What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? | Aleph Beta

Understanding The Meaning Of Tumah

What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today?

Immanuel Shalev


In Parshat Tazria, we are introduced to the concepts of Tumah and Tahara. Some translate them as cleanliness and uncleanliness, some say ritual purity and impurity, but we never seem to get a clear and relevant meaning of what Tumah and Tahara actually are.

Join us in Part I of this quest as we begin to tackle both what Tumah and Tahara mean, and how these new definitions can truly impact our lives today.


David: Welcome to Parshat Tazria. This week, we want to explore the challenging topic of Tumah and Tahara – often translated as cleanliness and uncleanliness.

What Is Tumah and Tahara?

David: There are many different situations in which one can acquire a status of being "Tamei," like contact with a corpse, giving birth, or contracting spiritual leprosy. And each kind of Tumah has an accompanying ritual that changes one's status from Tamei to Tahor.

Immanuel: But here's the problem: It's extremely difficult to define Tumah and Tahara. Cleanliness and uncleanliness don't really capture it – if I roll around in dirt, I'm unclean… but I'm not Tamei. And if I take a shower, that doesn't make me Tahor.

David: Another common translation is that Tahara means ritual purity, and Tumah means ritual impurity. That might be closer, but what does it mean to be pure or impure? The English language also struggles with pinpointing the meaning of those terms. Dictionaries usually define them by negation – by saying what they're not. Purity means, "Free of contamination," and impurity, by definition, means "not pure." So we know what they're not… but we we're not any closer to understanding what Tumah and Tahara – ritual purity and impurity – are.

Immauel: And even if we did understand them, there's a second challenge as well: Tumah and Tahara are extremely difficult to relate to nowadays, without a temple, when many of their laws are no longer in place. Join us this week, for the first of a two part series, as we tackle both of these issues – what are Tumah and Tahara and why, if at all, they still matter to us today...on The Parsha Experiment.

David: Hi, I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. So what are Tuma and Tahara?

The Meaning of Tumah and Tahara

David: The Torah doesn't define either of these concepts, but it's pretty safe to assume that tumah and tahara are opposites. So let's start off with Tumah and work from there.

Let's take a look at people who become Tamei – most of which are in this week's and next week's parsha:

  • In Shemini, we see that non-kosher animals are tamei, and their carcasses transfer that tumah to those who come in contact with them
  • In Tetzaveh, we have the yoledet, the woman who becomes t'meah after having just given birth
  • Then there's a metzora, one who contracts spiritual leprosy
  • A Baal Keri, a male who has a seminal emission
  • A Nidda, a menstruating women
  • A Zav and Zava, man and women who experience abnormal bodily discharge
  • And finally, in the book of Numbers, we learn that a human corpse also transmits tumah to those who come into contact with it.

The Important Clue to Understand Tumah

Immanuel: The problem is, most of these cases seem disconnected from one another. It's hard to find a common denominator that works across the board. Let's start with the most common interpretation – Tamei means impure or unclean, and Tahor means pure or clean. If you plug that translation into the above cases, this definition doesn't totally work. Sure, we could make sense of certain animals being considered spiritually impure or unclean…. But what about a woman who gives birth or is menstruating? It's seems outrageous to even suggest that these people are impure, as if they've done something wrong and have become contaminated. Having children is a mitzvah, a positive commandment, and menstruation is part of a woman's natural biology!

David: So it looks like we have to rethink the way we've always thought about Tumah. If it doesn't mean impure like we thought, what does it mean? What is the thread that ties them all together? If we look at all the cases together, it can get dizzying. The best starting point would be finding a paradigmatic case of Tumah... and that case might teach us something about all the other cases. So, is there such a case?

The Sages give us a clue by calling one case the אבי אבות הטומאה – the father of fathers of all tumah – meaning, the highest and most potent form of Tumah. This language is used to describe Tumat Meit: tuma contracted either through contact with, or being in the same room as, a corpse.

Immanuel: It seems that the sages are conveying something important about the definition of Tumah through that precise phraseology: by calling death the father of fathers of tumah, it sounds like all other forms of tumah stem from it, somehow leading back to death. And while you can see traces of death in some cases of tumah, it's hard to see it in others. For example, a yoledet, a woman who has just given birth, does not experience death. On the contrary, she has just created life!

We want to suggest that it's not death exclusively that brings on tumah, because as we saw, that isn't universally true, rather, tumah is about experiencing a brush with mortality, being reminded of just how fragile life is.

