362. Get Out!: The obligation to send impure people out of the Temple

…they shall send out from the camp… (Numbers 5:2)

Throughout the mitzvos to date, we have discussed a wide variety of forms of ritual impurity and we have mentioned that one of the ramifications of such impurity is an inability to enter the Temple. We see from here that people afflicted with certain forms of uncleanliness – specifically, tzara’as, a genital flow or impurity from a corpse – were obligated to leave the innermost camp, called the machaneh Shechinah, which contained the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In Temple times, this rule applied the Temple and its courtyard, called the Azarah.

There were three camps in the wilderness, in concentric circles. Around the camp containing the Mishkan was the camp of the Levites; the camp of the Israelites surrounded that. The Talmud in Pesachim (67a) teaches how far outside each type of impurity had to be removed. Those impure from corpse contamination were only barred from the innermost camp. Those who experienced genital discharges could not enter the middle camp, that of the Levites. Those afflicted with tzara’as had to leave even the camp of the Israelites. (See, for example, 2 Kings chapter 7, in which four people afflicted with tzara’as dwelled outside the city.) The basis for this distinction is how much a form of impurity could be transmitted to others. The more virulent the impurity, the greater the distance from the Mishkan (or, later, the Temple) the person had to be removed. Even today, since we lack the ability to rid ourselves of ritual impurity, we do not ascend the Temple mount.

The basis underlying this mitzvah is that ritual impurity works at cross-purposes with sanctity of the Temple. The sacrifices call for a high level of purity and such uncleanliness pollutes that which we should strive to purify.

This mitzvah is discussed in the Talmud in the tractates of Pesachim (66b-68a), Makkos (14b-15a), and elsewhere. It is codified in the Mishneh Torah in the third chapter of Hilchos Biyas HaMikdash and is #31 of the 248 positive mitzvos in the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos.