Tumah, Taharah, and the Value of Inclusion

Beginning with the fourth Mishna and continuing until the end of the mesechet, the mishnayot of Mesechet Chagiga discuss various details regarding the complicated subject of tumah and taharah, or spiritual cleanliness and uncleanliness. Generally speaking, different categories of items are viewed as “holier” than other items, and thus more susceptible to becoming tomei and more in need of monitoring and safeguarding to avoid that status. Ordinary food (chullin), for example, can be eaten by anyone in any state of tumah or taharah, and thus requires less precautions for general use. Maaser sheni, the portion of crops which must transported for consumption in Jerusalem (or redeemed for money then spent on food in Jerusalem) during the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the shemittah cycle is of greater sanctity than chullin and, therefore, must itself be kept in a state of purity as well as eaten in a state of purity. Terumah (the portion of the crop given to the Kohen), kodesh (portions of the sacrificial offerings), and mei chatas (the mixture of water and ashes of the parah adumah) are each, in turn, characterized as maintaining ascending levels of sanctity and, therefore, ascending stringencies regarding how carefully and by whom each category of item may be handled as well as how carefully one must guard the items from contact with people, animals, or items that might convey tumah and diminish their holy status and, thus, their ability to be used or consumed.

The third perek of the Chagiga begins with the words, “Chomer baKodesh m’baTerumah”, “The stringencies of kodesh over terumah…”, and goes on to list eleven different stringencies the Rabbis imposed regarding kodesh to ensure the maintenance of its taharah status that they did not impose when dealing with terumah. The purpose of these stringencies would, of course, seem obvious: Kodesh has a greater level of sanctity than terumah, therefore, a higher level of diligence and a wider array of safeguards protecting its taharah status is required. This explanation, however, comes into question when viewing the next mishna. The second mishna of the third perek begins with the words “Chomer baTerumah” and continues, along with subsequent mishnayot, to outline various (albeit fewer) situations in which terumah is, indeed, treated with greater stringencies than the more sanctified kodesh in order to keep the terumah from becoming tomei. The question can now be asked: Why? If kodesh has a higher level of sanctity than terumah, and therefore a greater susceptibility to becoming tomei, why would there be any situation at all in which the Rabbis felt it necessary to decree a greater level of care regarding terumah over kodesh? Why would we ever be more lenient with keeping the more sanctified kodesh away from the possibility of contracting tumah than we are with the less sanctified terumah?

The answer to this question can be found by studying the specific situations, and general category, under which the leniencies applied to kodesh over terumah fall. The first stringency of terumah over kodesh taught in the mishna, for example, is that while ammei haaretz are trusted to keep terumah wine and oil (i.e. wine and oil that was separated to be used as the tithe given to the Kohen) in a state of taharah only during the pressing seasons, they are trusted to keep wine and oil to be used in the Temple (i.e. kodesh wine and oil) in a state of taharah all year round. Similarly, if an am haaretz brought a Kohen a barrel of wine after the pressing season and told the Kohen that the wine in the barrel was terumah, the mishna teaches that the Kohen may not accept the barrel from the am haaretz, while the same am haaretz can be trusted if he claims the wine in the barrel is kodesh. A subsequent mishna (3:4) teaches that in reference to the purchase of certain types of vessels in Jerusalem, an am haaretz is trusted regarding the taharah status of the vessel if it is clear the vessel is to be used for kodesh purposes, but not trusted when the vessel is to be used with terumah.

It appears from these examples that unlike the stringencies listed in the beginning of the third perek of kodesh over terumah, which deal specifically with the treatment of kodesh qua kodesh, the relaxed safeguards regarding kodesh (or, the enhanced safeguards regarding terumah) have less to do with the relative status of kodesh and terumah per se, and more with the way in which the Rabbis dealt with the challenge of ammei haaretz and their place in the Jewish community.

An am haaretz is defined as a Jew who ostensibly considers himself observant but who is lax in certain areas of Jewish law, including the area of tumah and taharah. Because of this, it makes sense that the Rabbis would find it necessary to be wary of ammei haaretz coming into contact, and possibly spiritually contaminating with tumah, items falling into the category of terumah and kodesh. From the perspective of an am haaretz, however, this wariness on the part of the chaverim (the term used to identify those who are strict in their adherence to all areas of halacha) can obviously be problematic and lead both to untoward feelings and subsequent problematic behaviors. Therefore, the Rabbis chose to be lenient when it comes to accepting kodesh from an am haaretz, trusting that they are careful to keep the kodesh in a state of taharah despite the fact that the very definition of an am haaretz is that he or she lacks rigorous adherence to these very halachot. They did not, however, choose to maintain this leniency with regard to terumah. Again, this is ironic, as one would think that the place to be lenient is with the lesser of the two levels of sanctity, i.e. that one would be more willing to risk terumah becoming tomei than kodesh. Why the switch?

