One of my pet peeves is English translations of the Bible that translate the Hebrew word tamei as unclean. Translating tumah (the noun form of the adjective tamei) as uncleanliness evokes images of dirt, strong odors and an inability (personal or systemic) to care for oneself. It stigmatizes normal bodily functions that are sometimes even necessary for the fulfillment of a mitzvah (such as sex, which renders one tamei). The word tumah has nothing to do with being dirty, and everything to do with a spiritual state that creates distance specifically from the rituals that take place in the Temple.
Today’s daf describes a series of cases where something becomes impure not because it actually comes into contact with something impure, but because of a lack of continuous attention on the part of its owner. Let’s look at two examples:
Rabbi Yonatan ben Amram says: If one’s Shabbat clothes were switched for his weekday clothes and he wore them, they are impure.
Why? The Gemara later explains that:
Since he is more protective of Shabbat clothes, he will divert his mind from them.
Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was an incident involving two women who were wives of haverim (friends) who are meticulous in observance of halakhah especially with regard to matters of impurity whose clothes were switched in the bathhouse; and the incident came before Rabbi Akiva and he declared the clothes impure.
Why? The Gemara later explains that:
Each of them says to herself: My friend is the wife of an am ha’aretz (literally: person of the land, this phrase refers to a non-rabbinic Jew), and she diverts her mind from them.
Neither of these cases involves any contact with something impure at all. According to the named rabbis who describe the cases, the impurity was caused by a lack of attention — accidentally wearing the wrong clothes, or switching one pure outfit for another in the bathhouse. The Gemara nuances these cases by explaining that what makes the clothing impure is not the accidental swap, but the fact that the swap will lead the wearer to pay less attention to questions of purity and impurity. Here, purity is entirely about the practice of attention to the world in which we live and how we interact with it.
But a lack of attention leads to real consequences. Rabba bar Avuh tells another story on today’s daf:
An incident involving a certain woman who came before Rabbi Yishmael and said to him: “Rabbi, I wove this garment in a ritually pure state, but my mind was not on it to guard its state of purity.” And during the interrogations that Rabbi Yishmael conducted with her, she said to him: “Rabbi, a menstruating woman pulled the rope with me.”
Rabbi Yishmael said: How great are the words of the sages when they said: If one’s mind is focused on guarding it, it is pure; if one’s mind is not focused on guarding it, it is impure.
Rabba bar Avuh’s story insists that the reason we need to be paying attention is because someone impure might transmit their impurity to the objects around them if we are not paying attention. It’s not just about attention, but also about what can happen when we don’t pay attention.
To be clear, the menstruating woman, the two women who went to the bathhouse and the man getting dressed in his own house are all clean. Indeed, the two women have literally just been to the bathhouse! But purity is an entirely different thing, involving not just our bodies and their functions but also care, intention and attention. After all, if we aren’t paying attention to the world around us, anything can happen.
Read all of Chagigah 20 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 1st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.