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Without the temple and access to the ritual of the red heifer, we're all tamei (ritually impure) today with no way to fix it. Yet we work to avoid situations that would make us tamei (e.g. kohanim still don't go near most dead, aside from close relatives). Why is this? Can one become "more" tamei with each exposure? Or does it not have anything to do with our state but, rather, is about not developing bad habits that will be hard to break when we do have a third temple?

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Perhaps — and this is such a conjecture that I'm unwilling to post it as an answer — we're all assumed to be tame, and kohanim, unallowed to get tame, may only so assume to be stringent and not to allow themselves to get tame. Incidentally, re "we work to avoid situations that would make us tamei (e.g. kohanim still don't go near most dead, aside from close relatives)", AFAIK that's the only extent to which we work to avoid situations that would make us tame. –  msh210 Oct 28 '11 at 14:43
    
@msh210, what about tumah that today we correct by going to the mikvah (e.g. taharat hamishpacha)? We can't really become tahor by going to the mikvah, because we're all assumed to be tamei. Or are they different kinds of tumah and I shouldn't be thinking of them the same way? –  Monica Cellio Oct 28 '11 at 14:48
    
The latter, I think. We're all (assumed to be) t'mee mes, that is, tame from proximity to dead people. Going to the mikve is to clear ourselves of tum'a of nida or zava or keri. –  msh210 Oct 28 '11 at 14:52
    
To clarify, there are in fact degrees of tumah, but that relates to type of object and exposure, not number of exposures. Non-kohanim have no issur to become tamei. And Shalom's answer. –  yitznewton Oct 28 '11 at 15:14
    
I feel compelled to mention that not all tumah is the same, and when it comes to tumah from women, some people are still careful about it, and consider it a completely different category from Tumah met. –  avi Dec 20 '11 at 20:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

See this mp3 by Rabbi Aharon Kahn, summarized by Joel Rich here:

Once a Kohain is ritually impure due to contact with dead, is there any prohibition of further impurity? This makes a difference for med students and pulpit rabbis.

The simple understanding is that for non-Kohens, yes we're all tamei so it makes no difference. You want to live in your own special chamber on Jerusalem bedrock, that's fine; you want to be an undertaker, that's fine too.

For Kohens, the prohibition appears to be (and again there may be other opinions, but appears to be): don't come in contact with the dead in any way that could make you tamei. Even if the Kohen just touched corpse #1, he shouldn't touch corpse #2, as each touch is the kind that could make him tamei.

Even for a Kohen, there's no prohibition whatsoever at becoming tamei via lesser sources, such as dead lizards. A Kohen today can touch as many dead lizards as he likes.

(As the story goes, Professor Saul Lieberman once found a thousand-year-old manuscript from someone claiming a Kohen was prohibited to touch dead lizards too; to which Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik responded:

"so what do you think of Professor Jacob Aegis' work?"

Lieberman:

"Aegis?! He's a fool! A nincompoop! He has no business in scholarship!"

Soloveichik:

So you don't think there were people like that a thousand years ago?

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"A Kohen today can touch as many dead lizards as he likes" - that's a great quote! And the story just makes it even better... –  AviD Oct 29 '11 at 16:28
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See Chizkuni to Emor 21:3 (citing Toras Kohanim perhaps?): "'he shall defile himself to her': and he does not defile himself to others with her: that a man should not say 'since I have defiled myself, let me gather so-and-so's bones by hand', it says 'he shall defile himself to her'". –  msh210 Apr 21 '13 at 14:58

An alternative view maintains that really the prohibition is adding levels of tumah, not just performing an act that would make one tamei.

When one touches a dead body he is tamei for at least 7 days. Thus if a kohein would touch a corpse one day, to touch one the next day would be to increase his levels of tumah because he restarts his 7 day count.

Moreover, one who is in contact with a corpse is on a higher level of tumah than one who had touched one. This rule is called "cherev ke-chalal" and is analyzed in the first perek of the Mishnayot in Ahilot. Basically it means while you are touching you become an extension of the corpse such that anything you are touching (for instance, your clothes) become tamei to the first degree, as opposed to second degree, even though they themselves aren't touching the corpse! Thus a kohein who touched a corpse and let go, would be adding to his level of tumah by touching it again.

It is thus very reasonable to argue that a kohein who is currently touching a corpse has no obligation to let go, as he is not raising his tumah level -- it is already risen.

One could discuss whether touching the corpse for a full day is a violation of adding to the 7 days, as above. This is a matter unresolved in the Achronim.

EDIT:

Here is an excellent post on the issue: http://www.the-daf.com/talmud-conceptual/kohanim-becoming-tamei-nowadays-whats-the-story/

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There are many types of unrelated and potentially overlapping Tumah, as well as different degrees of Tumah. Assuming you are talking repeat exposures to the same degree of Tumath Meth:

You can't, and we don't. Kohanim are prohibited from an action that carries a consequence of Tumah, regardless of whether the consequence is in force, which could make it seem otherwise (ie., that you can become more Tamei and we care).

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There are subtle differences in levels of tumat met. See my answer –  Double AA Jan 5 '12 at 7:00
    
@DoubleAA That is true, but I believe the question is not about steps/degrees of Tumah but about repeat exposures to sources of Tumah "piling on" and thereby increasing the Tumah that one had since previous exposures to the same source, or another source of the same type/degree, of Tumah. –  Seth J Jan 5 '12 at 14:30
    
@DoubleAA See my new edits. –  Seth J Jan 5 '12 at 14:33
    
@SethJ yes, I was asking about repeat exposures "piling on", as you said. It seems binary -- you're tamei or you're not -- yet we're careful to avoid exposure, hence the question. –  Monica Cellio Jan 5 '12 at 15:03
    
@MonicaCellio But who are "we" in your question? –  Seth J Jan 5 '12 at 15:41

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