Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 4 April 2020 / 10 Nisan 5780

Parshat Tzav

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Pure Freedom

In various places, Rav Hirsch defines the concepts of tumah and taharah — concepts that are a centerpiece of the laws relating to the Temple.

Tumah, impurity, signifies lack of freedom. Man is destined to live in moral freedom, but whenever a living organism succumbs to compelling physical forces, this is liable to give rise to the notion that man lacks freedom. Impurity — tumah — results from encounters which threaten our awareness of the moral freedom of man. There is nothing that fosters this notion more than a dead body, which has succumbed to the inescapable forces of nature. For this reason, one who touches a dead body is rendered impure. Indeed, this resultant impurity is classified as the most stringent form of impurity.

Rav Hirsch ties the etymology of the word tameh to words that denote an object’s loss of independence, its sinking and assimilating into something else. Hence, an object loses its own freedom and independent existence. In the symbolic sense, this signifies a loss of moral freedom and independence.

The word tahor, pure, by contrast, is related to the word tur, meaning “row.” It denotes a state in which the connection between constituent parts is fixed according to their own qualities — they are joined not by external constraints, but rather by a sole governing principle. Hence, it refers to an object which is free of external constraint and develops in freedom under its own governing principle. Symbolically, this signifies a state of moral freedom, unfettered by external restraint.

Rav Hirsch expounds upon these principles, elucidating many details of the laws regarding purity and impurity. One of these involves the legal assumptions regarding objects which have an uncertain status. In a case of doubtful impurity concerning an object devoid of reasoning — e.g. a piece of meat lies near an impure insect, and it is not clear whether they came in contact — the meat is deemed pure. However, in a case of doubtful impurity concerning the state or actions of a person, endowed with reasoning — e.g. there is a doubt whether an adult came in contact with a dead body the individual is deemed impure.

This is so for two reasons. First, it disabuses us of the notion that impurity is some actual, magical and invisible influence that may be exerted on an object. If that were the case, every scenario that raised a doubt would be treated stringently. Second, relatedly, the law seeks to emphasize the importance of man’s consciousness. The laws of impurity in their entirety seek to imbue the message of man’s moral freedom and autonomous nature. Heightened consciousness is demanded for this calling.

Hence, forgetfulness, negligence and unawareness are treated stringently. Man’s moral freedom must be absolutely clear to him in order for him to retain it. An object that is devoid of cognition, however, does not have autonomy, and therefore is rendered pure in the case of doubt.

  • Source: Commentary, Vayikra 7:19-21

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