Tumah and taharah
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In Jewish law, ṭumah (Hebrew: טומאה, pronounced [tˤumʔa]) and ṭaharah (Hebrew: טהרה, pronounced [tˤaharɔ]) are the state of being ritually "impure" and "pure", respectively. The Hebrew noun ṭum'ah, meaning "impurity", describes a state of ritual impurity. A person or object which contracts ṭumah is said to be ṭamé (טמא Hebrew adjective, "ritually impure"), and thereby unsuited for certain holy activities and uses (kedushah in Hebrew) until undergoing predefined purification actions that usually include the elapse of a specified time-period.
The contrasting Hebrew noun ṭaharah (טָהֳרָה) describes a state of ritual purity that qualifies the ṭahor (טָהוֹר; ritually pure person or object) to be used for kedushah. The most common method of achieving ṭaharah is by the person or object being immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath). This concept is connected with ritual washing in Judaism, and both ritually impure and ritually pure states have parallels in ritual purification in other world religions.
The laws of ṭumah and ṭaharah were generally followed by the Israelites, particularly during the First and Second Temple Period, and to a limited extent are a part of applicable halakha in modern times.
The Hebrew noun ṭum'ah (טֻמְאָה) derives from the verb ṭamé (טָמֵא), in the qal form of the verb "to become impure"; in the niphal to "defile oneself"; and in the transitive Piel to defile something or pronounce something impure. The verb stem has a corresponding adjective, ṭamé (טָמֵא), "impure".
Likewise the Hebrew noun ṭahara (טָהֳרָה) is also derived from a verb, in this case ṭaher (טָהֵר) "to be ritually pure". and in the transitive piel "to purify". The verb and noun have a corresponding adjective, ṭahor (טָהוֹר), "ritually pure". The word is a cognate to the Arabic word 'طهارة' ṭahāra(h) (pronounced almost identically, with the elongation of the second 'a') which has the same meaning in Islam.
Some sources, such as Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 7:2, claim that the meaning is "entombed", meaning the person or item that is in the tame state is blocked, and not in a state of receiving holy transmission. Ṭahor, by contrast, is defined as "pure" in the sense that the person or object is in a clear state and can/may potentially serve as a conduit for Divine and Godly manifestation. Although ṭumah and ṭaharah is sometimes translated as unclean and clean, it is more a spiritual state than a physical one. Once initiated (for the physical signs that initiate tzaraath, zav and niddah, see below) it is generally immeasurable and unquantifiable by known mechanical detection methods, there is no measure of filth, unsanitary, or odorous affiliation with the state of ṭumah, nor any mechanically measurable level of cleanliness, clarity, or physical purity for the state of ṭaharah.
In the Bible
The noun form of ṭumah is used around 40 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is generally translated as "uncleanness" in English language Bibles such as the KJV, and JPS Tanakh. The majority of uses are in Leviticus. Though uses for national impurity occur in Ezra and Ezekiel, and Zechariah prophesies the removal of the "prophets and spirit of impurity (רוּחַ הַטֻּמְאָה) from the land". The adjective tamei (טָמֵא) "impure", is much more common.
The verb form of ṭaharah (טָהֳרָה), the verb ṭaher (טָהֵר) "be pure", is used first in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 35:2, where Jacob tells his family to "put away strange gods, and be pure".
- Ritual impurity – the opposite of taharah ("purity"), also known as "impurity of the body".
- Moral impurity – the opposite of kedushah ("sanctity"), also known as "impurity of the soul"; this category also includes activities which are disgusting or abominable.
Activities which create impurity
The Torah, particularly the book of Leviticus, lists various activities which create an "impure" (tamei) status:
- A person who touches a corpse becomes impure.
- A person who touches something that has been made impure by a corpse becomes impure.
- A person who touches or carries carrion becomes impure.
- A person who touches or shifts the carcass of one of the eight sheratzim.
- A vessel or clay oven upon which falls one of eight dead creeping things becomes impure.
- A woman, upon giving birth, becomes impure for 7 day for a son or 14 days for a daughter.
- A person who has been diagnosed with tzaraat is impure.
- A house which has been diagnosed with tzaraat is impure, as are its contents.
- A man or woman with an unnatural emission from the genitals (zav/zavah), or a menstruating woman (niddah), are impure. A person who touches them, or who touches their chair, or vessels that they touch, is impure.
