Seder Toharot (Ritual Purities)

Laws regarding purity and impurity may seem obscure to modern Jews, but the concepts give us a glimpse into a world where manifestations of death within life are not sanitized away.

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The twelve tractates of the sixth and final order of the Mishnah, Seder Toharot, outline the sources of ritual impurity (tum'ah) and purity (taharah). Avot hatum'ah (the "fathers" or prime causes of impurity) include: human corpses, eight types of creeping creatures (sheratzim), dead animals, issue from human skin eruptions, semen, menstrual blood, and the skin of a leper. 

With the exception of niddah (ritual status relating to menstruation) and contact with human corpses by kohanim (members of the priestly class), regulations described in Toharot have become essentially obsolete since the destruction of the Second Temple. However, close reading of the text provides a window onto the intricate layers of religious practice necessitated by the Temple system, as well as apath to understanding rabbinic conceptions of the interplay between purity and impurity in everyday space--or more specifically, the day-to-day junctures of life and death.

Understanding the Junctures between Life and Death

The fundamental biblical discussions of tum'ah and taharah take place in Leviticusand Numbers. At their core, purity taboos warn against contact with the natural matter representing uncontrolled manifestations of the raw material of life and death. The status of ritual purity delineates where on the scale of life or death a living being or object falls.

ritual puritiesToharot accepts the inevitability of contact with both the symbols and carriers of death. Purification rituals as well as clear principles of separation guide manifestations of death towards integration with those of life, consecrating day-to-day experiences of duality. Death is both embraced and contained with reverence.

Sources of Tum'ah (Ritual Impurity)

All of the categories of tum'ah in the Mishnah are mentioned in the Bible--for example, "He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days" (Numbers 19:11). As mentioned previously, creeping things, dead animals, skin eruptions, semen, menstrual blood, and a leper are among the sources of tum'ah. Leprosy offers a particularly interesting category, linked as it is with spiritual failure, the most famous case being Miriam's punishment for speaking badly against Moses. "And the cloud was removed from the tent; and, behold, Miriam was snow white, stricken with tzara'at (leprosy)…" (Numbers 13:10). 

Nega'im--the third tractate of Toharot--expands both the practical and symbolic concerns regarding leprosy. Ritual healing of the afflicted is designed to assure that he or she can return to the community with a complete, unquestioned blessing of purity. All potential stigmas are eliminated by the thoroughness of curative procedures.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.