The answer to this question can be found in the gemara on daf 22a. The gemara is in the midst of a long discussion regarding the first stringency of kodesh over terumah listed in beginning of the perek. In order for a utensil that has contracted tumah to once again become tahor, it must be immersed into a mikvah. The mishna and subsequent gemara discuss a case involving a person who has two utensils in need of immersion and wishes to immerse both utensils into a mikvah simultaneously, one within the other. The question at hand is whether this dual-immersion of one utensil within another is effective, or whether each utensil may only be immersed independently. While the details of this question are subject to debate in the gemara, the mishna rules that when immersing the utensils for use with terumah, the halacha is lenient and that one may in fact place one vessel into the other and immerse them simultaneously; when immersing the utensils for use with kodesh, however, the halacha is more strict and requires each vessel to be placed into the mikvah independently. The gemara asks why, if there is any question at all about the effectiveness of immersing two utensils one inside the other, would the Rabbis not adopt this stringency for terumah as well? The gemara (22a) responds, as is often the way with Jewish answers, with another question: “Who is this stringency directed towards? Who is this mishna directed to?” Clearly, responds the gemara, the stringency is directed towards chaverim, as ammei haaretz are not careful to follow the laws of tumah and taharah to begin with, so why would they follow this stringency at all? Therefore, the gemara claims, as we need not worry about chaverim doing anything that would make their vessels tomei for use with terumah because they know and follow the laws, we can be lenient. If so, retorts the gemara, should not the same be true regarding vessels to be used for kodesh? If the chaverim know the laws and therefore we need not worry about their handling of utensils to be used for terumah, so too, we should trust them regarding utensils to be used for kodesh and not require an added stringency in this case. True, the gemara continues, but the Rabbis feared that an am haaretz might see a chaver immersing his vessel within a vessel for use with kodesh and, even though the chaver, knowing the intricacies of the halacha, may do so in a manner that is 100% effective, the less knowledgeable and careful am haaretz may copy him and do so in a way that is ineffective and thus render his kodesh tomei. If so, retorts the gemara, why are we not concerned that an am haaretz will observe a chaver doing the same thing with a vessel used for terumah and likewise end up making his terumah tomei? The reason given at this point in the debate is that we need not worry too much about an am haaretz causing his terumah to become tomei because, as discussed previously, we do not accept terumah from ammei haaretz; we do, however, accept their kodesh, and are thus more concerned. To which, the gemara asks, in seeming exasperation and taking us back to our original question, if we do not trust ammei haaretz regarding terumah and therefore do not accept their terumah, why on earth do we accept their kodesh?

The response given is that we accept their kodesh because we do not want an am haaretz to feel enmity towards the community, or any member of the community, by having his kodesh refused. And why then, the gemara asks, do we not have the same fear regarding an am haaretz whose terumah is refused by a chaver?

The answer to this question, and the resolution of the overall discussion as to why we sometimes treat kodesh with less restrictions than terumah, particularly when it comes to the question of trusting an am haaretz, says something very powerful regarding the inclusive nature of the Rabbis.

The gemara explains that we need not be concerned about the impact of a chaver refusing to accept terumah from an am haaretz because an am haaretz can always give his terumah to a Kohen that is also an am haaretz. Ammei haaretz are not evil people; they are simply uneducated. And, the same way there are uneducated Yisroelim and Leviim, so, too, there are uneducated Kohanim who would gladly accept the terumah of a fellow am haaretz.

When it comes to kodesh, however, the rabbis recognized a challenge: There is only one Temple. Thus, if the rabbis maintained their stringencies and refused to accept kodesh from an am haaretz, the am haaretz would have nowhere else to go. Unlike with terumah, if we do not accept the kodesh of an am haaretz, we are not including the am haaretz in a major component of Jewish communal life: The Temple service.

This point is made explicitly in a braisa quoted by the gemara to conclude this discussion: “R’ Yose said: Why are all believed concerning the taharah of wine and oil [of kodesh] throughout year? So that it not be that each person will go and build a bamah (alter) for himself and burn a parah adumah for himself.” There are many ways to interpret this braisa (one of which is due to the fact that building one’s own bamah is an issur in and of itself), but I like to view it as a lesson in the importance of inclusion. When it comes to terumah, where we can find remedial ways in which to include an am haaretz in the mitzvah, the Rabbis allowed themselves to be strict. When it comes to kodesh, however, where exclusion from the mitzvah would mean exclusion from the community, the Rabbis felt it important to be lenient despite the fact that, on paper as well as in most situations, the higher level of sanctity of kodesh over terumah is viewed as dominant.

One can always find reasons to exclude people: He isn’t smart enough for this shiur. The noises she makes are too bothersome to allow in shul. He won’t know how to do it right. And, to be sure, there is an appropriate place for specialization. It is not a chesed to allow someone to sit in a class he or she does not understand when a more appropriate class is available, and a minyan more tolerant of individual quirks might be a better choice for some than a less tolerant minyan, regardless of whether or not one feels he or she has the “right” to be there. But, just as decorum in shul, and high level Torah learning, and strict adherence to the laws of spiritual cleanliness are values brought down by chazal and codified into Jewish law, so, too, is community inclusion. And, when exclusion from specific mitzvah or opportunity would result in exclusion from the community as a whole - when there are no remedial opportunities that might serve the individual better - then, at least in the area discussed here, the message appears to be that our personal or communal strictures should be sacrificed in order to include everyone.

And by “include”, we mean include in a real way. The Rabbis did not say we take the kodesh of an am haaretz but not use it, or pretend to accept their kodesh to make them feel good. They said that, if not believing an am haaretz with respect to kodesh will lead to their exclusion from communal life, then we believe them. One-hundred percent. No questions asked.

Inclusion expert Verna Myers famously said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Chazal seem to have understood this. So should we.