Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Daf Shvui No. 71

Parashat Tazria


Social Aspects of the Laws of Purity and Impurity

Dr. Raphael Yankelevitz

Department of Jewish History

In the Torah portions of Shemini, Tazria, and Metzora we found a high concentration of halachot (law) which deal with ritual purity and impurity. In this article we will briefly examine the social aspect of these halachot.

The verse in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 11:8), "You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you," teaches that it is the responsibility of every Israelite to avoid impurity. Despite this, the halachah permits a man to come into contact with all manners of impurity and to become impure in doing so. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) says:

"And you shall not touch their carcasses", could it be that all Israelites are cautioned not to touch carcasses? Therefore (the Torah) says: "Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person" - (Lev. 21:1), the sons of Aaron are cautioned (not to become impure by contact with a dead body), the sons of Israel are not cautioned. Surely this may be understood a fortiori (kal vachomer): whereas about serious impurity (contact with a dead body) the priests are cautioned and the Israelites are not cautioned, in the case of a less serious impurity (an animal carcass) it would certainly be the case (that they are not cautioned). What then may I learn from the words "you shall not touch their carcasses - during the festival".

This implies that many of the laws of impurity do not apply to daily life but rather to particular spheres which are in the main related to the Sanctuary (Mikdash) and its holy objects. These include, for example, the prohibition to enter the Mikdash or to work there in a state of impurity, the prohibition against partaking of sacrificial foods (kodoshim) or tithes (terumah or ma'aser sheni) while impure, the prohibition for a priest or Nazirite to become impure through contact with a dead body, and the laws prohibiting relations between husband and wife when the woman is in a state of ritual impurity [menstruant (niddah), bodily discharge (zavah), postpartum (yoledet)]. That is why the Talmudic extract cited above prohibits ritual impurity in the festival seasons, when all of Israel would come to the Temple and offer sacrifices. Otherwise, there is no commandment against impurity for ordinary Israelites, except as outlined here. All this is clearly stated by Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Impurities relating to Foods, 16,8-10.

And yet, we find that in reality, the laws of impurity were strictly observed and even that their application was broadened. Thus, for example, new categories of impurity were created by the rabbis (midivrei sofrim), which are not mentioned in the Torah. Examples include the impurity of idolatry and all its implements, the impurity of the ignorant (am ha'aretz) and impurity of the Holy Scriptures (Mishnah Yadayim, 3,5). These types of impurity were also limited in scope, relating to the Mikdash and its holy objects, and were not relevant to everyday life. However with the passage of time the prohibitions of impurity were also extended into daily behavior. An examination of Talmudic literature reveals that the strict observance of the laws of purity and impurity was taken out of the exclusive domain of the priests and the Sanctuary and a new, widespread reality came into being - those who "eat their daily meals in purity", and those who took special care to avoid impurity altogether. The expression which characterizes this phenomenon of extra strictness is called "the spread of purity". Tosefta Shabbat (1, 14) explains:

Said R. Simeon b. Eleazar, "Come and see how far the keeping of cultic cleanness has spread... For the ancients did not decree, making a rule that a cultically clean man should not eat a meal with a menstruating woman. ...For the ancients did not eat with menstruating woman (and therefore there was no need to make such a rule). ... But the ancients did rule, 'A Zav should not eat a meal with a woman-Zav, because it leads to transgression'" (M. Shab. 1,3)

Various Aggadic midrash comments also attribute the strict observance of purity for eating secular meals to Biblical figures such as Abraham (Baba Metzia 87a), and Saul (Midrash Tehillim 7,2) and to early pietists in the Talmud such as Rabban Gamliel (Tosefta Hagigah 3,2) and Onkelos the Proselyte (ibid. 3).