- A man who has had a seminal discharge, or a garment touched by semen, is impure.
- A person who eats meat of animals that have died of themselves or been killed by beasts becomes impure.
- A priest who performs certain roles in the red heifer sacrifice becomes impure.
- If a corpse is present in a house, people and objects within the house become impure.
Some of these activities are forbidden (i.e. eating non-kosher meat), others are permitted (i.e. sex between a married couple), and others are unavoidable (i.e. if a person dies suddenly while other people are in the house). Thus, there is no automatic moral stigma to becoming "impure".
Implications of impure status
Certain activities are prohibited as a result of acquiring this "impure" status. For example:
- Before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the people were warned not to approach their wives (presumably due to semen causing impurity).
- One who is impure due to tzaraat, genital emissions, or touching a corpse, had to live outside the desert encampment.
- Priests could only eat sacrificial meat while pure.
- One who is impure due to a corpse could not visit the sanctuary without making it spiritually impure, which is a crime punished by karet.
Just as it is a severe offense to bring impurity into the Israelite sanctuary, "impurity" is also seen as a means of nullifying a worship site of other religions; though the rules for this impurity are not made clear.
Becoming pure again
Different forms of impurity requires various rituals in order to regain a "pure" (tahor) status. For example:
- Impurity due to seminal emission can be purified by immersing in a ritual bath after the next nightfall.
- Impurity due to tzaraat requires waiting seven days, shaving one's hair, washing one's clothes, immersing one's body, and offering a Temple sacrifice to achieve purification.
- Impurity from touching a corpse requires a special Red Heifer sacrifice and ritual to achieve purification.
The term tumah is also used to refer to certain sins, for which there is no specific ritual to remove the impure status. For example:
- Sexual sins such as incest, adultery, rape, bestiality
- Consulting the Ov or Yidoni 
- Delivering one's child to Moloch
- Leaving a hanged criminal's corpse on the scaffold overnight
- According to Malbim, the laws of kashrut fall in this category.
In a number of cases, no specific sin is mentioned; overall sinful behavior has led to impurity.
Christine Hayes argues that moral impurity is the reason for the gentile expulsion and alienation that occurs in Ezra–Nehemiah. However, S.M. Olyan argues that Ezra and Nehemiah's attempt of the restoration of Israel to its original state was expressed through the expulsion and alienation of foreign peoples that was caused by both ritual and moral impurities. The Judean people believed that Israel and the priestly bloodline of Israel in itself was pure, being the chosen nation of their God. Furthermore, when the men of Israel committed to relations with Gentile people the acts took away from their purity. Olyan argues that there were different actions that were categorized by the Judean people as ritual impurity and moral impurity. Moral impurity can simply be removed, as in physical removal or separation between groups; thus expulsion of the Gentiles from the Judean environment was enough to re-purify the environment. However, ritual impurity is much more serious. Olyan argues that ritual impurity is deeply embedded into covenants, thus a religious ritual must be performed to rid the impurity from the people group.
In rabbinic literature
Neither the Babylonian nor the Jerusalem Talmud contains systematic commentaries to the tractates of Tohorot (except for Niddah), as these laws had little practical relevance after the destruction of the Temple. However, the laws are discussed many times in other tractates, and in later rabbinic literature.
Maimonides clarifies that, in addition to all of Israel, the priests are expected to be knowledgeable and fluent in the general and specifics of ṭumah and ṭaharah law. Given his role of Temple service and year round consumption of terumah, each priest was required to be in a ṭahor state.
Mandatory or optional
The mainstream view among rishonim and non-Kabbalistic authorities is that one is permitted to become tamei (except on those occasions when one must visit the Temple, or touch holy objects), and thus there is no obligation to attempt to remain tahor. As an example, it is not only permitted but a mitzvah to tend to a dead person, even though this causes impurity.
One category that was commonly kept in Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times is ṭumath ochlin v'mashkin (consuming food and drink that did not become ṭamei). Sages such as Rabban Gamaliel and Hiyya the Great encouraged eating only pure food at all times. Targum Yonathan considered this to be implicit in Exodus 22:30. One who kept this stringency was called a porush, meaning "separated" (from ṭumah). This was also one of the criteria for being a haver (a "friend" or "fellow" with whom the rabbis could eat without risk of violating purity laws), and according to some, the main criterion.
