August had never been afraid of dying, for all he thought about it. It bothered him, of course, the idea of being unmade, but his own death was a concept he couldn’t grasp, no matter how hard he tried.
But LOSS – that was a thing that scared him. The loss of those he cared for. The loss of himself. The absence left by both.
– Victoria Schwab<1>
We’re all familiar with the terms tumah and taharah, usually translated “impurity” and “purity.” While most of the rules do not apply today, the Torah spends a lot of time talking about the topic. A number of chapters of Sefer Vayikra are devoted to its details. But what does it mean?
The standard explanation is that we simply do not know. Everything about tumah is considered a gezerat hakatuv (divine decree) and a chok.<2> What’s a chok? Many people assume that it is a mitzvah that cannot be understood. Even Shlomo HaMelekh, the wisest person who ever lived,<3> threw in the towel and admitted that the classic chok – the parah adumah, the red heifer – was too hard for him to understand.<4> And yet, despite Shlomo’s failure, practically every commentary ever written on parah adumah has tried to understand it! How can this be? The answer is that a chok can indeed be understood, it’s just that the explanation isn’t obvious. As the Rambam puts it:
Mishpatim are the mitzvot whose reason has been revealed and whose benefit in observing them in this world is known (such as the prohibitions of stealing and murdering, and the obligation to honor your parents). Chukim are the mitzvot whose reason is not known [but they still have a reason]. . . .<5>
So just because tumah is a chok doesn’t mean we can’t understand it, but rather that we have to look harder for an explanation. Here are two approaches that can shed light on tumah.
TUMAH REPRESENTS SIN
Many discussions of tzara’at<6> present it as a punishment for a sin. Lashon hara is just one of seven sins suggested in the Gemara as causes of tzara’at.<7> Along the same lines, it may be that all the forms of tumah are associated with sin. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann points out:
We find clear proof to the fact that tum’a is but a symbol of sin from the use made by the prophets, while speaking of the purification from sin, of the same expressions employed by the Torah to express purification from tum’a: “Wash yourselves clean” (Yeshayahu 1:16); “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your impurities” (Yechezkel 36:25); “Purge me with hyssop until I am pure” (Tehillim 51:9). These expressions prove as clearly as possible that the prophets viewed tum’a as symbolic of sin, and purification from tum’a as symbolic of purification from sin.<8>
In fact, Rav Hoffmann theorizes that all the types of tumah can be divided into three categories, corresponding to three types of sin: against God, against oneself, and against other people or society.<9>
Alternatively, tumah can be understood as being far from God or closed to Godliness. This is the approach of Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, former Chief Rabbi of the Old City:
The word korban is from the same root as the word karov – close; the korban serves to bring one closer to Hashem. Sin distances us from Hashem, and the subsequent offering returns us to Him. Sin or impurity hardens and seals our hearts, as it is written, “All the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up, and filled them with earth” (Bereishit 26:15). Onkelos interprets “the Philistines stopped up” as “tamonun Plishtaei” – from the same root as tamei, impure. Becoming impure implies sealing a person’s heart and denying it the ability to receive and absorb the G-dly light and Divine holiness.
The word tahor, pure, on the other hand, implies opening the hearts – similar to the word tzohar – a window (see Bereishit 6:16). (The letters tet and tzadi at times can be interchanged; thus the word tzohoraim – noon – is called tihara in Aramaic.) A person who is tahor has a tzohar in his heart through which the G-dly light can penetrate. (Tzadi is also sometimes interchangeable with the letter zayin; thus tzohar also implies zohar, radiance.) Noontime is referred to as tzohoraim, because at that point the sun is found between two windows (tzohoraim means two tzohar, just as chodshayim means two months). At midday, the sun is exactly between the east and west windows, which we refer to when we say “Who splits the windows of the firmament (uvoke’a chalonei rakia).” A person who is tahor is one who has a window in his heart through which the G-dly light can pass. This opening of the window of the heart is what the mikvah does for one who tovels in it and what a korban accomplishes for the one offering it.<10>
To sum up this first approach, tumah is either a punishment for sin or a reflection of a spiritual problem.