Nahmanides explained this practice as follows:

... After having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture followed them up by a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted. ... Similarly, he should keep himself away from impurity (in his ordinary daily activity), even though we have not been admonished against it in the Torah, similar to that which the Rabbis have said: "For the P'rushim (Pharisees), the clothes of the unlearned are considered as if trodden upon by a zav" (or zavah - a man or woman having suffered a flux). ... It is with reference to these and similar matters that this general commandment ("you shall be holy") is concerned, ... that we should be (physically) clean and (ritually) pure, and separated from the common people who soil themselves with luxuries and unseemly things... (Commentary on Leviticus 19:2; see also: Maimonides, op. cit., 16,12).

The strict emphasis on the laws of purity and impurity in daily life is also expressed in a number of rabbinic statements: "Who is an ignorant man? He who does not eat his secular meals in a state of purity, says Rabbi Meir" (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3 [4] 10). Other sources also reflect this attitude, which encouraged the observance of the laws of impurity throughout broad segments of society.

When did this tendency toward strict observance of the laws of impurity develop? Some historians who believe that the phenomenon began during the Second Temple period. They point to the fact that among the dominant groups at that time, the Essenes believed that purity was obligatory for all the people of Israel, the Sadducees wished to leave these laws exclusively in the hands of the priests, and the Pharisees were divided between those who wished to increase the rules of holiness and those who understood and took into consideration the prosaic needs of human existence (the latter were in the majority). Others are of the opinion that the practice of eating secular meals in a state of purity began after the destruction of the Second Temple in the generation of Jabneh and continued following the Bar Kochba Revolt, into the generation of Usha.

There is no doubt that the strict observance of the laws of purity in daily life had practical implications. A society which observes laws of purity creates socially diverse groups which cannot approach one another or mingle socially. An example is given to us in the descriptions of the Essenes as found Josephus Flavius (Wars of Jews, 2,8,10):

The Essenes are divided into four levels according length of time of their vows. The younger members are on a lower level than the older ones, so much so that if they touch them, they will immerse their flesh as if from the touch of a gentile.

The same idea is expressed in the Mishnah (Hagigah 2,7):

"The garments of an ignorant man are unclean for the Pharisees, the garments of the Pharisees are unclean for those who eat terumah, the garments of those who eat terumah are unclean for (those who eat) kodesh (hallowed, sacrificial foods), the garments of (those who eat) kodesh are unclean for (those who handle) the waters of purification. Yose ben Yo'ezer was the most pious man among the priests yet his apron was unclean for kodesh... Yochanan ben Gudgada ate in accordance with the purity required for kodesh yet his apron was unclean for the waters of purification.

This detailed description of various levels of strictness in the laws of impurity and purity had to result in the creation of barriers between different groups. To what degree were the Sages conscious of the problem of social fragmentation which was the result of the stricter observance ofthe laws of impurity and purity?

In the mishnah (Yebamot 1,4) several disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai are cited, among them:

"... All of the questions of ritual purity which the former declared pure, the latter declared impure, but neither of them abstained from using the utensils of the others for the preparation of food which was ritually pure" (see Tosefta Yebamot 1,11 and other sources for clarification).

This Mishnah emphasizes that despite the expectations that barriers would be created between the two schools as a result of the differences in the observance of the laws of purity, the relationship between the groups were not impaired.

A recently published document from the Dead Sea Scrolls called Mikzat Ma'asei Torah (MMT) has relevance to our topic. This work was phrased as a letter from one of the leaders of the Dead Sea sect to leaders of some opposing group. The identities of the writer and the recipient are unknown. The scroll itself is a halachic (religious legal) document and its purpose is to convert outsiders to the way of the sect. It says: "[and you know that] we have withdrawn from the multitude of the people [and we have avoided?] being involved with these things and contacting them about these things". The text is similar to the wording of the Mishnah but in this case the positive side of the separation between social groups is emphasized.

Obviously, the sages were certainly aware of the practical implications of these laws . On the one hand they agreed that strictness in observing the laws of impurity was a positive thing and encouraged it, but on the other hand we find that they were concerned with limiting the phenomenon in order to prevent social disintegration. There are numerous examples of this; we will examine one which displays a tendency to act leniently in matters of purity in everyday life.

