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Misconceptions: “Tumah and Taharah”

In the beginning of the 3rd Aliyah of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, we come across the unique command to offer the Pesach sacrifice. It is unique in that the annual Pesach sacrifice was only obligated once the Children of Israel conquered and settled the Land of Israel. Yet due to the significance that this was the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt, a special command, an exception to the rule, was given by God at this time. It turned out to be the only time the Pesach sacrifice would be offered during the Israelites 40 year stay in the wilderness.

So eager were the people at that time to participate in this Pesach sacrifice, those who could not made a special request to Moshe.  “They said to him, ‘We are tameh (ritually contaminated) by a human corpse; why should we be diminished by not offering the Lord’s offering in its appointed time among the Children of Israel?’” (Bamidbar 9:7, Artscroll translation) As a result of their request, the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, a makeup Pesach offering, was given and taught to the nation.  This opportunity, to offer a Pesach sacrifice a month later, was exclusively for those who were “ritually impure” or too distant from the Temple to bring their Pesach sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan. They would now be obligated to bring it on the 14th of the next month, Iyar. This mitzvah is known as Pesach Sheni.

Needless to say there are pages of Talmud and commentary relegated to the proper fulfillment of Pesach Sheni. But coincidentally, the event recorded in the Torah dispels a serious misconception. Most people, even religious people, carry in their minds the notion that “tumah” is bad and becoming “tameh” is something to avoid. The Torah terms “tumah” and “taharah” are commonly translated as “impure” and “pure,” or “unclean” and “clean.” In truth, these terms are untranslatable. They merely indicate a legal change in status within the unique system of Torah law.

The Rambam explains in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” that the purpose of “tumah” and “taharah” is to create a reverence for the Beit Hamikdash. “A person should not be able to enter the Holy Temple whenever he or she wants.” But one should not attach any feeling about being “tameh” or “tahor.” These terms simply refer to purely abstract halachic (legal) phenomena. They have nothing at all to do with the worthiness of the person.

“Tameh met,” the change in status that occurs from coming in direct contact with a dead body, is often associated with the highest level of chesed. Preparing a person for burial is an act that the recipient can never repay. Even a Kohain Gadol, is obligated, in a certain situation, to forfeit his status of “tahor” to attend to the dead. The only reason a Kohain is prohibited to purposely become “tameh” is due to the law that he must always be ready to serve in the Temple. But for a non-kohain, there is no prohibition in becoming “tameh.” A woman, for example, never has to remove her “tameh” status that results from her menstrual cycle. But in that state she cannot engage in certain other activities, such as sexual relations, just to name one.

Our holiest book, the Sefer Torah, conveys a level of 2nd degree “tumah” on any person’s hands that directly touch the parchment. On the other hand, the Rambam states unequivocally in the Laws of Sefer Torah, 10:8, “All tameim, even a menstruate woman, is permitted to hold a Torah and read from it because the words of the Torah are not susceptible to tumah.”

While it is true that the men mentioned in our parsha could not offer the Pesach sacrifice in the state of “tameh met,” nonetheless they were actively engaged in the greatest mitzvah, “Talmud Torah,” the act of learning. It is considered the greatest mitzvah since its performance brings a person directly in contact with the wisdom of the Creator. In a time of learning, one is required to have his head covered in recognition that he is standing directly in the presence of God. For the same reason, during Tefilah (prayer) is the only other time head covering is required by law. So cogent and compelling was the legal argument and position of these men in favor of  participating in Korban Pesach, that Moshe had to ask God directly for the answer to their legal request.  Could there be any stronger example or proof that the common, uneducated notion about concepts of Torah, in this case the concepts of “tumah” and “taharah” are false and harmful to reverence we should have for every aspect of Torah law and philosophy.

May Hashem grant us the continued opportunity to grow and reach Him through learning and living our Torah way of life. In that merit may He continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan