The Meaning behind Tum’ah and Taharah by Shmuel Bak


Parashat Tazr’ia, begins Sefer VaYikra’s treatment of the topics of Tum’ah and Taharah, the laws of ritual purity and impurity. As many of the topics included in these two twin areas of Halachah do not apply for the most part to us nowadays, many make the mistake that these laws are not be studied. However, there are several reasons why these laws are still relevant and need to be studied fully.

Practically, one reason we need to know the laws of Tum’ah and Taharah is that we must understand the laws of purity in these times in order to prepare for the future. It is true that the majority of the laws dealing with such matters are not applicable nowadays, yet these laws will need to be known by all of Bnei Yisrael just as well as the laws of Kashrut are known nowadays when the third Beit HaMikdash is built. By teaching Bnei Yisrael laws that are contingent on the existence of the Beit HaMikdash, Hashem gives all of Bnei Yisrael a bright future to look forward to, that is to say, when the third Beit HaMikdash is built, when they will be able to take the knowledge that they have gained in the areas of purity and impurity and apply it[1].

We can also look at this question in a deeper way, and suggest that the laws of Tum’ah teach us how to deal with and understand death. Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Eivel 3) develops this idea when he discusses the importance of Meit Mitzvah, the Mitzvah to bury someone who has nobody else to bury his mortal remains. Rambam states that burying a Meit Mitzvah takes precedence over and overridesall religious obligations (see Megilah 3b), and all individuals who help in the burial of such a body are given a title of Chevrah Kadishah, or “sacred society.” This implies that touching a dead body is a positive (and sometimes required) action. However, the question can be asked­ if helping in burying a dead body is so important and special, then why does touching a dead body result in a person’s temporary exclusion from the Beit HaMikdash, the place where all of Bnei Yisrael are supposed to be welcome? Furthermore, coming in contact with a dead body makes one an Avi Avot HaTum’ah, or­ “father of all fathers of impurity”, which seems to be a most undesirable and hurtful connotation. Two possible answers can be suggested to answer that question. Firstly, the Jewish nation was born into a world so preoccupied with the mysteries of death – from the elaborate crypts of the Pyramids in Egypt to complex pagan burial rites, most of the religions and societies were fixated on man’s journey into the afterlife and communion with the souls of those who passed. In stark contrast, Hashem tells Bnei Yisrael to worry only about the present, and forbids them from trying to communicate with those that have passed, whether by contacting Ovot, ghosts, or Yid’onim, familiar spirits (VaYikra 19:31). Although Judaism has a belief in life after death, the concept is never addressed explicitly in Tanach, and therefore we are told to focus on this world and the people that are still alive by feeling the repercussions on our personal lives, as opposed to contacting spirits. Instead of the “mysteries of the dead”, we are given a routine to follow. Secondly, in many walks of life, death is part of a constant and normal routine. Doctors, nurses, and soldiers all deal with death firsthand, and Death’s trail can be found scattered throughout the daily news. Thus, especially nowadays, we can easily find ourselves at risk of being completely desensitized to the concept of death. Hashem therefore created the state of being Tamei to say, in effect, that while man’s encounter with death may be unavoidable, He limits our ritual observance for a period of time to impress upon us the significance and tragedy of death.

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