TUMAH REPRESENTS DEATH
A very different understanding of tumah appears in the Kuzari. When the Khazar king asks for an explanation of tzara’at, the rabbi answers:
. . . tzara’at and abnormal discharges are related to the spiritual impurity related to death. Death is the absolute spiritual deficiency, and a limb afflicted with tzara’at is like a corpse in this respect. Similarly, an abnormal discharge also represents death, in that the discharged material had a certain life-force, which gave it the ability to become an embryo that would eventually develop into a human being. The loss of this material, then, is in opposition to the property of life and the spirit of life.<11>
In other words, tumah is related to death and decay, mortality and the loss of life. Rav Ahron Soloveichik formulates this approach as follows:
The verse “Yirat Hashem tehorah omedet la’ad – the fear of God is pure, it is everlasting” (Psalms 19:10) gives us a clue as to the real meaning of taharah (purity). Purity is that which is permanent. Purity is to be equated with permanence, continuity, and everlastingness. Impurity, on the other hand, is to be equated with deterioration, decomposition, and temporality. The corpse of a dead person is tameh (impure), because it represents the decomposition and deterioration of a heretofore noble existence. Neveilah (the carcass of an animal) is impure because it represents the deterioration of a former animal existence.<12>
What about the other types of tumah? The death theory can explain them as well. Rav Avi Weiss refers to the above formulation of Rav Soloveichik and elaborates:
A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense – not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying, but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away.
The metzora (leper), whose body is encompassed with skin lesions, is also considered in a state of tumah. The leper is tameh because he is slowly disintegrating, while those who associate with him decline emotionally as they observe the wasting away of another human being.
The ba’al keri (one who has had a seminal issue) and the niddah (menstruating woman) may fall into the same framework, for they represent in the strictest sense the loss of potential life.
No wonder, then, the process of purification involves immersion in the mikveh, a natural body of water. This is because water is the clearest symbol of life – an appropriate spiritual antidote to tumah, which is nothing less than what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik described as “the whisper of death.”<13>
In a variation of this approach, Dr. Rachel Adler suggests that tumah is less about death and more about the transition between life and death. Her article presents a poetic understanding of tumah and taharah. Since it is not online, I’d like to quote it here extensively:
Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumah is evil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory.. . .
How, then, does one contract tumah? Its most powerful source is a human corpse. Touching this inanimate shell, we recall that a person inhabited it, willing it to sing, to make love, to pray. Whoever touches a human corpse sees in its face his own. Whoever is in the presence of death is in the presence of his own death. For that reason, whoever comes into contact with a corpse or is in the same [building] with one himself becomes a source of tumah and imparts tumah to others upon contact. An animal carcass also is a source of tumah, although its tumah is less powerful than that of the corpse. Nevertheless, it breathed, it moved upon the earth, and now it is still. We recognize its stillness as our own. Tumah is also caused by the biblical disease tzaraat, usually (inaccurately) translated “leprosy.” The person who had tzaraat had to withdraw from society until he was cured, and that, perhaps, is why the sages compared him to a dead man.
“In my beginning is my end,” writes T. S. Eliot. In all creation is the seed of destruction. All that is born dies, and all that begets. Begetting and birth are the nexus points at which life and death are coupled. They are the beginnings which point to an end. Menstruation, too, is a nexus point. It is an end which points to a beginning. At the nexus points, the begetter becomes tameh. The fluids on which new life depends – the semen, the rich uteral lining which sustains embryonic life – the departure of these from the body leaves the giver tameh. The menstrual blood, which inside the womb was a potential nutriment, is a token of dying when it is shed. Menstruation is an autumn within, the dying which makes room for new birth. Semen has always symbolized man’s vital force. . . .
The nexus points are those in which there appears to be a departure or a transfer of vital force. One of the most powerful nexus points, therefore, is childbirth. The infant who passes from the womb into the world undergoes a transition from potential life into life itself.<14> The womb of woman is associated with the womb of earth. Living things grow out of the earth, dead things return to it and are buried in it. Seeds must be buried to bring them to life. The womb is the dark warm place in which we do not live, but live in potentia. We think of death as a return to the womb because the womb is the place of birth.