Additionally, some rabbis advocated abstaining from the midras of a niddah. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson discouraged abstaining from any object made impure by a menstruating woman in modern times, with the exception for unique individuals.
Hierarchy of impurity
The rabbis describe a hierarchy of levels of impurity. In general, each level can result from touch by the level above it. The levels are:
- Avi avot hatumah (grandfather of impurity) - a human corpse
- Av HaTumah (father of impurity) - Maimonides enumerates 11 objects which have this status:
- Tameh met - a living person who has touched a corpse
- Tumat sheretz - the dead body of a swarming animal (sheretz) listed in Leviticus 11:29-30
- Tumat nevelah - the body of a land animal which died without ritual slaughter; the body of a non-kosher land animal which died in any manner; a kosher bird which died without ritual slaughter receives this status in relation to its consumption but not its touch
- Shichvat zera - human semen which has left the body
- Mei hatat - water into which ashes of the red heifer were mixed
- People who were involved in the red heifer procedure and in certain procedures of the Yom Kippur sacrifices
- Niddah - a menstruant woman; a man who has had sex with such a woman; the woman's blood, spit, and urine; objects which she has sat, reclined, or rode upon
- Yoledet - a woman in the period after she gives birth; the same related categories as with niddah
- Zavah - a woman with abnormal genital discharge; the same related categories as with niddah
- Zav - a man with abnormal genital discharge; his spit, urine, semen, and discharge; objects which he sat or rode [or reclined??] upon
- Metzora - a person who has contracted tzaraat, and in the purification period after recovery; a garment or house infected by tzaraat
- In addition, the rabbis declared several rabbinic categories of av hatumah.
- Rishon letumah (first level of impurity) or vlad hatumah (child of impurity) - a person, vessels, food, or drink which have touched an av hatumah
- Sheni letumah (second level of impurity):
- Shlishi letumah (third level of impurity) - sanctified goods which have touched sheni letumah
- Revii letumah (fourth level of impurity) - sanctified goods which have touched shlishi letumah
- Hamishi letumah (fifth level of impurity) - According to Maimonides this status does not exist, and revii letumah cannot impurify other objects. However, some sources suggest that this status might exist. In addition, red heifer waters can have a status similar to this.
Impurity of scrolls
The rabbis declared Torah scrolls to be impure by rabbinic law. This seemingly strange law had a practical purpose: it discouraged Jews from storing their terumah produce alongside Torah scrolls, which attracted mice and caused the Torah scrolls to be nibbled on as well.
In modern times
Following the destruction of the Second Temple, ritual impurity status ceased to have practical consequences, with the exception of niddah and zav/zavah. These rules are still practiced in Orthodox Judaism.
In Conservative Judaism, while the concept of niddah and a prohibition on sexual relations during the niddah period (including childbirth) are still agreed upon, recent decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards have endorsed multiple views about the concept of zavah, as well as the tumah status of a niddah. The liberal view held that the concepts of ṭumah and ṭaharah are not relevant outside the context of a Holy Temple (as distinct from a synagogue; hence a niddah cannot convey ṭumah today), found the concept of zavah no longer applicable, and permitted spouses to touch each other in a manner similar to siblings during the niddah period (while retaining a prohibition on sexual conduct). The traditional view retained the applicability of the concepts of tumah, ṭaharah, and zavah, and retained a prohibition on all contact.
- Martin S. Jaffee Early Judaism: religious worlds of the first Judaic millennium 2006 - 277 "For the conceptual background of rabbinic conceptions of cleanliness and uncleanliness, including the relation of these concepts to moral conditions"
- The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation IV: Pesahim ed. Jacob Neusner - 1993 "P. If the Israelites were half clean and half unclean, these prepare the offering by themselves, ... Kahuna's ruling: R. Lo, if half of the Israelites were clean and half unclean, the clean ones observe the first Passover and the"
- Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon article ṭa'ama
- Johnson M. Kimuhu Leviticus: The Priestly Laws and Prohibitions from the Perspective of Ancient Near East and Africa. 2008 Vol. 115 - Page 352 citing Helmer Ringgren in Bolterweck Theological Dictionary of the OT
- Michael Katz (Rabbi), Gershon Schwartz Searching for meaning in Midrash: lessons for everyday living 2002 Page 166 "This spirit is the spirit of impurity, as it is written, 'And I will also make the "prophets" and the unclean spirit vanish from the land' (Zechariah 13:2). Water of purification is sprinkled upon him, and it flees."
