This is a very difficult topic.   There is almost no remnant of this in currently halachic practice, except for some issues for cohanim.  Every rule in this area has exceptions.  There is extensive rabbinic legislation.  We should not expect our discussion to lead to detailed understanding.  My discussion is based on our text and on the Rambam’s “Introduction to Seder Taharot” in the Peirush haMishnayot.

            Our author does not give as thorough an introduction to this topic as he might have.  Perhaps his intended audience knew more about these areas than most of us do.  But the author refrains from using the essays on this topic to give us practice in making close distinctions and polishing our intellectual sharpness, as he has been doing so often in the mitzvot we have been reading recently.  I think that is purposeful on his part.  This is confusing enough that he keeps his discussions simple and straightforward.

            Let’s start with the terminology.  Tumah means some kind of unfitness; taharah means some kind of purity or fitness. A person who is tamei may not enter the Temple, eat holy foods or handle trumah.  A person who is tahor may do all those things.  There is no mitzvah to be tahor or try to be tahor.  It’s just a technical qualification for someone to do certain things.  It is possible to understand tumah and taharah as morally neutral, technical categories delineating requirements for participating in Temple related activities.

            However, the terms tahor and tamei are also used with moral force.  Something that is tamei is bad for us, something that is tahor is pure and good for us.  Our author includes mention of both the morally neutral and morally loaded understandings of the crucial terms in mitzvah #159.  He says it is no sin for someone deliberately to be tamei all the time.  But he also suggests that tumah is bad for the soul and that someone who tries to avoid becoming tamei is doing something good.

            Some of the mitzvot in this assignment, as they are described by Rambam and our author, are hard to define.  They seem more like status definitions than like action items. The author, in mitzvah #161, includes a significant quote from Rambam explaining why he defined these as mitzvot.  The passage also warns us away from thinking we are required to become tamei, become tahor, or stay tahor.  But Ramban does not see these as mitzvot at all.  In a disagreement parallel to disagreements the author has explained elsewhere, Ramban thinks there are certain actions that someone who is tamei is forbidden to do.  Those prohibitions are mitzvot.  Defining the conditions under which those prohibitions apply is a necessary prerequisite for someone to do those mitzvot, but defining those conditions is not a separate mitzvah by itself.  As usual, the author follows Rambam’s count of the mitzvot even when he does not agree.


In mitzvah/essay#159, the author starts with an extended discussion of his understanding of the shoresh.  We get a little more insight into how the author understands what a shoresh is and understands his own role in articulating a shoresh for each mitzvah.

            Our author says no one person understands everything.  Even Mosheh and Shlomoh had things about the Torah they did not understand.  God, our author says, is the master of wisdom and goodness, and He would only give us commandments that benefit us.  Generally we seek to understand what benefit we gain from mitzvot; the author is trying to articulate that benefit when he gives a shoresh for a mitzvah.  At long last, we have the author defining what he means by shoresh hamitzvah.

When we succeed in identifying such a benefit, we rejoice.  But that does not always happen.

            The rabbis thought there might be cases where we are better off not understanding how certain mitzvot are to our benefit. If we could understand a reason for each mitzvah, we might outsmart ourselves, thinking that if we understand the purpose of the mitzvah we do not actually have to do the mitzvah.  Having some mitzvot we do not understand might prod us into some humility.

That is the case with the mitzvot of tumah and taharah.  We do not understand how people work, either physically or spiritually.  It is possible that things that are tamei are really harmful to the soul in ways that aren’t obvious to us.  Soul and body are united, so we should not be surprised that things we do physically can effect us spiritually, even if we do not understand how.  If we do not understand the soul and its nature, we should not expect to understand what might harm it.

            Having said that, the author has backed himself into a corner.  If knowing the reasons for certain mitzvot might harm us rather than help us, how can he in good conscience try to write a shoresh for each mitzvah?  The author relies on his predecessors; the rabbis before me, says the author, in midrashim and elsewhere, did try to articulate how given mitzvot are beneficial to us.  Their explanations have deeper meanings as well.  When people study and try to delve into these questions, and their motive is insight into God and how God wants us to behave, then their search is a blessing.

            The author warns us not to expect to find much insight when it comes to tumah and taharah.  But God, in His goodness, would only require us to do things that are good for us, even if we cannot figure out how they are good for us.  Maybe tumah is bad for our souls.  If so, we do not understand the “spiritual illness” reflected in tumah and why taharah is a medicine for that illness.

