A Look of Tumat Met

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jared Anstandig

Regarding the Mitzvah of the פרה אדומה, the Torah states, “זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה ה’ לֵאמֹר.”  On this Pasuk, רש”י draws attention to the תורה’s usage of the term “חוקה,”

לְפִי שֶׁהַשָּׂטָן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מוֹנִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לוֹמַר מָה הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת וּמַה טַּעַם יֵשׁ בָּהּ? לְפִיכָךְ כָּתַב בָּהּ חֻקָּה — גְּזֵרָה הִיא מִלְּפָנַי, אֵין לְךָ רְשׁוּת לְהַרְהֵר אַחֲרֶיהָ.

Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it”, on this account it (Scripture) writes (uses) the term חקה about it, implying: It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to criticize it.

The traditional approach to the פרה אדומה aligns with רש״י’s comment, and so Judaism takes the פרה אדומה as the quintessential חוק, a law which we will never be able to fully understand. The mystery of פרה אדומה notwithstanding, it is worth exploring the issue that פרה אדומה resolves, namely טומאת מת.

The deceased human being is the highest level of טומאה that exists: in the language of רש”י in this week’s parsha, a corpse is an אבי אבות הטומאה.  This טומאה requires a specific process, the פרה אדומה, in order to become טהור again.

There are three main ways a person becomes טמא from a מת – touching a corpse, carrying a corpse, or being in the same room or above a corpse.  Being in same room (or tent) or above the corpse is known as טומאת אהל.

The Gemara in .יבמות דף סא addresses who can transmit טומאת אהל:

ר”ש בן יוחאי אומר: קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל שנא’ (יחזקאל לד, לא) “ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם” אתם קרויין “אדם,” ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין “אדם.”

The graves of gentiles do not render items impure through a tent, as it is stated: “And you My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are men [adam]” (Ezekiel 34:31), from which it is derived that you, the Jewish people, are called men [adam] but gentiles are not called men [adam].

As evidenced from the continuation of the Gemara, רשב״י’s explanation draws on the opening of the section that deals with טומאת מת –i “אדם כי ימות באהל,” “when a man dies in a tent.”  In this context, “a man,” רשב”י argues, refers to a Jewish body, to the exclusion of non-Jews.

Along these lines, בבא מציעא קיד א-ב tells the following story:

אשכחיה רבה בר אבוה לאליהו דקאי בבית הקברות של עובדי כוכבים… אמר ליה לאו כהן הוא מר מאי טעמא קאי מר בבית הקברות א”ל לא מתני מר טהרות דתניא ר”ש בן יוחי אומר קבריהן של עובדי כוכבים אין מטמאין שנאמר (יחזקאל לד, לא) ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ואין עובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם

The Gemara relates: Rabba bar Avuh found Elijah standing in a graveyard of gentiles… he said to him: Is not the Master a priest?[1] What is the reason that the Master is standing in a cemetery? Elijah said to him: Has the Master not studied the mishnaic order of Teharot? As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says that the graves of gentiles do not render one impure, as it is stated: “And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are man” (Ezekiel 34:31), which teaches that you, i.e., the Jewish people, are called “man,” but gentiles are not called “man.”

It appears from this Gemara that אליהו himself subscribes to רשב”י’s opinion, arguing that he may stand in a non-Jewish cemetery since there is no concern of טומאת האהל from the non-Jewish bodies therein.

In practice, רמב”ם פרק א’ מהלכות טומאת מת הלכה יג follows the opinion of רשב”י:

וְאֵין הָעַכּוּ”ם מְטַמֵּא בְּאֹהֶל… וְכֵן הָעַכּוּ”ם אֵינוֹ נַעֲשֶׂה טְמֵא מֵת אֶלָּא עַכּוּ”ם שֶׁנָּגַע בְּמֵת אוֹ נְשָׂאוֹ אוֹ הֶאֱהִיל עָלָיו הֲרֵי הוּא כְּמִי שֶׁלֹּא נָגַע.

A non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה through a tent… And, likewise, a non-Jew cannot become impure from a dead body.  Rather, a non-Jew that touches a corpse, or carries it, or stands above it, he is like someone who did not touch the corpse.

For רמב״ם, a non-Jew is completely removed from the world of טומאת מת.  A non-Jew cannot become טמא, and so a non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה. This position appears to fit perfectly with the both יבמות and בבא מציעא, which both indicate that a non-Jewish corpse does not create טומאת מת through an אהל.

