image of an outdoor hand-washing station that has the blessing for washing hands in hebrew
Photo of a hand-washing station at a Jewish cemetery in Marrakesh, by David Berkowitz via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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 a path 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 Leviticus and 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.

Toharot 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.

At the same time, the Mishnah shows restraint in determining leprous status. “Rabbi Judah says: The rules regarding the colors of leprosy should be considered leniently (Nega’im 2:1). Later the Mishnah states, “Any doubt[ful case of] leprosy symptoms is [considered] clean…” (Nega’im 5:1).  The Mishnah’s compassion for the victim of a socially disruptive, ritually contaminating affliction with spiritual overtones reveals some willingness to live with shades of gray, even when questions of life and death and purity and impurity would seem to demand strict and unforgiving answers.

Forms of Contact with Tum’ah

There are numerous modes of contracting tum’ah. “These [eight prime sources of tum’ah] convey defilement to people and vessels by contact and by the air-space inside earthenware vessels, but they do not convey defilement by carrying” (Kelim 1:1). Mishnaic use of the term “vessels” (kelim) refers to any physical object susceptible to ritual contamination. Another level of contact is brought on by enclosed spaces. “This is the procedure: When a person dies in a tent, whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean seven days; and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down, shall be unclean” (Numbers 19:14-15).

The Mishnah continues: “How does contamination befall four series of things? If vessels touch a corpse and a man touches the vessels, then the man touches other vessels, all three series contact seven-day defilement. The fourth, man or vessels, can contract defilement until evening” (Oholot 1:3). Interestingly, Tractate Oholot (Tents) also contains descriptions of the ultimate human “tent”–the body.  “There are 248 parts in the human body…Each one of these parts can transmit defilement by contact…When? Only when they have their appropriate flesh” (Oholot 1:8). Standards of coverings in the natural world and human body are mirrored in manmade constructions.

Laws of Food and Impurity

The title of Tractate Makshirin (Order of Preparing Food [for Status of Impurity]) is misleading. Generally, kasher (which shares a Hebrew root with “makshirin”) refers to food or vessels ritually suitable for consumption. Here the meaning carries an opposite directive, signaling food or vessels that are “kosher” (that is, fit) for becoming impure. “As to any food that might be eaten, it shall become unclean if it came in contact with water…” (Leviticus 11:34).

The Mishnah elaborates: “If a sack full of fruit was put on a riverbank or by the mouth of a well, or on the edge of a cavern pool and the fruit absorbed water, the law of ‘if water be put’ (Leviticus 11:38) applies to all fruit which absorb water. Rabbi Judah said: It applies to fruit next to the water, but not to fruit not directly near the water” (Makshirin 3:1). No natural food is considered impure unless it is a bird, fish, or animal specifically prohibited for all consumption. Only contact of food with liquid–under proper conditions including intent of the owner–makes kosher food impure.

Remedies for Tum’ah

Toharot outlines the ritual actions, times, places, and other details that facilitate purification. Impure status is a communal issue, and these strictures offer a code for handling problems equitably regardless of social status or the circumstances of contraction. The ritual of parah ha’adumah (the red heifer)–the ashes of which both purify that which is impure and make impure that which is pure–presents a unique perspective on deeper mysteries behind conceptions of tum’ah. Numbers 19 gives the ritual template for parah ha’adumah–slaughtered and burned completely with cedar and hyssop, its ashes mixed with water to become a purifying agent.

The Mishnah does not wish to understand the reason behind this ritual. It is hukah, a category of Jewish law seemingly holding no rational explanation but accepted without question. Despite the fact that parah ha’adumah is completely inactive outside of the Temple, the Mishnah records intensive debate on its composition. Like much of Toharot, a topic of no “practical” value is examined out of respect for tradition as well as the symbolic and pedagogical gleanings it might contain.

The Relevance of Seder Toharot for Contemporary Jews

While Seder Toharot lists detailed components of behavior linked to now obsolete temple ritual, the text remains relevant. First, Toharot follows an essential trend of rabbinic text and thought, negotiating and reinventing the essence of Temple life even after it is no longer the physical center of the Jewish people. As the classical rabbis incrementally replaced the kohanim as cultural elite, rather than introducing completely new modes of practice, they expanded and took intellectual possession of concepts linked to the Temple. Understanding this act of renewal is of vital importance to appreciating the continuing evolution of Jewish thought and practice.

Second, both niddah and priestly avoidance of human corpses as described by Toharot remain within the active legal canon. The laws determining the social status of women during menstruation in the Gemara and other commentaries on Toharot are primary though controversial sources for both traditional and non-traditional answers to questions of female ritual status–including numerous longstanding misreadings of purity laws that incorrectly limit female participation in synagogue ritual.

As for the regulation against priestly contact with the dead, in traditional communities kohanim continue to maintain a remnant of the Temple service by avoiding such contact. While traditional legal authorities agree that all Jews are classified with the status of tameh met (impurity due to contact with a corpse), preserving special status for kohanim is a gesture to the possibility of their return to ritual importance during a third Temple, as well as a vestige of their former place in the hierarchy.

Finally, Toharot depicts a society much more comfortable with the manifestations of death in life than sanitized modern societies that raise artificial walls to avoid contact with death. By honoring the unknown through the category of impurity in a tangible, ritual manner, the Mishnah allows life a far richer and complex expression. What the contemporary reader might first mistake for an obsession with cleanliness, order, and separation is best understood as a complex system of meaning–one that honors the sacredness and mystery inherent in the cyclical interplay between beginnings and endings, and in the junctures of life and death.

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