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Tumah and Taharah
The state of being ritually "impure" and "pure" in Judaism
In Jewish law, ?umah (Hebrew: , pronounced [t?um?a]) and ?aharah (Hebrew: ?, pronounced [t?ahar?]) are the state of being ritually "impure" and "pure", respectively. The Hebrew noun ?um'ah, meaning "impurity", describes a state of ritual impurity. A person or object which contracts ?umah is said to be ?amé ( Hebrew adjective, "ritually impure"), and thereby unsuited for certain holy activities and uses (kedushah, ? in Hebrew) until undergoing predefined purification actions that usually include the elapse of a specified time-period.
The contrasting Hebrew noun ?aharah (?) describes a state of ritual purity that qualifies the ?ahor (; ritually pure person or object) to be used for kedushah. The most common method of achieving ?aharah is by the person or object being immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath). This concept is connected with ritual washing in Judaism, and both ritually impure and ritually pure states have parallels in ritual purification in other world religions.
The Hebrew noun ?um'ah (?) derives from the verb ?amé (), in the qal form of the verb "to become impure"; in the niphal to "defile oneself"; and in the transitivePiel to defile something or pronounce something impure. The verb stem has a corresponding adjective, ?amé (), "impure".
Likewise the Hebrew noun ?ahara (?) is also derived from a verb, in this case ?aher () "to be ritually pure". and in the transitive piel "to purify". The verb and noun have a corresponding adjective, ?ahor (), "ritually pure". The word is a cognate to the Arabic word '' ?ah?ra(h) (pronounced almost identically, with the elongation of the second 'a') which has the same meaning in Islam.
Some sources, such as Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 7:2, claim that the meaning is "entombed", meaning the person or item that is in the tame state is blocked, and not in a state of receiving holy transmission. ?ahor, by contrast, is defined as "pure" in the sense that the person or object is in a clear state and can/may potentially serve as a conduit for Divine and Godly manifestation. Although ?umah and ?aharah is sometimes translated as unclean and clean, it is more a spiritual state than a physical one. Once initiated (for the physical signs that initiate tzaraath, zav and niddah, see below) it is generally immeasurable and unquantifiable by known mechanical detection methods, there is no measure of filth, unsanitary, or odorous affiliation with the state of ?umah, nor any mechanically measurable level of cleanliness, clarity, or physical purity for the state of ?aharah.
In the Bible
The noun form of ?umah is used around 40 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is generally translated as "uncleanness" in English language Bibles such as the KJV, and JPS Tanakh. The majority of uses are in Leviticus. Though uses for national impurity occur in Ezra and Ezekiel, and Zechariah prophesies the removal of the "prophets and spirit of impurity ( ?) from the land". The adjective tamei () "impure", is much more common.
The verb form of ?aharah (?), the verb ?aher () "be pure", is used first in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 35:2, where Jacob tells his family to "put away strange gods, and be pure".
In general, the term tumah is used in two distinct ways in the Hebrew Bible:
Ritual impurity - the opposite of taharah ("purity"), also known as "impurity of the body".
Moral impurity - the opposite of kedushah ("sanctity"), also known as "impurity of the soul"; this category also includes activities which are disgusting or abominable.
In general, tumah in the sense of "ritual impurity" is prefixed by the letter lamed or lacks any prefix at all, while tumah in the sense of "moral impurity" is prefixed by the letter bet.
Activities which create impurity
The Torah, particularly the book of Leviticus, lists various activities which create an "impure" (tamei) status:
A vessel or clay oven upon which falls one of eight dead creeping things becomes impure.
A woman, upon giving birth, becomes impure for 7 day for a son or 14 days for a daughter.
A person who has been diagnosed with tzaraat is impure.
A house which has been diagnosed with tzaraat is impure, as are its contents.
A man or woman with an unnatural emission from the genitals (zav/zavah), or a menstruating woman (niddah), are impure. A person who touches them, or who touches their chair, or vessels that they touch, is impure.
A man who has had a seminal discharge, or a garment touched by semen, is impure.
A person who eats meat of animals that have died of themselves or been killed by beasts becomes impure.
A priest who performs certain roles in the red heifer sacrifice becomes impure.
If a corpse is present in a house, people and objects within the house become impure.