Ten enactments were decreed by Ezra: That ( the Torah) should be read during Minhah on Shabbat, that it should be read on Monday and Thursday... and he also decreed immersion for those who have had emissions. [About this the Talmud asks:] He decreed immersion for those who have had emissions? This is already in the Torah law, as it is written: "And any man who has an emission of semen he shall bathe all his flesh in water, etc." (Lev. 15:16-18). [Answers the Talmud,] That (commandment) in the Torah refers to someone who wanted to eat terumah or kodoshim; he (Ezra) came and decreed (immersion) even for one who only wanted to study Torah" (Baba Kama82a).

Ezra broadened the scope of the law of the impurity of an emission to matters unrelated to the Mikdash and to sanctified things (kodoshim). However, as time went by the sages rejected his view and determined that the study of Torah does not require purity. In actuality, Ezra's decree was annulled.

It has been taught: Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira used to say, "the words of the Torah are not susceptible to impurity". Once a certain student was mumbling near Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira. He said to him, "My son, open your mouth and let your words be clear, for the words of the Torah are not susceptible to impurity, as it says 'for is not My word like fire, says the Lord?' (Jeremiah 23:29) Just as fire is not susceptible to impurity so the words of the Torah are not susceptible to impurity. ... When Zeira came he said: They have abolished ritual immersion, and some said (that he said) they have abolished the washing of hands. He who says they have abolished ritual immersion concurs with Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira. He who says they abolished the washing of hands agrees with Rav Hisda who used to curse anyone who went looking for water (to wash his hands) at the time of prayer (Berachot 22a).

Another example of the connection between the study of Torah and impurity can be found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot, chap. 3, halachah 1,6):

Rabbi Nechemiah son of Rabbi Hiya bar Abba said: Father would never pass through the arch of Caesarea. [The Arch was considered "a tent over graves" which renders one ritually impure]. Rabbi Ammi, Rabbi Hizkiyah, and Rabbi Kohen and Rabbi Ya'akov bar Aha were walking through the plazas of Tsippori. They came to an arch and Rabbi Kohen separated himself from them. When they reached a place of purity he returned to them. He said to them: what are you discussing? Rabbi Hizkiyah said to Rabbi Ya'akov bar Aha - tell him nothing. We do not know if they would not speak to because he embarrassed them by separating himself, since they did not accept the susceptibility of Torah study to impurity, or for some other reason.

The Sages saw the behavior of Rabbi Kohen in an unfavorable light since he abandoned Torah study in a place of impurity even though they held that no prohibition exists which bans the study of Torah in impurity. From these and other sources we learn of leniency as to Torah study in a state of impurity.

Editor's Note:

For further examination of the legal and philosophical sides of the commentary of Nahmanides to Leviticus 19:2 and of the position of Maimonides, see: Y. Reinitz, "Kedoshim Tihiyu", Shma'atin, Kislev 5739, Volume 16, no. 55, pp. 42-46; R. Artin, "Ve'asita Hayashar Vehatov", Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan (5745), pp. 3-5; D. Hanschke, "Al Hamitziut Hamishpatit Bemishnat Harambam", Sinai 92 (5743), pp. 228-229 (especially pp. 232-239); Y. Silman, Hikavuyot Hilchatiot bein Nominalizm Vereaalizm. Iyunim Baphilosophiah shel Hahalachah, Dinei Israel (1) 5744-5745, pp. 249-266; Silman, Mitzvot Va'averot Behalachah ‎Tziut - Umeri or Tikkun Vekilkul, ibid. (16) 5751-5752, pp.185-201 (especially pp. 187-189); Silman, "Harelevantiut Shel Chiyuvim Legabe Ba'alei Chaim - Iyun Phenomenologi Behalachah", in: Mechkarim Behalachah Ubemachshevet Yisrael - in honor of Rabbi Professor Emmanuel Rackman, Ramat Gan, 5754, pp. 243-260 (especially p. 249); A. Kosman, Letoldot Hakategoriah shel Issurei "Uvdin Dechol" etc., (Doctoral Dissertation), Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, 5753, note 335, pp. 177-178.

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