            The author solves his problem of not having insight into a shoresh for these mitzvot by postulating certain unknowns.  We cannot know rational reasons for these mitzvot because we are probably better off not knowing.  Since God wants what is good for us, we must be better off not knowing that reasons for these mitzvot.  But tumah must be somehow bad for us.

            There is a problem even in the very limited approach the author takes here.  If tumah is bad for the soul, even if we do not know how, then contact with tumah should be forbidden.  In general, it is not.  In fact, some kinds of tumah are completely unavoidable.  In other cases, there might be tumah we have a mitzvah to encounter.  Rather, the practical impact of tumah is to prohibit contact with the Temple, sacrifices and certain gifts to the cohanim.  That might mean we want those activities to seem extra special so we condition those activities on complex preparation.  From that view, there may or may not be anything wrong with tumah. 


Now let’s try to summarize tumah and taharah.  This will be a very broad overview; my outline is far from complete, but it should provide some general context. 


            Someone or something becomes tamei by contact with something that is a source of tumah.  Different sources transmit tumah in different ways. 

            The person or object stays tamei until undergoing some process for becoming tahor.  The process varies depending on the source of the tumah.  The processes can include elements of passage of time, washing and/or immersion in a mikvah, certain sacrifices, ashes of the red heifer, and process of breakage for some vessels. M’tzora has its own unique method of becoming tahor.


Some people and things can become tamei; others cannot.  Things/people that are “m’kabel tumah,” “susceptible to becoming tamei,” include:

            1.  Live Jews, d’oraita. 

2.      Some types of “keylim,” vessels, including vessels made of metal, glass leather, plant parts, baked earthenware, and cloth.  The vessel must be complete and ready for its purpose.

3.      Houses.  This is a category relevant only to metzora, which we will cover in a few weeks.  It is not relevant to other sources of tumah.

4.      Food and drink.  Mitzvah #160 defines when food becomes tamei.

Only certain liquids can become tamei:  olive oil, water, dew, blood, wine, milk and honey.  But water in a stream or mikvah cannot become tamei.

Food can become tamei only after it has been harvested and is fully processed for consumption.   The food must be at least the size of a k’zayit, and it must be edible rather than rotten.  It  cannot become tamei until it has become wet with one of the above liquids in preparation for eating.  That washing has to be what the owner wants to happen; if the produce becomes wet by accident or for some purpose other than preparing it for eating, that washing does not make it m’kabel tumah.  For example, if the owner hides the produce in the well to keep thieves from stealing it, the produce still cannot become tamei.  As to hallah, the dough cannot become tamei until the four and liquid has been kneaded into dough.


Other things are not m’kabel tumah, including live animals other than people, raw materials not yet made into vessels, plants still attached to the ground, rocks, natural bodies of water, non-food harvested crops, sun-dried earthenware. Plants grown for purposes other than human consumption cannot become tamei.



There are several levels of tumah.  My summary of these is very general, and does not include many exceptions to the general principles.  The most severe is an “av hatumah.”  There are eleven avot hatumah.  They can transmit tumah to people and to objects.

            “Vlad,” “offspring,” are levels of tumah engendered by contact with something that is already tamei.  A vlad hatumah transmits tumah only to food and drink.  There are four levels of vlad: 

  1. Rishon,” “first.”  People, keylim, and food and drink (both ordinary food, sacrificial food, and terumah,) become a rishon l‘tumah by contact with an av hatumah. 
  2. “Sheni,” “second.”  Ordinary food becomes a sheni l’tumah by contact with a rishon l’tumah.  (Drinks follow different rules that we will return to shortly.)
  3. Shlishi,” “third.”  This is a d’rabanan category.  In general, sacrificial food and trumah become a shlishi l’tumah by contact with a sheni l’tumah.
  4. “R’vi’i,” “fourth.”  This is also a d’rabanan category.  Sacrificial food and terumah become r’vi’i l’tumah by contact with a shlishi l’tumah.  A r’vi’i l’tumah cannot transmit tumah to anything else.

In general, something that is tamei transmits tumah to something else at the next level down.  Something in contact with an av hatumah typically becomes a rishon l’tumah, etc.  Among the exceptions to that pattern are drinks, which have a unique pattern.  In general, a drink is a rishon l’tumah.  If that drink comes in contact with a drink that is tahor, that second drink also becomes a rishon l’tumah.  If a person who is a rishon l’tumah touches a drink that is tahor, that drink becomes a rishon l’tumah.  If something that is a sheni l’tumah touches a drink that is tahor, the drink becomes a rishon l’tumah.  All the cases we just described involve direct contact to the drink.  If the transfer of tumah is by way of a vessel, the rules might be different.