What were the practical consequences of tumah? When one became tameh, he acted out his own death by withdrawing from the great life-affirming Jewish symbols. A niddah, a menstruating woman, could not engage in sexual intercourse; a person with tzaraat was isolated from human society; and no person in any category of tumah could enter the Great Temple at Jerusalem. It is easy to see why the Great Temple would have been interdicted [prohibited — U.C.] for the tameh. There was the dwelling of the Master of time, the God whose dread and unarticulated Name meant “was-is-will be.” Who but the deathless can stand in the presence of the undying King? The laws of taharah teach [us] to impersonate immortality. It is a mask we assume, this taharah, just as tumah is a mask of death. Even after the Israelites and the sanctuary have been readied for the Shekhinah by means of the rites of taharah, the Torah still speaks of the Tent of Meeting – the earthly resting place of the Shekhinah – as abiding “with them in the midst of their uncleanness [tumah]” (Leviticus 16:16). Ultimately, our taharah is but a mime of taharah, a shadow of the taharah of God, a semblance of our own taharah which is to be.. . .
The mikveh simulates the original living water, the primal sea from which all life comes, the womb of the world, the amniotic tide on which the unborn child is rocked. To be reborn, one must reenter this womb and “drown” in living water. We enter the mikveh naked as an infant enters the world. . . . We emerge from the mikveh tahor, having confronted and experienced our own death and resurrection. Taharah is the end beyond the end, which constitutes a beginning, just as the messianic “end of days” is in actuality the beginning of days.<15>
To sum up, we examined two attitudes toward tumah, connecting it with either sin or death. Even if the theories do not fully “reveal the reason” of this chok, they give us a lot to think about.
1. Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity #2) (Greenwillow, 2017), Verse 4, Chapter 9. In the paperback version, it’s on p. 465. In the epub version, it’s on p. 301.
2. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Mikvaot 11:12. This is the very end of Sefer Taharah.
3. Melakhim Alef 5:11.
4. Bamidbar Rabba 19:3 (at the end), interpreting Kohelet 7:23.
5. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Me’ilah 8:8. This is the very end of Sefer Avodah.
6. For an interesting approach to the identification of tzara’at, see Rav Eitan Mayer’s article on Parshat Metzora, the part beginning “BUT WHAT IS IT?”
7. Erkhin 16a.
8. Rav David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), Commentary on Vayikra, Vol. 1 (p. 219). The Hebrew text can be found online at https://mg.alhatorah.org/Dual/R._David_Zvi_Hoffmann/Vayikra/11.25
This English paragraph is from Rav David Silverberg’s translation of “The Reasons Behind Tzara’at and Other Forms of Tum’a” by Rav Elchanan Samet (who is unconvinced by Rav Hoffmann’s theory). https://www.etzion.org.il/en/reasons-behind-tzaraat-and-other-forms-tuma
10. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, “HaRav Nebenzahl on Parshat Vayikra: Mesirut Nefesh,” Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh’s Newsletter, Adar 5762 and 5773.
11. Rav Yehudah HaLevi (1075-1141), The Kuzari II:60-61. The king responds: “This suffices to explain that which was intellectually difficult to understand, why this excess bodily mass – namely, seminal discharges – can impart spiritual impurity, despite the fact that semen can create life, whereas urine and feces do not impart impurity, despite their disgusting odor and appearance and their more abundant amounts.” (This translation is by Rav David Silverberg in the article cited above in Note 8. It seems to be partly based on Rav N. Daniel Korobkin’s English Kuzari published by Feldheim in 2009).
12. Rav Ahron Soloveichik (1917-2001), “Torah Tzniut Versus New Morality and Drugs,” Tradition 13:2 (Fall 1972), p. 54.
13. Rav Avraham (Avi) Weiss, “The Meaning of Tumah,” Shabbat Forshpeis, Tazria-Metzora 5767 (April 20-21, 2007).
14. For more on why there was tumah for a woman who gave birth, see my article “Tumah: Birth as Death.”
15. Dr. Rachel Adler, “Tumah and Taharah-Mikveh,” in Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, eds. The [First] Jewish Catalog (JPS, 1973), pp. 167-170.