Some of these activities are forbidden (i.e. eating non-kosher meat), others are permitted (i.e. sex between a married couple), and others are unavoidable (i.e. if a person dies suddenly while other people are in the house). Thus, there is no automatic moral stigma to becoming "impure".
Implications of impure status
Certain activities are prohibited as a result of acquiring this "impure" status. For example:
Before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the people were warned not to approach their wives (presumably due to semen causing impurity).
One who is impure due to tzaraat, genital emissions, or touching a corpse, had to live outside the desert encampment.
Priests could only eat sacrificial meat while pure.
One who is impure due to a corpse could not visit the sanctuary without making it spiritually impure, which is a crime punished by karet.
Just as it is a severe offense to bring impurity into the Israelite sanctuary, "impurity" is also seen as a means of nullifying a worship site of other religions; though the rules for this impurity are not made clear.
Becoming pure again
Different forms of impurity requires various rituals in order to regain a "pure" (tahor) status. For example:
Impurity due to seminal emission can be purified by immersing in a ritual bath after the next nightfall.
Impurity due to tzaraat requires waiting seven days, shaving one's hair, washing one's clothes, immersing one's body, and offering a Temple sacrifice to achieve purification.
Impurity from touching a corpse requires a special Red Heifer sacrifice and ritual to achieve purification.
The term tumah is also used to refer to certain sins, for which there is no specific ritual to remove the impure status. For example:
Sexual sins such as incest, adultery, rape, bestiality
In a number of cases, no specific sin is mentioned; overall sinful behavior has led to impurity.
Christine Hayes argues that moral impurity is the reason for the gentile expulsion and alienation that occurs in Ezra-Nehemiah. However, S.M. Olyan argues that Ezra and Nehemiah's attempt of the restoration of Israel to its original state was expressed through the expulsion and alienation of foreign peoples that was caused by both ritual and moral impurities. The Judean people believed that Israel and the priestly bloodline of Israel in itself was pure, being the chosen nation of their God. Furthermore, when the men of Israel committed to relations with Gentile people the acts took away from their purity. Olyan argues that there were different actions that were categorized by the Judean people as ritual impurity and moral impurity. Moral impurity can simply be removed, as in physical removal or separation between groups; thus expulsion of the Gentiles from the Judean environment was enough to re-purify the environment. However, ritual impurity is much more serious. Olyan argues that ritual impurity is deeply embedded into covenants, thus a religious ritual must be performed to rid the impurity from the people group.
In rabbinic literature
The Mishnah devotes one of its six sub-divisions, named Tohorot ("purities"), to the laws of ritual impurity.
Neither the Babylonian nor the Jerusalem Talmud contains systematic commentaries to the tractates of Tohorot (except for Niddah), as these laws had little practical relevance after the destruction of the Temple. However, the laws are discussed many times in other tractates, and in later rabbinic literature.
Maimonides clarifies that, in addition to all of Israel, the priests are expected to be knowledgeable and fluent in the general and specifics of ?umah and ?aharah law. Given his role of Temple service and year round consumption of terumah, each priest was required to be in a ?ahor state.
Mandatory or optional
The mainstream view among rishonim and non-Kabbalistic authorities is that one is permitted to become tamei (except on those occasions when one must visit the Temple, or touch holy objects), and thus there is no obligation to attempt to remain tahor. As an example, it is not only permitted but a mitzvah to tend to a dead person, even though this causes impurity.
A niddah hut (Mergem Gogo) at the Jewish village of Ambober in northern Ethiopia, 1976.
However, some rabbis have advocated keeping some of the laws of purity even in the absence of the temple in Jerusalem and even in the diaspora.
One category that was commonly kept in Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times is ?umath ochlin v'mashkin (consuming food and drink that did not become ?amei). Sages such as Rabban Gamaliel and Hiyya the Great encouraged eating only pure food at all times. Targum Yonathan considered this to be implicit in Exodus 22:30. One who kept this stringency was called a porush, meaning "separated" (from ?umah).
This was also one of the criteria for being a haver (a "friend" or "fellow" with whom the rabbis could eat without risk of violating purity laws), and according to some, the main criterion.
Additionally, some rabbis advocated abstaining from the midras of a niddah. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson discouraged abstaining from any object made impure by a menstruating woman in modern times, with the exception for unique individuals.
