A Tumah Primer 1
Add one more distinction to the already dizzying number of details you know about tumah: prepositions count.
It is no accident that the Torah warns us to keep away from some kinds of tumah with a “bais,” and others with a “lamed.” In some cases we are admonished against becoming tameh in or by these activities. Here, the Torah uses a “bais” in presenting the odious object or activity. In regard to a different class of objects, the Torah distances us from tumah that comes about through them, meaning by meeting up with them, and the impression they leave upon us..
The distinction is clear. Some things – notably forbidden foods and illicit relations – concretely change us for the worse, by our making them part of ourselves, or committing immoral acts with them. Other objects need to be avoided only because of the mental associations we make with them, the trains of thought they set off in us. We avoid them not for what they are, but for what they get us to think about.
In our parshah, the Torah lists many animals forbidden to us as food. It lists large animals, fish, birds, winged insects, and small crawlers. This anti-menu is interrupted by a long consideration of tumah produced by contact with the bodily remains of some of the items on that list. These forms of tumah are all part of the second class. They function through their mental associations – and only in the context of entering the Mikdosh and functioning within the requirements of its offerings. The Torah in effect warns that contact with various dead animals sets us thinking in a manner that is inconsistent with the essential message of the Mikdosh – striving to achieve the highest spiritual plane available to Man. This kind of tumah is decidedly impermanent. Because it is symbolic, we feel its impact only when it is immediately associated with the Mikdosh, in time and in place. With the passage of time (הערב שמש) and by experiencing a countervailing message (immersion in a mikvah), the negativity is tamed, and we revert to our previous position.
The two classes of tumah are intertwined because they work in concert. Concrete-tumah laws won’t work to make or keep us holy without contact-tumah laws. Modifying our diet, eschewing certain foods, will make it easier for us to become holy, but they will not confer holiness upon us alone. Real spiritual progress comes only when we become constantly and incessantly preoccupied with growth (symbolized by the Mikdosh and all its activities), when we become discerning and selective about absolutely everything with which we come in contact, and question how that contact will affect our inner lives. Practicing the laws of contact-tumah makes us do just that.
In general, the laws of contact-tumah keep us away from the most insidious message of Death. When we witness death, we are likely on some level to absorb the idea that we are nothing but material, programmed to live and dies by random laws of Nature. If we are nothing but dross of an unseeing universe, then we enjoy no moral freedom to make choices and assume responsibility for our inner lives and stature. Contact-tumah applies to the large animals (mammals) that we most resemble, and eight of the smaller animals (mammals again – at least those we can identify) that live in closest proximity to Man. It does not apply to animals that live in different realms, like the fish of the sea and the birds of the air. These laws apply only to objects that are part of the realm in which Man most often exercises his power to choose his moral station. They do not apply to things still rooted to the earth, to things that have not been selected by Man for his use. They apply specifically to the objects through which Man expresses his personality and his endeavors – his food, his clothing and the utensils he uses.
The details of these laws support the idea that we deal here with symbolic, rather than concrete, changes within us. For example, containers represent possessions; pots represent food preparation; tools represent our labor. (Interestingly, even forbidden foods, which are permitted only to non-Jews, are bound by the laws of contact-tumah. This can only mean that the message of Mikdosh aims to transform not only Jews, but all of mankind. The ethic that treats food as entertainment, or sensory stimulation, or even survival falls far short of the mission of the Torah. One day, the striving for spiritual elevation symbolized by the Mikdosh will succeed in imparting a sense of holiness and elevating the mundane to all humankind.)
One could see contact-tumah as an academic exercise to all but the Kohanim who served in the Mikdosh. The rules of tumah and taharah impacted only aspects of life associated with the Temple and its offerings, we would think, and all others could look at these laws as a curiosity. Two arguments belie this assessment.
Firstly, the impact of these laws was felt far beyond the Kohanim, and far beyond a much larger group who practiced them voluntarily. There are references in the early seforim of Nach that show a larger group of people who recognized that these laws were an important educative tool for people aspiring to spiritual growth. Many ordinary people treated their daily, mundane food as if it were subject to the rules that govern offerings, and therefore governed by the same requirements of staying tahor. In time, these people were referred to as Chaverim, members of an open society pledged to treat the ordinary as if it were holy. Because they had to avoid much of what others enjoyed without special vigilance, they came to be called Perushim, those who “stayed away” from the things and people that all others made part of their lives. It is likely that some of our greatest leaders and prophets sprang from the early formulations of this group in the infancy of our people. It is much more likely that this was true than that they simply appeared in a vacuum.
(The Perushim – or Pharisees as the Western world calls them – would be mocked and scorned by those who turned their message on its head, in an attempt to contrast them negatively with the founder of their religion. The word Pharisee became synonymous with hypocrite. Ironically, it was the Perushim who had the keenest eye for spotting hypocrisy and criticizing it. To the real Perushim, the mechanics of taharah was only one aspect of the life they attempted to lead, which involved a complex prescription for moral excellence. They detested hypocrisy, and ferreted it out of hiding. Several caricatures in one passage in the Gemara demonstrate this. They had strong words for the pious chasid, who cared more for his own purity than for human life; for the young woman overly zealous in her devotions; to the widow who showed off her “frumkeit;” to the self-appointed Torah decisors who lacked the depth to do the job. All of these, claimed the Gemara, are destroyers of the world.)
There is little question that the laws of contact-tumah helped shape the progress of a core group of spiritual climbers, and that their gifts and talents spilled over to enrich the rest of our people.
There is a second argument for the impact of these laws on non-Kohanim. The Mikdosh did reach out to the common man, who had to deal with issue of tumah and taharah in regard to terumah, ma’aser, etc. Moreover, three times a year, everyone came to Yerushalayim, where they were expected to present themselves in a state of taharah at the Mikdosh. To ready themselves for this experience, they had to practice the laws of tumah, making themselves conscious of their every move and its relation to Hashem. Picture the weeks before a holiday, and the spirit that had to come over every Jewish man and woman! All work and craftsmanship was fixed in their minds as relating to a Divine purpose, saturated with a sense of moral freedom. The simple tools of each Jew’s trade became halachically important entities, since they had to be guarded against tumah or conveying tumah. Living under the requirements of taharah for even this brief period banished so much commonness and degeneration that had accumulated in the months that preceded!
One aspect of this beautiful way of life remains, millennia after the destruction of the Temple. The Gemara tells us that the first step in joining the Chaverim was precision in the laws of netilas yadayim, washing hands before eating ordinary food. Each time we wash for bread, we participate in part in this great system that made our ancestors conscious of the great gift of moral freedom, and our obligation to be discerning about each and every interaction between ourselves and the world around us.
1.Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 11:24,46
2.With the single exception of the carcass of birds that are tehorim – and only בבית הבליעה
3.See Shmuel I 20:26 and 21:6
6.So it is understood by Rashi and Rambam, Temai’ai Mishkav u-Moshav, 10:1-2