What Connects the Different Types of Tumah?

David: At first glance, having a child is the opposite of having a brush with mortality – a new life is born! But the actual experience of childbirth is quite dangerous. The paradoxical risk of death due to the creation of life really is a brush with mortality. And beyond the physical danger, a Yoledet may experience a metaphysical brush with mortality as well. The new baby is not Tamei – strangely, only the mother is. Why? Despite the overwhelming joy of bringing new life into the world, the mother, in a sense, experiences a loss. For nine months, she nurtures a life growing inside her. When she gives birth, the baby becomes an independent being, detached from its source. It's wonderful thing but it can be extremely difficult for the mother… she experiences detachment – a loss – of the life that was once a part of her.

Immanuel: After the Yoledet, we get the Metzora, one who contracts spiritual leprosy. On the surface, it seems like our paradigm is broken: the Metzora, a spiritual leper, experiences no brush with mortality. But maybe that's not actually true.

The Metzora has two important rules that link it directly to death. First, if a Metzora is in a room, everything inside that room becomes Tamei. This is true of tumah concerning a dead body as well! And second, a Metzora is required to rip his clothes and grow out his hair. The only other person in Jewish law required to do this is an avel, someone mourning a loss, who is also required to rip their clothes and grow out their hair. Indeed, the Talmud constantly compares the metzora to mouner. Another powerful connection between the Metzora and mortality is when Aaron describes his sister Miriam during her tzara'at affliction, he says: אל נא תהי כמת – let her not, I pray, be as a dead person.

David: Rabbi Fohrman has a series in which he explores these connections and many more – check it out, links below. But for now, it seems that the Metzora also experiences some sort of brush with mortality.

Then we have the Baal Keri – a man who has a seminal emission. What sort of brush with mortality does he experience? Even when an emission leads to conception, even if one does implant, millions of other potential lives escape, which causes man to become tamei. Well, there's no death involved, but there is an escape of a potential life force. And this may also explain why a Nidda, a menstruating woman becomes T'mei'ah, as well. She also doesn't experience death, but when an egg is not fertilized, the escape of potential creation creates a status of Tumah. To be clear, the Tumah in both cases of a Baal Keri and of a Niddah is not a condemnation. The experiences are entirely natural and valuable.

We'll explore this more in Part 2, but for now, we want to highlight that both people, with the escape of potential life, experience a sort of brush with mortality.

Immanuel: Then, we have a Zav and Zava – a man or woman who experiences a bodily discharge. Maimonides and the Ibn Ezra believe that a man becomes a zav when he has a discharge that results from declining reproductive health. A woman becomes a zava when she experiences bleeding or discharge that is not associated with menstruation. So the Zav/Zava may experience brushes with mortality in two ways. First, physically, the abnormal and unknown nature of the discharge was likely perceived to be a sign of a mortal illness. Alternatively, if indeed the discharge is associated with a reproductive ailment, as many suggest, then the Zav and Zava, too, experience an escape of potential life.

David: Finally, we have the Tumah of animals. The brush with mortality here is a bit harder to pinpoint; the first thing we have to take into account is that tumah only applies to certain animals, while others are Tahor and Kosher. For example, animals that chew their cud and have split hooves are kosher while animals that don't have split hooves and don't chew their cud are Tamei.

Immanuel: Last week, in Parshat Shemini we looked at what is it about chewing cud and having split hooves that renders an animal Kosher. We suggested that split-hooved, cud chewing animals are grass-eating herbivores. They aren't predators. They don't kill. And if that's what makes animals permitted, what is it that makes animals Tamei? Well, many of them are carnivorous predators. They often kill other animals to get their food. And thus, it's specifically tamei animals that have frequent brushes with mortality.

Defining the Meaning of Tumah

David: So it seems like we have a working definition of Tumah: The Torah seems to be teaching us that the onset of Tumah results from of having faced mortality in one way or another. The laws of tumah are not about some heeby jeeby definition of an arbitrary and intangible spiritual impurity, and they aren't meant to classify normal life cycle events as dirty or impure. Instead, it seems that Tumah is meant to sensitize us to life, and loss of life. To the events that remind us that we are mortal.

But the question is, why? Why should a brush with mortality create a ritual state of Tumah? What does it mean to reverse this status with a Tahara ritual? And, finally, why does any of this matter to us nowadays without a temple?

Immanuel: Join us for Part II as we explore the essential questions of Tumah, next week, on the Parsha Experiment.

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