Hierarchy of impurity
The rabbis describe a hierarchy of levels of impurity. In general, each level can result from touch by the level above it. The levels are:
Avi avot hatumah (grandfather of impurity) - a human corpse
Av HaTumah (father of impurity) - Maimonides enumerates 11 objects which have this status:
Tameh met - a living person who has touched a corpse
Tumat nevelah - the body of a land animal which died without ritual slaughter; the body of a non-kosher land animal which died in any manner; a kosher bird which died without ritual slaughter receives this status in relation to its consumption but not its touch
Shichvat zera - human semen which has left the body
Mei hatat - water into which ashes of the red heifer were mixed
People who were involved in the red heifer procedure and in certain procedures of the Yom Kippur sacrifices
Niddah - a menstruant woman; a man who has had sex with such a woman; the woman's blood, spit, and urine; objects which she has sat, reclined, or rode upon
Yoledet - a woman in the period after she gives birth; the same related categories as with niddah
Zavah - a woman with abnormal genital discharge; the same related categories as with niddah
Zav - a man with abnormal genital discharge; his spit, urine, semen, and discharge; objects which he sat or rode [or reclined] upon
Metzora - a person who has contracted tzaraat, and in the purification period after recovery; a garment or house infected by tzaraat
In addition, the rabbis declared several rabbinic categories of av hatumah.
Rishon letumah (first level of impurity) or vlad hatumah (child of impurity) - a person, vessels, food, or drink which have touched an av hatumah
Sheni letumah (second level of impurity):
Food or drink which has touched a rishon letumah
A person's hands are always considered sheni letumah, until he or she has done netilat yadayim.
Shlishi letumah (third level of impurity) - sanctified goods which have touched sheni letumah
Revii letumah (fourth level of impurity) - sanctified goods which have touched shlishi letumah
Hamishi letumah (fifth level of impurity) - According to Maimonides this status does not exist, and revii letumah cannot impurify other objects. However, some sources suggest that this status might exist. In addition, red heifer waters can have a status similar to this.
Impurity of scrolls
The rabbis declared Torah scrolls to be impure by rabbinic law. This seemingly strange law had a practical purpose: it discouraged Jews from storing their terumah produce alongside Torah scrolls, which attracted mice and caused the Torah scrolls to be nibbled on as well.
In modern times
Following the destruction of the Second Temple, ritual impurity status ceased to have practical consequences, with the exception of niddah and zav/zavah. These rules are still practiced in Orthodox Judaism.
In Conservative Judaism, while the concept of niddah and a prohibition on sexual relations during the niddah period (including childbirth) are still agreed upon, recent decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards have endorsed multiple views about the concept of zavah, as well as the tumah status of a niddah. The liberal view held that the concepts of ?umah and ?aharah are not relevant outside the context of a Holy Temple (as distinct from a synagogue; hence a niddah cannot convey ?umah today), found the concept of zavah no longer applicable, and permitted spouses to touch each other in a manner similar to siblings during the niddah period (while retaining a prohibition on sexual conduct). The traditional view retained the applicability of the concepts of tumah, ?aharah, and zavah, and retained a prohibition on all contact.
Taharah (Islam); an Arabic word denoting the same concept in Islam
^Martin S. Jaffee Early Judaism: religious worlds of the first Judaic millennium 2006 - 277 "For the conceptual background of rabbinic conceptions of cleanliness and uncleanliness, including the relation of these concepts to moral conditions"
^The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation IV: Pesahim ed. Jacob Neusner - 1993 "P. If the Israelites were half clean and half unclean, these prepare the offering by themselves, ... Kahuna's ruling: R. Lo, if half of the Israelites were clean and half unclean, the clean ones observe the first Passover and the"
^Johnson M. Kimuhu Leviticus: The Priestly Laws and Prohibitions from the Perspective of Ancient Near East and Africa. 2008 Vol. 115 - Page 352 citing Helmer Ringgren in Bolterweck Theological Dictionary of the OT
^Michael Katz (Rabbi), Gershon Schwartz Searching for meaning in Midrash: lessons for everyday living 2002 Page 166 "This spirit is the spirit of impurity, as it is written, 'And I will also make the "prophets" and the unclean spirit vanish from the land' (Zechariah 13:2). Water of purification is sprinkled upon him, and it flees."