Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 23 July 2022 / 24 Tammuz 5782

More than Kettle to the Metal

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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In this week’s Torah portion we are taught the law of tevilat keilim, immersing vessels in the purifying Mikveh waters. When the Jews return from the war against Midian with booty, Elazar instructs them not only to pass all metal vessels under fire, to make them kosher, but also to immerse them in Mikveh waters to sanctify them.

The law dictates that metal food-vessels that pass from non-Jewish to Jewish possession require immersion. This is true even if they were never actually used by the non-Jews, and if they never absorbed any forbidden foods. This is not a law of kashrut. It is a law of kedusha. Its purpose is to teach the Jew that even the sensual enjoyment of food must be sanctified.

However, the fact that only metal (as opposed to earthenware) vessels require immersion teaches a more nuanced lesson. Metal represents man’s intellectual mastery over the earth and its materials. Eating serves man’s physical and sensual nature. Thus, a metal utensil used for eating represents the intellectual side of man in the service of his sensual nature. This would be antithetical to the Torah’s regime, where man’s sensual drives are subordinate to his intellect. Only with this subordination can he freely choose to serve Hashem.

Precisely where the symbolism could be understood as the intellect serving the sensual, the Torah ordains ritual immersion. Indeed, the Hebrew word used to describe the process of purification of these vessels — yitcha’ta — is a conjugate of the Hebrew word for sin. In this context, the purification is intended to revive and strengthen the consciousness of moral freedom. And it is precisely this awareness — that the physical experience is at the service of the intellect — that reinforces the ability to abstain from sin.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 32:23

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