Do We Really Want to Be Tahor?
Question #1: Tanner Training
“In my work, I tan animal hides. Should I train for a
different parnasah, so that I can make a living after Moshiach
Question #2: Amorphous Amphibians
“What is the difference between a toad and a frog?”
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 about this topic. Yet, our prayers for Moshiach
to come at any moment require that we be fully knowledgeable of the laws of tumah
and taharah and 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 tips, 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 this way today. This is all the more so, since we have a
responsibility to comprehend the weekly parshah, and some of these laws
are discussed in parshas Shemini.
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 I have 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 koach,*** 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 here has a very specific halachic meaning. Let us
explore some of the laws of the different categories mentioned.
When discussing someone who
touched an animal carcass (neveilah), the Torah specifies that a person
becomes tamei whether he touched it or carried it, but notes a halachic
difference between the neveilah that was touched or was carried. Germane
to carrying the carcass, which is called tumas masa, the Torah says that
he must wash his clothes, but omits this detail when discussing someone
who touches a carcass, which is called tumas maga. We see here a difference
in halachah between the person who carries neveilah and one who
touches it, without moving it. One who carries 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, literally, tumah by connection. Any keilim,
utensils or appliances, that now become tamei will require immersion in
a mikveh or spring, and 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 he touches at the same time. Whereas he himself
becomes tamei and remains tamei, until he immerses in a mikveh
or spring and then awaits nightfall afterwards, what he touches at the time
By the way, for those in chutz
la’aretz, becoming tamei by moving or touching neveilah is
not an uncommon situation. For example, someone who moves a package of packaged
non-kosher meat in the supermarket has just carried neveilah and made
himself and his clothes tamei (although, in all likelihood, they were
At this point, let us examine one of our opening questions:
“In my work, I tan animal hides.
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 does
not generate tumah (see Mishnah Chullin 117b). Furthermore, even
if our questioner handles 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 once he becomes tamei, but this does not
preclude his earning his livelihood that way.
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 identify them, so that
we can properly observe these laws. If we follow the translation that I
provided above, 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 koach is identified correctly as a
monitor, it is the largest of the lizards and can grow as long as ten feet.
Yet, if our translation is correct,
other small creatures, such as snakes, frogs, insects and other rodents are not
included under the heading of tumas sheratzim. Although it may not seem
very aesthetically pleasing to touch other dead insects, rodents or other small
creatures, one does not become tamei when one touches them. One should
wash one’s hands because of sanitary reasons, but being sanitary and becoming tamei
are dissimilar concepts.
By the way, the word tzav,
which is 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 turtle is tamei.
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 between them, but
this is a halachic article. According to Rashi (Vayikra 11:29),
a toad is one of the eight sheratzim that are tamei, and a frog
is not (see Rashi, Shemos 7:29 and also see Mishnayos Taharos 5:1,4
and Rash and Bartenura).
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 or anything else he
touches while touching the sheretz does not become tamei, unless
it is 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 mitzvos, we realize that we can
never assume that we understand the reason for a mitzvah. In the instance of
most mitzvos, we explore possible reasons for a mitzvah in order to
enhance our experience when we observe it. This we do, when we can. However, I
have not found any commentary that endeavors to explain what it is about these eight
specific creeping creatures, but not any of the others, that generates tumah.
Utensils that become tamei
Returning to our passage, after
mentioning the tumah of neveilah and sheretz, the Torah
lists eight categories of items that become tamei from contact with neveilah
and sheretz. Among the specific items mentioned are: (3) wooden vessels,
(4) garments, (5) leather items, (6) sackcloth, (7) vessels described by an
obscure clause, “any vessel with which work is performed,” (8)
earthenware, (9) food and (10) beverages. Each of these categories has its own
specific laws, all of which are hinted at in the pasuk. For reasons that
will soon become obvious, I will divide this list into three groups. First we
will discuss items 3-7, which I will call, collectively, “immersible utensils.”
(3) Wooden utensils
Wooden vessels become tamei
when they have a receptable which can hold liquid (called a beis kibul)
or when people use them and place items atop them, such as a table (Rambam,
Hilchos Keilim 4:1). These ideas are intimated by the Torah when it
describes wooden vessels.
(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.
Yes, I wrote sacks, not socks.
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 for use as clothing, but was used in earlier generations similar to the
way that we would use burlap, as a bag or sack for storage or transportation.
(There are varieties of goat, such as cashmere and mohair, that produce
extremely fine wool used for garments, 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 explains that this verse
teaches that the following three items become tamei: The sling of a
slingshot, tefillin, and the envelope in which one places an amulet.
What do slingshots have in
common with tefillin and envelopes?
These are three items that
contain a beis kibul, a receptacle to hold something, yet someone might think
that they do not qualify as “vessels.” The Torah is teaching that these are
considered to be receptacles, or “vessels,” to become tamei. In the case
of the sling, it is meant to hold the marble, stone or other projectile, albeit
for a very brief period of time. In the case of tefillin, the batim of
the tefillin contain the parshiyos, and similarly in the case of
Note that I have separated earthenware and not included it
under the same category as I treated the other utensils. This is because
earthenware has many halachic differences, both lenient and 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 will not be discussing in this article.
(B) Utensils that do become tamei, but which can then
become tahor again, after they are immersed in a mikveh or
spring. This latter categoryis called klei shetifah, literally, immersible
(C) Earthenware vessels fall under a third category, because
once they become tamei, the only way they can become tahor again
is by breaking them. Immersing them in a mikveh or spring does not make
How is earthenware different?
There are also several other ways whereby halachah treats
earthenware vessels differently from how it treats immersible utensils. The
section of the Torah that I quoted above alludes to four of the ways that
earthenware vessels are different from immersible utensils.
Contaminate from outside
(I) Immersible utensils become contaminated when they come
in contact with neveilah, sheretz or other tamei sources,
regardless as to 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 service 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 I 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 inside the airspace of the earthenware vessel, even if the sheretz
or neveilah does not touch the vessel. Halachically, there is no
difference between the airspace of an earthenware vessel and touching it on the
inside – either way makes the earthenware vessel tamei.
Contaminating from the inside
(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
its airspace, even if the food or beverage never touched the vessel directly.
These four laws regarding earthenware
vessels are all taught in a few words in the pasuk that I mentioned
above: Furthermore, any part of them (that is, the eight tamei
creatures) that will fall inside any earthenware vessel, whatever is inside
it will become tamei and you shall break it (that is,the
The Torah mentions that an
earthenware vessel contracts tumah only when something falls inside it,
and, furthermore, it does not say that the tamei substance must actually
touch the earthenware vessel. Also, note that what is inside the earthenware
vessel becomes tamei, even if it did not touch the vessel. 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 pesukim
quoted above. At this point, we will discuss other halachos germane to
earthenware vessels. The above-quoted passage states: 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 somewhat
similar to a large donut, meaning 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 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 from on top. When
they were used this way as ovens, the open top was covered, usually with a
piece of earthenware. When these ovens were used as stoves, the pots of food
were placed on the open top.
My reasons for explaining these
facts is not as an archaeologist, but so that we can understand better both the
pasuk of the Torah and the halachah. Although ovens and stoves
were made of earthenware, the Torah mentions them under a different heading.
This is because other earthenware vessels become tamei only when they
have a beis kibul, a receptacle. Following 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, notwithstanding the fact that they have
no beis kibul.
There are halachic
ramifications of 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 has served as an introduction to some of the
basic rules of tumah and taharah, particularly as they relate to
utensils. We hope and pray to be able to observe all of these laws soon.
* This translation follows Malbim.
** With the exception of the koach, 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.