- Malbim, HaTorah VeHaMitzvah, commentary on Vayikra 11:43, Vayikra 5:2-3
- David Tzvi Hoffman, introduction to Leviticus 11 (link); his term for "moral impurity" is טומאת הקדושות.
- Numbers 19:11, 19:16
- Leviticus 5:13, Numbers 19:22, Haggai 2:13
- Leviticus 11:24-40
- Leviticus 11:29-30
- Leviticus 11:32-33
- Leviticus 12:2-5
- Leviticus 13
- Leviticus 14:36-47
- Leviticus 15
- Leviticus 15:16-17
- Leviticus 17:15
- Numbers 19:7,10,21
- Numbers 19:14
- Leviticus 11:8
- Leviticus 15:16, Deuteronomy 24:1
- Exodus 19:15
- Leviticus 13:46, Numbers 5:2-3
- Numbers 18:11,13
- Numbers 19:13,20
- 2 Kings 23:8,10,13; Isaiah 30:22
- Leviticus 15:16
- Leviticus 14:9
- Numbers 19
- Genesis 34:5,13,27; Leviticus 18; Numbers 5; Deuteronomy 24:4; Ezekiel 8:6,18:11,22:11,33:26
- Leviticus 19:31
- Leviticus 20:2
- Numbers 35:34
- Deuteronomy 21:23
- Jeremiah 2:23, 7:30, 32:34; Ezekiel 20:18
- For example Ezekiel 14:11, 36:17, Hoshea 6:10, Psalms 106:39
- Hayes, C. (1999). Intermarriage and impurity in ancient Jewish sources. Harvard Theological Review, 92(01), 11.
- Olyan, S. M. (2004). Purity ideology in Ezra-Nehemiah as a tool to reconstitute the community. Journal for the Study of Judaism, 35(1), 1-16.
- Maimonides, end of introduction to Seder Taharoth
- R' Aharon Lichtenstein, Taharot: Basic concepts (1). Full text: בשורה התחתונה, הדעה הרווחת בראשונים היא שאין איסור להיטמא, ולא חובה להיטהר, כל עוד לא נמצאים במגע עם עולם של מקדש וקדשיו.
- Martin L. Gordon, Netilat yadayim shel shaharit: Ritual of crisis or dedication? Gesher: Yeshiva University Journal of Jewish Studies, v.8 p.36-72 (1981); see p.39 and footnotes 35-36
- Mishneh Torah, Tumat Ochlin 16:8-9; Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 109; Ramban, commentary to Leviticus 11:33
- Maimonides Chap. 13 of Tractate Nega'im. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michal, to Sifra on Leviticus 22:3 minor Chap. 66. b
- Sefer ha-Chinuch chap. 160
- Tosefta, Hagigah 3:3 - רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל הָיָה אוֹכֵל עַל טַהֲרַת חֻלִּין כָּל יָמָיו
- Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:3 page 8b: "רבי חייא רובא מפקד לרב: אין את יכול מיכול כל שתא חולין בטהרה אכול. ואם לאו תהא אכילת שבעה יומין מן שתא."
- Targum Yonathan to Exodus 22:30 translated "You shall be holy men to me" as "You shall be holy men, tasting non-Temple food in purity, to me".
- Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tumat Ochlin 16:12
- Tosefta, Damai 2:2 - המקבל עליו ארבעה דברים מקבלין אותו להיות חבר שלא ליתן תרומות ומעשרות לעם הארץ ושלא יעשה טהרות אצל עם הארץ ושיהא אוכל חולין בטהרה.
- Encyclopedia Talmudit: Haver
- Isaiah Horowitz vol. 1 p. 452; Menachem Recanati Pithkei Harakanti Chap. 586; Isaac Alfasi Teshuvath HaRif Chapter 297
- Menachem Mendel Schneerson Igrot Kodesh vol. 3 p. 374
- Maimonides, commentary to the Mishnah, introduction to Taharot; see also Mishnah Kelim 1:1-4, Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avot HaTuma’ot 6:12
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avot HaTuma’ot 8:2
- Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shear Avot Hatumot 11:4
- Pesachim 18
- Shabbat 14a