Lessons of Parshas Shemini

Question #1: Tanner Training

“I work as a leather tanner. Should I train for a different parnasah, so that I can make a living after Moshiach comes?”

Question #2: Amorphous Amphibians

“What is the difference between a toad and a frog?”

Question #3: Lessons of Parshas Shemini

What does either of the previous two questions have to do with this week’s parshah?

Introduction:

Since, unfortunately, our Beis Hamikdash still lies in ruins, the laws of tumah and taharah do not affect our daily lives significantly. As a result, many people do not approach the study of these laws enthusiastically, and do not pay adequate attention to the Torah readings when they are about this topic. Yet, our prayers for Moshiach to come at any moment require us to be fully knowledgeable of the laws of tumah and taharah, so that we are prepared to observe them. As the Gemara teaches, in the days of Chizkiyahu Hamelech, they searched the entire Land of Israel, from the northern to the southern tip, and could not find a single man, woman or child who was not completely conversant in every detail of the laws of tumah and taharah (Sanhedrin 94b). The situation should be similar today or even better, since we have a responsibility to comprehend the weekly parshah, and some of these laws are discussed in parshas Shemini.

Some tumah basics

Someone who becomes tamei may not enter the Beis Hamikdash or consume terumah, ma’aser sheini, bikkurim or kodoshim, foods that have sanctity.

The following passage of this week’s parshah mentions eleven different categories of the laws of tumah, which are numbered in the selection below to facilitate explaining them afterward. The Torah writes:

Among animals that walk on all fours (1), anything that walks upon its forepaws* is impure (tamei). Whoever touches the carcass of such an animal will be tamei until evening. And whoever carries their carcass must wash his clothes, and he is tamei until evening, because these animals are tamei for you.

And the following creatures that creep on the ground (2) are tamei for you: The weasel,** the mouse, and the various species of toad. Also the hedgehog, the ko’ach,*** the lizard, the snail and the mole. These are tamei to you, among all the creeping animals – whoever touches them after they are dead will be tamei until evening. And anything that falls upon them after they are dead will become tamei, whether it is a wooden vessel (3) or a garment (4) or leather (5) or sackcloth (6) – any vessel with which work is performed (7). It must be immersed in water, and then it remains tamei until evening, at which point it becomes tahor.

Furthermore, any part of them (that is, the eight tamei “creeping creatures”) that will fall inside any earthenware vessel (8), whatever is inside it will become tamei, and you shall break it (that is,the earthenware vessel). And any edible food (9) that had water touch it can become tamei. Similarly, any liquid (10) that can be drunk will become tamei, if inside such a vessel. Furthermore, anything on which part of a carcass falls will become tamei. An oven or stove (11) should be destroyed, because they are tamei, and when you use them, they will be tamei (Vayikra 11:27-35).

The Torah describes many different types of tumah (spiritual contamination), each with its own laws. Every word used in this passage has a very specific meaning. Let us explore some of the laws of the different categories mentioned.

(1) Neveilah

When discussing someone who touched a non-shechted animal carcass (neveilah), the Torah specifies that a person becomes tamei whether he touched it or carried it, but notes a halachic difference between a neveilah that was touched and one that was carried. Regarding carrying the carcass, which creates a status called tumas masa, the Torah says that he must wash his clothes, but omits this detail regarding one who touches the carcass, which is called tumas maga. We see here a difference in halachah between the person who carries a neveilah and one who touches it without moving it. One who carries a neveilah contaminates any utensils, food or beverage susceptible to tumah that he touches while he carries it. The clothes that he wears are used by the Torah as an example of any item that he touches while carrying or moving the neveilah. This tumah is called tumah be’chiburin, meaning tumah by connection. Any keilim, utensils or appliances that now become tamei will require immersion in a mikveh or spring, and then will become tahor again at the subsequent nightfall. (There is one type of utensil that is not affected by tumah be’chiburin – earthenware vessels that were touched by a person while he carried a neveilah remain tahor. Also, tumah be’chiburin of neveilah does not contaminate people – therefore, someone touching the person who is carrying the neveilah remains tahor.) However, someone who touches a neveilah without causing it to move does not contaminate something else he touches at the same time. While he himself becomes tamei and remains tamei until he immerses in a mikveh or spring and waits until nightfall, what he touches at the time remains tahor.

