Talmudic pages

Pesachim 80

Impurity of the deep.

If he became impure with impurity of the deep, the frontlet appeases.

Today’s daf introduces us to the concept of tum’at ha-tehom, impurity of the deep.

What is “the deep”? The term tehom appears in numerous places in the Hebrew Bible. It first appears in Genesis 1:2, which describes the earth prior to creation as “unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep.” Other passages in Genesis describe “the deep” as a source of spring water and blessings. (Genesis 7:1149:25) While some of the prophets warn that sin will lead God to destroy the sinners by flooding them with the waters of the deep (Ezekiel 26:19), other prophetic texts describe the deep as a source of nourishment (Ezekiel 31:4), praise of God (Habakkuk 3:10Job 28:14) and, in a popular verse from the Psalms, a metaphor for divine justice: “Your beneficence is like the high mountains; Your justice like the great deep; man and beast You deliver, O Lord” (Psalm 36:7). Clearly, in the Hebrew Bible, the deep — containing powerful waters and many mysteries — evokes God’s primordial power, greatness, ability to sustain humankind and justice. So then, what is “impurity of the deep”?

The rabbinic concept of impurity of the deep refers to a kind of impurity that is hidden from everyone (often because it is buried in the ground) and only discovered later. Let’s imagine that someone stayed overnight at a hotel. Weeks later, the hotel begins some needed renovations and it is discovered that the hotel was built on a forgotten graveyard. Our imaginary hotel guest, it turns out, was unwittingly exposed to corpse impurity — “impurity of the deep.”

In the case discussed in today’s daf, the situation is even more urgent because our imaginary guest only discovers that they have been exposed to this kind of impurity after bringing the paschal offering! As we’ve already learned, you can’t offer the paschal sacrifice in a state of ritual impurity. What are they to do? The Mishnah explains that the high priest’s tzitz (frontlet) atones for this kind of unintentional mis-offering. Over the next several pages, the Gemara continues to tease out exactly what this means.

It’s striking that the concept of tum’at ha-tehom causes such difficulty for the rabbinic rules of impurity. This kind of unknown can be deeply concerning — if anywhere you go could theoretically be contaminated with hidden impurities, is anywhere really safe for those trying to stay ritually pure? Should we just stay home, and even that only after having done an extensive archeological excavation of our home’s foundations? And yet the biblical verses emphasize the ways that the tehom is an intentional part of God’s creation, a source of life, blessing and divine justice.

But then again, isn’t that always the way of it? Those things with the greatest potential sometimes carry the greatest risk. And yet today’s daf insists that, in the case of impurity of the deep, that risk can be mitigated — after all, that’s exactly what the high priest’s tzitz is for!

Read all of Pesachim 80 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 9th 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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