The Tumah of Utensils

Since the beginning of this week’s parsha is all about the laws of tumah and taharah, we will be studying these laws in preparation for the arrival of the Moshiach!

Question #1: Slingshots like Tefillin?!?

How are slingshots like Tefillin?

Question #2: Sack or sock?

What is the difference between a sack and a sock?

Question #3: Very earthy

How is an earthenware oven different from other earthenware utensils?


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 concern 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.

Some tumah basics

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

The following passage of the Torah in parshas Shemini 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 described many different types of tumah (spiritual contamination). In a previous article on this topic, I explained the laws of neveilah and sheretz (numbers 1 and 2 above).

Utensils that become tamei

Returning to our passage, after mentioning the tumah of neveilah and sheretz, the Torah lists nine categories of items that become tamei from contact with neveilah or sheretz. The specific items mentioned are: (3) wooden vessels, (4) garments, (5) leather items, (6) sackcloth, (7) vessels described by a not-easily-understood clause, “any vessel with which work is performed,” (8) earthenware, (9) food, (10) beverages and (11) ovens and stoves. Each of these categories has its own specific laws, which are hinted at in the pasuk. For reasons that will soon become obvious, I will divide this list into three groups. The first group consists of the first five items, which I will call, collectively, “immersible utensils.”

(3) Wooden utensils

Wooden vessels have the potential to become tamei if they can hold liquid (called a beis kibul) or when people use them and place items on them, such as a table (Rambam, Hilchos Keilim 4:1). These ideas are suggested by the Torah when it describes wooden items that can become tamei as “vessels” (keilim).

(4-5) Garments and leather

All types of garments are susceptible to tumah, although there is a dispute among late authorities concerning whether synthetic fabrics can become tamei.

(6) Sack

Yes, I wrote sack, not sock. Sackcloth means something manufactured from woven goat’s hair or animal hair, such as from the tail hair of cows (Sifra). In general, goat hair is too coarse to use as clothing, but it was used in earlier generations as a bag or sack for storage or transportation, similar to the way we use burlap today. (Some varieties of goat produce extremely fine wool used for garments, such as cashmere and mohair, but most goats do not.)

(7) From slingshots to tefillin

The Torah mentions that any vessel with which work is performed can become tamei from a sheretz. What is included in this category? The Sifra, the halachic midrash on the book of Vayikra that dates back to the era of the tanna’im, explains that this verse teaches that the following three items become tamei: The sling of a slingshot, tefillin, and a pouch in which one places an amulet.

What do slingshots have in common with tefillin?

These three items contain a beis kibul, a receptacle to hold something, yet some might mistakenly think that they do not qualify as “vessels.” The Torah is teaching that these are considered receptacles, or “vessels,” able to become tamei. In the case of the sling, it is meant to hold a marble, stone or other projectile, albeit for a very brief period of time. In the case of tefillin, this is because the batim of the tefillin contain the parshi’os, and, similarly, in the case of an amulet.

(8) Earthenware

Note that I have separated earthenware and not included it under the same category as the other utensils. This is because earthenware has many halachic differences, some lenient and some stringent, from all other utensils.

All other utensils fall under one of two categories:

(A) Utensils that do not become tamei, which is a topic we are not discussing in this article. An example of this is vessels manufactured from stone. By the way, this explains why excavations in the old city and other areas around Israel have found many vessels and utensils made of stone. Since these items are not susceptible to tumah, kohanim who needed to be concerned not to make their terumah and challah tamei often used stone vessels that could not become tamei.

(B) Utensils that do become tamei but can become tahor again by immersion in a mikveh or spring. This latter categoryis called klei shetef, literally, immersible utensils.

How is earthenware different?

(C) Earthenware vessels fall under a third category, because once they become tamei, the only way they can become tahor again is by being broken. Immersing them in a mikveh or spring does not make them tahor.

There are also several other ways whereby halacha treats earthenware vessels differently than it treats immersible utensils. The section of the Torah quoted above alludes to four of the ways that earthenware vessels are different.

Contaminate from outside

(I) Immersible utensils become contaminated when they come in contact with neveilah, sheretz or other tamei sources, regardless whether they are touched on their internal surface or on their outside. However, if something tamei touched the outside of an earthenware vessel, it remains tahor. An earthenware vessel contracts tumah only from its inside, and only when it has a beis kibul – an area that can serve as a “container” to hold liquid. As a result, a flat earthenware board or an earthenware fork cannot become tamei, since it has no “inside” that holds liquid.

Immersion does not help

(II) As mentioned above, another way that earthenware vessels are different from other utensils is that, once they become tamei, there is no means of making them tahor again, other than breaking them.


(III) A third way that earthenware vessels are different from other utensils is that they become tamei if a tamei source, such as a sheretz or neveilah, is suspended within the airspace of the earthenware vessel, even if the sheretz or neveilah does not touch the vessel. Halachically, there is no difference between touching the airspace of an earthenware vessel and touching it on the inside – either way makes the earthenware vessel tamei.

Contaminating from within

(IV) A fourth way that earthenware vessels are different from other utensils is that a tamei earthenware vessel spreads tumah to any food or beverage that is inside the vessel, even if the food or beverage never actually touched the vessel.

These four laws regarding earthenware vessels are all taught in a few words in the pasuk mentioned above: Furthermore, any part of them [the eight tamei creatures] that will fall inside any earthenware vessel, whatever is inside it will become tamei and you shall break it [the earthenware vessel].

The Torah mentions that an earthenware vessel contracts tumah only when something falls inside it, and does not say that the tamei substance must actually touch the earthenware vessel. Also, note that any food or beverage inside the earthenware vessel becomes tamei, even if it did not touch the earthenware vessel, but is suspended inside it. And, lastly, upon becoming tamei, the Torah mentions only one solution for the earthenware vessel: breaking it. There is no other way to make it tahor.

(11) Ovens and stoves

Let us return to the final pasuk quoted above, which discusses a special type of earthenware vessel: Anything on which part of a carcass falls will become tamei. An oven or stove should be destroyed, because they are tamei, and when you use them, they will be tamei.

The ovens of the era of the Torah and Chazal were made of earthenware. Their shape was tubular, meaning that they were completely open on top and bottom. The open bottom was placed over a hollow in the ground, and then the outside of the oven was lined with mud or clay to insulate it well. Fuel was placed in the hollow inside the oven and kindled by means of an opening in the side. The food being cooked or baked was placed inside, either through this opening or through an opening at the top. When these ovens were used as stoves, pots of food were placed on the open top. When they were used as ovens, the open top was covered, usually with a piece of earthenware.

I explain these facts not for anthropological documentation, but so that we can better understand both the pasuk of the Torah and the halacha. Although ovens and stoves were made of earthenware, the Torah mentions them as a different category. This is because other earthenware vessels become tamei only when they have a beis kibul, a receptacle. Under this definition, earthenware ovens and stoves should not become tamei, since they have no bottom. The Torah teaches that ovens and stoves are susceptible to tumah, and have the rules of other earthenware vessels, despite the fact that they have no beis kibul.

There are halachic ramifications to this distinction, but we will not discuss that in this article. The intrepid reader is referred to a halachic discussion in Ohalos 12:1, and the commentaries thereon.


This article and one I sent out for parshas Shemini have served to introduce some of the basic rules of tumah and taharah; this one, as these laws relate to utensils. We hope and pray to be able to observe all of these laws soon.