Tum’ah and Taharah
Ritual Impurity and Purity
Prof. Shalom Rozenberg
I will take this opportunity to discuss the significance of ritual purity and impurity in Jewish thought. To do this, I will relate the matter to the three basic concepts of the Torah: creation, revelation, and redemption.
Creation lowered nature and the entire universe from the realm of absolute authority. According to the approach of the idol worshippers, both mankind and the deities are powerless against the arbitrary fate which controls all of nature and mocks it. The belief in a Divine power established an alternative approach to the concept of creation. According to this approach, the Almighty is not part of the world and is not under its control. He created it. And this leads us to revelation, the giving of the Torah.
Archimedes was showing great wisdom when he claimed that according to the laws of physics if he had a balance point outside of the earth and a long enough lever he could move the earth from its position. When the Almighty said to Moshe, “here is a place, with me” [Shemot 33:21], he gave man just such an Archimedean point. Resting on this point with the use of the lever of prophesy, it is possible to move the world from the point of view of ethics. According to the approach of the idol worshippers, mankind should learn ethics from nature, where the law of the jungle is the supreme rule. The Torah has given us a different perspective, that of the Almighty. We must be critical of nature and sometimes struggle against its indifference to suffering. The Torah “preceded” the world and takes priority over it.
The next step is redemption. Nature is not moral and it is not a proper model. The command “Do not kill” that descends from heaven will in the future bring peace to the entire world, including the animal kingdom. The ruthless wars of the jungle will in the future come to an end. Redemption issimilar to returning to the Garden of Eden, a world of peace, as is written by Yeshayahu: “A new baby will play at the hole of a serpent, and a weaned child will move his hand toward a snake’s nest” [11:8]. Even the serpent, the symbol of evil, will make peace with mankind and will have respect for the weak and vulnerable. The world can be different, without sickness or death, a place where “death will be eliminated forever, and G-d will erase the tears from every face” [Yeshayahu 25:8].
Death and the Temple
This ideal world is reflected in the Temple. Ritual impurity represents tragic reality, described in the Torah as expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At the center of the tragedy is the concept of death. This serious impurity is related specifically to man, because of his greatness and glory. Man is “gavra,” a person, subjective and active. Death transforms him into “cheftza,” an inanimate object. This steep descent is symbolized by the concept of “tum’a,” ritual impurity.
A dead body is indeed at the highest level of “tum’a,” but there are other phenomena that are symbols of death, such as tzara’at — leprosy — and zav — an impure flow — in addition to blood flow of a woman and the sperm of a man. These are not absolute death but only partial. Tzra’at is a symbol of the death of organs of the body. The blood of nida and wasted sperm are death of a potential life. The main details of the laws of ritual impurity stem from these principles.
How does one become impure? One becomes impure when he becomes involved with death. The type of involvement is set by the normal life style. The greatest expression of social living with another person is dwelling together in the same tent or house. A person becomes impure when he is in a “tent” together with a dead body. Material objects mainly become impure through their normal use, every object in its own way, leading to the acts of touching and carrying. In general, it can be said that when death, total or partial, interferes in the normal sequence of human life, ritual impurity occurs.
Purification, on the other hand, is linked to a return to the original world, before the sin. This primal world is characterized by water in different forms: it is always water that was not drawn by man, and in some cases it is the fresh water of a spring. It is as if we return to the water which covered all the earth before the dry land was revealed, before man was created. This water is a symbol of renewed birth, of rejuvenation that G-d provides for man. The Temple is a model of the Garden of Eden, a model of the world of the future, and this explains the connection between the laws of ritual impurity and the Temple. Death is not allowed to enter into the Temple. It is forbidden for a chain of events that included death to leave any impression on the Temple. Death must remain outside the Temple.
We must be careful not to judge ritual impurity according to the common categories of nature. In some ways, it can be compared more to a legal concept than to a dangerous negative energy. But it is really much more than that. Tum’a is a phenomenon that ideally should not have appeared in the world at all. In some ways, the laws of ritual impurity are a protest against cosmic reality. Morality cannot be derived from nature. Morality stems from revelation, from the Divine point of view. Nature must be redeemed, and ritual impurity should disappear from the world. It is wrong to accept the unredeemed reality as it is and to surrender to it. Nature as it exists is not a judge but rather should itself be judged.
And this leads us to the existential principle so well expressed by the Chassidic approach: “As long as the candle continues to burn, it can be repaired.” And the world is in need of repair. This is also a principle that we can learn from the laws of ritual impurity and purity.
[This is actually a mussar vort. Rav Yisrael Salanter passed a shoemaker working late at night. He asked the shoemaker why he was working so late, and the response was as above. Rav Yisrael learned from this that the job of personal repair is lifelong. The soul is compared to a candle, “neir Hashem nishmas adam — the candle [lamp] of Hashem is the soul of man.” (Mishlei 20:27). As long as the candle continues to burn, it is still possible to make repairs. (Dov Katz, Tenu’as haMussar) -mi]