Impurity of the land of the nations

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Impurity of the land of the nations (Tumath eretz Ha'Amim טומאת ארץ העמים) is a rabbinic edict stipulating a specified degree of tumah (impurity) on all lands outside the Land of Israel.[1] The effective demarcating lines where those in order at the time of the Second Temple period; essentially between Acre in Northern Israel and Ashkelon in the South.[2]

Degree of tumah[edit]

The degree of tumah (טמא) levied on the lands outside the borders described was generally that of tumath met (becoming impure to a corpse),[3] but specifically not as stringent in all parameters to tumat met.[4]

Historical review[edit]

The edit was enacted, at first in partiality, by Jose ben Joezer and Jose ben Jochanan of Jerusalem in the 2nd century.[5] The edit enacted at the time where limited to a clump of soil originating outside the land of Israel that made its way into Israel and effectively branded that clump a safek tumah (perhaps impure but not impure for certain). The edict at the time did not include an edict on the airspace outside Israel.

Eighty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin, while still stationed in Jerusalem, added an edict deeming the airspace outside Israel to be tamei (impure).

The Sanhedrin, after its move to Usha, further added the restriction of a clump of earth originating from outside Israel be labeled tamei for certain.[6]

Reasoning and logic[edit]

From the specifics recorded in Mishnaic and Talmudic text, the reasoning and logic behind the apparently strict enactments seems to stem from concern of the Burial practices of the non-Jews during the second temple era.

The concern was that non-Jews would not bury their dead in established cemeteries, but would instead opt for burial at any opportune site -without erecting a fixed and element-proof tombstone marking the burial site.[7]

The Tosafists point out that another concern of Chazal was to discourage Israelites from leaving the Holy land by pointing out the tahor ("pure") qualities of the holy land and the merit of performing mitzvoth therein as opposed to the lands outside Israel where not all mitzvoth are mandatory or applicable.[8]


The edict effectively limited the international travel of a Kohen (due to the Torah-law restriction of Kohen to defile himself to tumah of a corpse and paraphernalia). The rabbinic authorities of the era where somewhat lax on the edict if the purpose of the Kohen's trip was of notable purpose; such as marriage, Torah study (under tutelage of a renowned rabbi) or for certain mitzvah purposes.[9]

Helena of Adiabene[edit]

A notable occurrence of strict application of the edict is quoted in the Mishnah;

(There happened) a story with Hilni the Queen that her son went to war. She said "if he will return from war in peace i will become a Nazirite for seven years", her son subsequently came from the war and she became a Nazrite for seven years. and at the end (of her seven-year period), she went up to the land (Judea). And Beit Hillel instructed her that she must observe her vow for seven more years (due to the edict of tumah placed on lands outside Israel[10])

— Mishna, Nazir 3:6

Tumath Ohel[edit]

There is a Tannaic debate as to whether entry to lands outside Israel in a tent ("Ohel") - meaning the person exiting Israel would not physically touch the ground outside Israel- would render the exitee tamei (impure) or not.[11]


  1. ^ Encyclopedia Talmudica, Shelomoh Yosef Zeṿin, 1992.
  2. ^ Mishna Oholoth 18:9, Tosefta thereof 18:14
  3. ^ i.e. as if the exitee had entered a cemetery, Mishnah Oholoth 2:3
  4. ^ Mishneh Torah (Maimonides), Hilchot Tumat Met 11:1,2
  5. ^ Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 6b
  6. ^ thus requiring kodesh flesh that comes into contact thereof to be burned - see talmud Shabbat 15b
  7. ^ thus, places not often chosen for burial were not included in the edict, for example the seashore - Mishnah Oholoth 18:6
  8. ^ Talmud Bavli, Nazir 54b, tosfoth "eretz ha'amim"
  9. ^ Talmud Yerushalmi, Nazir 7:1. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah,13a, Mishnah Torah (Rambam) hilchot aveiluth 3:14
  10. ^ i.e. her residence outside Israel invalidated her nazirite status due to the edict of tumah placed thereof (as nazerite laws demand a state of purity from tumath meith)
  11. ^ Talmud Bavli, Gittin 8b