How Powerful are Thoughts in the Laws of Tumah?

Provided courtesy of Real Clear Daf

We explored this issue in the Daf this week on 93b-94a. One big topic of this chapter has been the requirement to launder a garment that got stained by Chatas blood. If Chatas blood that is fit to be applied to the mizbeach stains a garment, the stained spot must be laundered in the Temple Courtyard and with a particular medley of seven detergents. Although the verse only explicitly mentions a garment there is consensus that the law would apply to any object that shares the essential quality that allows us to call something a “garment.” R’ Yehuda and R’ Elazar debate what this quality is; what feature must be present in order for something to be legally recognized as a “garment?”

R’ Elazar argues that we cannot call something a “garment” unless it has actually been deemed a functioning article. R’ Yehuda, on the other hand, holds that as long as the object is in a physical state such that if the owner would decide to use it as is it would be suitable for the desired function, then this too would be considered a garment.

Some concrete examples are in order and the Gemara provides three examples for us. The second example is presented by Rava: a garment which, as far as its owner is concerned, is not yet complete for he first wants to add some design to it. This example, along with the other ones there, make reference to a fundamental concept regarding the Halachic definition of a “vessel”: A newly manufactured vessel is not legally designated a “vessel” until the owner has decided that it has been sufficiently developed for the desired function. So even though the garment in question is already fit for use from a  pure utilitarian perspective, it is not yet classified as a “vessel” if the owner has decided that (lacking the desired design) it isn’t ready for use.

Although such an incomplete garment is indisputably not in the legal category of “vessel,” R’ Yehuda and R’ Elazar argue about whether it is reasonable to call it a “garment.” R’ Elazar reasons that since it cannot yet be called a “vessel,” it cannot be considered a “garment” either. R’ Yehuda disagrees, positing that we can legally define it as a “garment.” In essence R’ Yehuda argues that we are close enough: the truth is that this garment is only a thought away from becoming legally classified as a vessel. For, should the owner change his mind at any time and decide to use the garment as is, it will instantly be classified as a legal vessel. It is therefore reasonable to deem this a “garment” right now.

Rashi notes that the premise underlying R’ Yehuda’s position, that a later thought of the owner can reverse the halachic consequence of his original thought, appears to contradict the Mishnah in Keilim which teaches us that a previous thought (i.e. decision about the vessel) cannot be undone on the basis of a new thought. Doesn’t this contradict R’ Yehudah’s assertion here that making this garment into a vessel is just a thought away?

Rashi answers by making the following distinction: there in Keilim we’re discussing where the first thought has the effect of officially designating the object as a vessel. I.e. the person had previously decided to use his object as is, ushering in its “vessel” status. In that context, where the first thought already created a legal change in this object, a new thought to cease using the vessel until it is further developed will not be enough to “put the genie back in the bottle” and strip the object of its vessel status. In our Gemara, by contrast, all the first thought (“I don’t want this garment to be used yet”) did was prevent the object from being labeled a “vessel.” To continue with our genie metaphor, the first thought in our Gemara served to keep the genie in the bottle. But the moment the owner has a change of heart and decides to set aesthetics aside and just start using the garment without the pretty design--the genie will burst out, and the garment becomes a vessel.

So how powerful are thoughts in the laws of tumah? Like so many questions in depends.