What is Tumah and Why You Should Care

Parshat Tazria – Metzora 5772
Here are the questions that I have been struggling with this week.

1. What is tumah?

2. Without the Temple, is tumah important?

3. In some circumstances it is the role of a priest to determine if a person or object is tamei. At other times, no priest is involved. Why the difference?

My Apology

I must confess that I’ve never felt like I had a firm grasp on the concepts of tumah and tahara. I was hoping to achieve more clarity this week.

There are a few things that I can say.

I can say that it is not a good idea to translate tumah or tamei as “unclean” and tahara or tahor as “clean.” Those translations imply that tumah and tahara are physical concepts.

It is clear that tumah and tahara are entirely spiritual concepts. In some sense, when a person or object becomes tamei it has moved away from kedusha / holiness.

In our world, the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple) is the most kadosh / holy of all places. No tamei object or person is allowed to enter until it has become tahor.

The process of becoming tahor depends upon the type of tumah that was experienced. Becoming tahor usually involves complete immersion in a mikvah, a pool of water. The coming out of the water is described as a type of renewal and rebirth.

Since God is kadosh, it follows that a person who is tamei is experiencing a measure of separation from Him. Sadly, the person may not feel that separation, but it is still very real.

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The following story is recounted in the Gemara (Baba Kama 41b):

Shimon Ha’amsoni (or as others read, Nehemiah Ha’amsoni) used to expound every ‘eth’ in the Torah.

When, however, he reached, (Deuteronomy 6:13) “eth the Lord your God you shall fear”, he abstained. [He could not equate the fear due to God with the fear due to any creation.]

His disciples said to him: Rabbi, what is to be done with all the expositions of ‘eth’ which you have already given? [If this “eth” cannot be expounded, then it stands to reason that the others also cannot be expounded.]

He said to them: Just as I have received reward for the expositions so shall I receive reward for the abstention.

This is how I feel. If I try to say more about the topic of tumah and tahara today, then I will be overstepping my bounds.

Your Turn

Please share your insights in the comments.

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A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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3 thoughts on “What is Tumah and Why You Should Care”

  1. The concept that a tamei person or object has moved away from G-d seems odd. One can become tamei against one’s will (e.g. zav, niddah) or even through doing a mitzvah (e.g. giving birth, burying the dead, etc).

    It makes sense that kadosh (set apart) includes being set apart from things which are tamei. As such, the notion that various kadosh things (the Temple, sacrifices, etc) must be kept away from tumah, and tumah must be kept away from them. It seems though that nearness to G-d is not achieved by being tahor but by doing mitzvot. I’m inclined to claim that even though G-d is kadosh and tahor (the former is said in lots of verses, the latter in songs) He is kadosh and tahor in a way entirely different from the way other things are kadosh and/or tahor.

    • Hi Ze’ev:
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Of course, a person can become tamei in the ways you mention. But when that happens, the person may not eat terumah or enter the Beit HaMikdash. That is an indication of a separation from God that did not previously exist.

      The mitzvah of Pesach Sheini was revealed to those who felt the loss of not being able to participate in offering the korban Pesach. Two of the opinions are that they were either involved with handling Yosef’s bones or the bodies of Nadav and Avihu. The sefer Ohr Gedaliahu talks about this.

      I agree that God’s kedusha is different from ours.

      Ramban at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim claims that the concept of “kedoshim tihyu” is to refrain from things that are permitted! I hope to talk a little about that later this week.

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