However, תוספות (in יבמות סא א ד”ה ממגע) side against רשב”ג:

ואר”י דאין הלכה כר”ש… וצריכים כהנים ליזהר מקברי עובדי כוכבים, ובפרק המקבל (ב”מ קיד:) בעובדא דאליהו דהשיב לרבה בר אבוה כר’ שמעון בן יוחי דהכא דחויי קא מדחי לה…

Ri says that the halacha does not follow Rabbi Shimon… and Kohanim must be careful about the graves of non-Jews, and in Perek Hamekabel (in Baba Metzia), concerning the story of Eliyahu, that he responded to Rabba Bar Avuh that the halacha follows Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, this was merely to push off the question…[2]

תוספות understand that רשב”י’s position about טומאת אהל is subject to a מחלוקת and side against him.  This forces תוספות to take a different approach to the story with אליהו, explaining that אליהו’s words are not to be taken as a halachic argument, but merely something to prevent further question. [3]

When it comes to practice, both the שולחן ערוך and רמ”א hesitate to rule as leniently as רמב”ם and rule, somewhat indecisively, in accordance with תוספות.  They write (in יורה דעה שעב:ב):

קברי עובדי כוכבים, נכון ליזהר הכהן מלילך עליהם; (מהר”מ ותוס’ פ’ המקבל) (אע”פ שיש מקילין (רמב”ם והגמי”י בשם ס’ יראים). ונכון להחמיר.)

The graves of non-Jews, it is appropriate for a Kohen to be careful not to walk on them. (Even though there are those who are lenient, it is appropriate to be strict.)

Given that the position of תוספות prevails in practice, it is worth considering the deeper significance of תוספות’s position.  After all, רמב”ם’s position not only fits better with the read in both Gemaras, but would seem to be more logical – across the board non-Jews are excluded from טומאת מת.  On the other hand, it appears that תוספות agree that a non-Jew cannot contract טומאת מת. Nonetheless, תוספות maintain that a non-Jewish corpse still transmits טומאה.  Why should this be the case?

The answer to this question could be the very nature for the reason for טומאת מת exists in the first place.  Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky in גשר החיים (in a footnote to the beginning of פרק ו’ – דיני טומאה page עה), provides the following explanation for the concept of טומאת מת:

מעלת האדם, בחיר יצורי האדמה, שבכחו להתעלות בקדושה  – היא הגורמת שנמשכים ונאחזים באדם יצירי הטומאה… בדבר שאין לחלוחית קדושה אין להם אחיזה…

The greatness of Man, the chosen creation of earth, is his ability to ascend in holiness – this causes impurity to follow and adhere to a person… impurity does not take hold to something without even the slightest amount of holiness to it.

טומאת מת exists because of the unique holiness of humans.  It is not limited specifically to Jews, but to all mankind.  The human being, endowed with free will, has the potential to ascend to the greatest of heights.  This, alone, bestows a certain level of קדושה to all humanity. In this vein, בראשית רבה ח:א notes the following about all people:

אִם זָכָה אָדָם אוֹמְרִים לוֹ אַתָּה קָדַמְתָּ לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת, וְאִם לָאו אוֹמְרִים לוֹ זְבוּב קְדָמְךָ, יַתּוּשׁ קְדָמְךָ, שִׁלְשׁוּל זֶה קְדָמְךָ.

If a person merits it, they say to him “your creation preceded the creation of angels.”  If not, they saw to him the fly preceded you, the mosquito preceded you, the word preceded you.

The laws that dictate when and how a person becomes טמא may be uniquely Jewish rules.  However, our innate sanctity as people is not based on commandedness or religion. Our potential to change, grow, and develop endows each of us, as people, with an internal holiness.  It is the vacuum of kedusha created by the loss of human life and ability to grow that creates טומאת מת. Let us therefore be mindful of the significance of what it means to be human and recognize that universally, we are holy and capable of profound growth and development.


[1] As per רש”י there, רבה בר אבוה identifies אליהו as being פנחס, a כהן

[2] תוספות supports his ruling based on רבן שמעון בן גמליאל’s position in משנה אהלות יח:ט which implies that there is a concern of אוהל for a קבר עכו”ם.

[3] There is also a larger question about the concept of לא בשמים היא and deriving halacha from supernatural occurrences.

Jared Anstandig (SBM 2011) currently teaches Tanach and Gemara at Ramaz Upper School. This summer, Jared will be moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan and will serve as rabbi for the Orthodox community at the University of Michigan.


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