In general, tumah d’oraita is not initiated at a vlad level.  D’rabanan, however, there are exceptions.  If someone eats or drinks a rishon l‘tumah or a sheni l’tumah, the person becomes a sheni l’tumah.  D’oraita food cannot transmit tumah to other food, but d’rabanan it can.  In general, a person’s hands are a sheni l’tumah, and become tahor when the person washes his or her hands.  And sifrei kodesh, sacred books, are a sheni l’tumah and make the hands of the person touching them tamei.


Now let’s examine the avot hatumah one at a time.  It is a little difficult to organize this next set of material.  When you read the relevant mitzvot, you may find that the author refers to mitzvah/essays we have not yet read.  Please forgive the confusion. 

1.  Sheretz. (Mitzvah #159.)  The Torah lists eight kinds of shratzim that are sources of tumah:  weasels, mice, bats, and several kinds of lizards.  Only the dead animal is a source of tumah; the animals are not sources of tumah when they are alive.  (Other small animals, such as frogs, snakes, etc., are not sources of tumah even when they are dead.)

They transmit tumah by touch only, and both people and keylim can become tamei by touching dead sheretz.  Earthenware vessels become tamei when dead sheretz enters their interior air space, but those vessels do not become tamei when a sheretz touches them from the outside.  (That is a characteristic of the earthenware vessel rather than anything unique about sheretz.)   The author fills in some of the details on how tumat sheretz is transmitted.  Only a minimum size of a lentil transmits tumah; less than that does not.  That necessary volume can be made up of pieces of several different animals, even several different kinds of qualifying animals.  Topics for further study include the potential of various specific body parts of shratzim to transmit tumah.

A person touching the minimum amount of dead sheretz flesh becomes tamei, but his or her clothing remain tahor.

2.  Neveilah (Mitzvah #161.)  The carcass of a dead animal, behemah and hayah, tahor or tamei (that is, we are potentially permitted to eat that animal or we are forbidden to eat that type of animal) is an av hatumah.  The only exception is an animal we are permitted to eat that has been properly slaughtered.  If an attempt at ritual slaughter goes wrong, however, the carcass is a source of tumah as a neveilah.   It doesn’t matter if the animal is a treifah or otherwise forbidden for us to eat or even for us to get benefit from. The carcass of an animal we are forbidden to eat, for example a pig, is a neveilah even if it died by ritual slaughter. If a bird died by some method other than ritual slaughter, the bird carcass is not a source of tumah d’oraita, but it is a source of tumah d’rabanan.

            Not every part of the animal is a source of tumah.  The blood and the helev of a behemah tahorah (domestic animal we are potentially permitted to eat) are not sources to tumah.  Neither are the bones clean of meat, horns, or hooves separated from the body.  But the marrow in the bones is a source of tumah.

            A piece of neveilah the size of an olive is enough to transmit tumah.  Neveilah transmits tumah to people and keylim by touch.  It makes an earthenware vessel tamei by entering the interior airspace of the vessel.  Also, if a person carried neveilah without touching it, the person and his or her clothing become tamei.

3.  Meit. The corpse of a person is a source of tumah.  (The mitzvah defining tumat meit is #398; the author does not say much in that essay.  The author gives many of the details of tumat meit in mitzvah/essay #263, which prohibits cohanim from becoming tamei by tumat meit.  We will do the outline now and save the details for when we get to mitzvah #263.)

            Tumat meit has a special status; it is called the “avi avot hatumah,” the “great granddad of tumah.”  It includes nine subcategories and has the unique property that tumat meit can transmit under some circumstances such that the person or object it transmits to is also an av hatumah.  Some of the subcategories also transmit tumah more easily than most other types of tumah.  Typically, tumat meit transmits by touch and by carrying.  It also transmits by being under the same roof as something or someone; that is called tumat ohel.  Also, when someone has become tamei by tumat meit, it takes a special process to become tahor.  That involves the ashes of a parah adumah, a red heifer.  The mitzvot of parah adumah appear in Numbers, so we will get more details about that later in our study.

Here is a brief summary of the nine subcategories.

1)     A corpse, or even a k’zayit of the corpse.  It doesn’t matter whether the person was or was not Jewish, although the corpse of a non-Jew does not transmit tumah by tumat ohel, being under the same roof.

2)     A grave.

3)     A Jewish person who became tamei by contact with a corpse.

4)     Vessels that touched a Jewish person who became tamei by contact with a corpse.

5)     Vessels that touched a corpse.

6)     A Jewish person who touched vessels that touched a corpse.

7)     Vessels that touched a Jewish person who touched vessels that touched a corpse.  Note that this is a three step transmission process, but the end result is still an av hatumah.

8)     Vessels that touched vessels that touched a corpse.

9)     Ohel.” When a corpse overlies something or someone without touching it, or something or someone overlies a corpse without touching it, or when something or someone is within a contiguous space under the same roof with a corpse, that thing or person becomes an av hatumah.



4, 5.  Two of the other avot hatumah are related to the process of handling, preparing and using the parah adumah so that it can be used to mitigate tumat meit.  We will get to the details of parah adumah later in our study. 

            Now that we no longer have the Temple or parah adumah, it is not possible for someone who becomes tamei by tumat meit to become tahor.

6.  Shichvat zera.”  (Mitzvah #180)  Semen that a man ejaculates is a source of tumah. The author says only normal semen, “white,” is a source of tumah; other ejaculate, “red,” is not.  (We will see shortly that there is a third type of ejaculate.)

            Our author has something specific to say as to the shoresh.  Our purpose on earth, says the author, is spiritual: to “understand the concepts of reason and to serve [the] Creator.”  When a man is involved in sexual desire to the point of ejaculation, he is distracted from that mission.  The author says it seems appropriate that he should be tamei for a day so his “thoughts will be cleansed.”  The man becomes tahor, once he removes the semen, by immersing in the mikvah after the passage of time.  Note the language the author used to explain how he sees the purpose of human life:  “to understand the concepts of reason and to serve [the] Creator.”  We have seen the author say complimentary things about the mystical tradition, but here he places himself firmly among the rationalists.

            This source of tumah is different for the person who ejaculates and for others.  Semen inside the body is not a source of tumah.  A man who is aware of ejaculating is automatically tamei even if he is not aware of any external semen.  Even a man who has an erotic dream and finds his penis enlarged is tamei.  (All of this only applies to a male aged nine or older.)  But a man who has no sensation does not become tamei even if he finds a small amount of semen.  For anyone else, male of female, contact with a lentil’s worth of semen causes tumah. 

            The author also includes some interesting history related to this topic.  Ezra legislated that a man who ejaculates must bathe in the mikvah before praying, studying Torah or putting on t’fillin.  The purpose, according to the author, was to discourage men from overindulgence in sexual acts or sexual thoughts.  Note that this immersion in the mikvah would not make the man tahor.  It only allowed him to pray, study Torah and put on t’fillin.  But later rabbis abrogated that legislation.  The man need not even wash thoroughly.  The author does not explain that change, so we can only speculate.  But the author does say that a man who chooses to “purify himself” is praiseworthy.

7. “Zav.”  (Mitzvot #178 and 179)  A man who has certain secretions from his penis becomes an av hatumah.  This secretion can be distinguished from semen by color, a different quality of white from semen, and it is not accompanied by sexual arousal.  A discharge only makes a man a zav if it is caused by an ongoing illness rather than by a single incident of injury.  Therefore, although there is no minimum amount, the man with the discharge does not become a zav unless he experiences discharge at least twice in one day.  We also consider whether there is some other identifiable physical cause for the discharge.

A secretion that would make a man a zav is something the rabbis understood to be unhealthy.   The translator suggests this discharge might be symptomatic of gonorrhea; I have no medical background so I have no idea if that seems to be correct.  Our author believes overeating causes a man to become a zav.  If a man goes “a little off track,” that could cause one discharge, but most people will go off the track now and again.  Enduring overindulgence could cause more than one discharge. The author also quotes Ramban who believes that the discharge that makes a man a zav is caused by a contagious disease.

A person who is tamei as a zav can transmit tumah in several different ways.  Contact with the person transmits tumah.  Also, contact with the secretion, the zav’s semen, his saliva, and his urine.  The zav also transmits tumah to something he rides on or sits on providing that object is m’kabel tumah.  Our author says that includes standing on, sitting on, lying on, hanging on, or leaning on.

Part of the process of a zav becoming tahor for some of those with the status of zav involves his bringing sacrifices.  The zav brings two birds, one as a hattat and one as an olah.  Our author says that, once the zav is cured, the sacrifices encourage him to avoid gluttonous behavior in the future.  The zav is obligated to bring a sacrifice if he sees at least three separate discharges or even one very enduring discharge.  When the zav’s discharges have ended and he has gone through the other steps to become tahor, but he has not yet brought the sacrifices, he is called “mehusar kapparah,” “lacking in atonement.”