Tanner training

At this point, let us examine our first opening question:

“I work as a leather tanner. Should I train for a different parnasah, so that I can make a living after Moshiach comes?”

The questioner realizes that someone who tans leather will make himself tamei if he handles the carcasses of animals. However, once the flesh is removed, the hide itself is not considered neveilah and does not generate tumah (see Mishnah Chullin 117b). Even should our questioner handle neveilos, he can make himself tahor through immersion in a mikveh. It is, indeed, true that he may not enter the Beis Hamikdash or consume terumah, ma’aser sheini, bikkurim or kodoshim while he is tamei, but this does not preclude his earning his livelihood in this way.

(2) Sheretz

The Torah lists eight creeping creatures that generate tumah if one touches them after they are dead. As the Ibn Ezra already notes, we are uncertain as to the exact identity of these eight creatures. When Eliyahu arrives, he will teach us their proper identifications, so that we can properly observe the laws. According to the translation that I provided above, which is based on Rashi and other traditional commentaries, the eight include an interesting mixture of small mammals (mostly rodents), reptiles, amphibians and mollusks. All usually lie close to the ground, and most are small. However, if the ko’ach is identified correctly as a monitor, it is the largest of the lizards and can grow as long as ten feet.

If our translation is correct, other small creatures – such as snakes, frogs, insects and other rodents – are not included under the heading of tamei sheratzim. Although it may not seem aesthetically pleasing to touch live creatures or dead insects, rodents and other small animals, you do not become tamei from touching them. I recommend washing your hands for hygienic reasons, but maintaining hygiene and becoming tamei are unrelated concepts.

By the way, the word tzav, used in Modern Hebrew for turtle, is one of the sheratzim, but means toad, according to Rashi. I have no idea who decided to use this word for turtle, but it is not consistent with halachic authorities. There is no reason to assume that a dead turtle makes one tamei.

Amorphous amphibians

At this point, let us refer back to one of our opening questions: “What is the difference between a toad and a frog?”

A zoologist will note several differences, but this is a halachic article. According to Rashi, a toad is one of the eight sheratzim that are tamei, and a frog is not (Taharos 5:1, 4).

Laws of sheratzim

Regarding the tumah of sheratzim, the Torah states that one who touches them becomes tamei, but it mentions nothing about the person’s clothing requiring immersion, nor does it state that someone becomes tamei when he carries them. This is because a sheretz makes someone tamei only if he touches it, and not if he moves it without touching. Furthermore, his clothing and anything else he touches while touching the sheretz, donot become tamei, unless they are in direct physical contact with the sheretz.

Toad vs. frog

Why did the Torah declare only these eight creatures to be tamei, but no others?

This is a question that we can ask, but probably not answer, other than to accept the gezeiras hakasuv, the declaration of the Torah, and observe it as Hashem’s will. Although we endeavor to explain the reasons for our commandments, we realize that we can never assume that we understand the reason for a mitzvah. We explore possible reasons for a mitzvah in order to enhance our experience when we observe it. We do this when we can. However, I have not found any commentary that endeavors to explain what it is about these eight specific creeping creatures, but no others, that generates tumah.

I will be continuing this topic in my next article.

Conclusion

This article has served as an introduction to some of the basic rules of tumah and taharah relating to neveilah and sheratzim. We hope and pray to be able to observe all of these laws soon.

* This translation follows Malbim.

** With the exception of the ko’ach, our translation follows Rashi’s commentary.

*** Most commentators identify this either with the chameleon or with the monitor, both of which are varieties of lizard.