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The Tanach is full of descriptions of what's allowed and what's not allowed; commandments and prohibitions.

But there are also certain occasions in which someone or something is describes as tahor or tamey, or referred to as taharah or tumah.

There seems to be no obligation to be tahor all the time, nor any prohibition against becoming tamey. Nor any prohibition to become tamey (except on those occasions when one must visit the Temple, or touch holy objects, and in cases there is a clear prohibition that could be added like not committing certain sins) even though that may not be the most desirable thing to do, or appropriate state of being to be in.

So if not obligated, nor prohibited, then what’s the goal of mentioning it? Why are things described as such?
Wouldn't it be enough to say in these occasions it’s prohibited to enter the tempel to touch holy objects, to be with others etc. ? What do these terms add to this messages?

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    Point to a pasuk to explain. However the terms need to be added to give the general reason. – sabbahillel Apr 24 at 13:38
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    There are reasons one may not be in the Beis HaMikdash besides being tamei (ex. being a mourner or excommunicated), and there are applications of tumah outside of the Beis HaMikdash (ex. if you're a Kohen, or if you're near Terumah). – DonielF Apr 24 at 20:26
  • @DonielF Correct but why refer to it as tamei or tahor (tunah/taharah)? Why not present it as situations in which certain things are commanded or prohibited as with most of the other mitzvot? What’s the purpose of presenting it this way? – Levi Apr 27 at 6:02
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Aside from the above answers, a couple of considerations:

  1. Chazal tell us לעולם ישנה אדם לתלמידו דרך קצרה, a person should teach his students using the most economical language. It's a lot shorter to say "tamei" than "may not enter the Beis Hamikdash or eat kodshim," and the same for "tahor."

  2. At least when it comes to taharah, saying "he may enter the BHMK or eat kodshim" could be highly misleading, because it would imply that there are no other factors to consider. Whereas, for example, an uncircumcised male isn't allowed to do either of those, even if he's tahor from any type of tumah.

  3. There's a scale of degrees of tumah - אבי אבות, אב, ראשון, etc. If it said, for example, that food of kodshim that touches a sheretz has to be burned, we wouldn't know from that that if this food touches other food (actually, mideoraisa only liquids), the same would be true. (Even worse if the first food was chullin: you are in fact allowed to eat it, but it can still contaminate food of terumah or kodshim that it touches, and then they have to be burned.) Whereas now that it says יטמא, the Gemara expounds this to mean not only יִטְמָא (intransitive, it becomes tamei), but יְטַמֵּא (transitive, causes others to become tamei).

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I have a somewhat different perspective than the two more Qabbalistically inclined answers.

I know this is unpopular, but "tahor" really does mean purity. Just not with the connotations of "spiritually impure" that speakers who insist it doesn't are trying to avoid. For example of a clear use of "tahor" as purity, the menorah must be made of "zahav tahor" (Shemos 25:31); the word for the purity of gold is "tahor". So the question is what is the substance we don't want adulterated, and what is the "dross" we don't want that "gold" to be adulterated by?

The Ramchal (Mesilas Yesharim, ch. 16) defines the personal attribute called taharah:

Taharah is the correction of the heart and thoughts... Its essence is that man shouldn't leave room for the inclination in his actions. Rather all his actions should be on the side of wisdom and awe [for the Almighty], and not on the side of sin and desire. This is even in those things which are of the body and physical.

To the Ramchal, taharah is purity of the "heart and thoughts". The the tahor man has "no room for the physical." It is the purity of the deciding mind from the physical creature.

To cast the words of the Ramchal into the terms we discussed in the introduction, taharah and tum'ah focus on the relation ship between the physical and the mind. Taharah is the purity of the mind from physical prejudices. Tum'ah is its adulteration, so that the decision making process can not be freed of the physical urges.

This is mussar's description of a personality trait called "taharah."

To answer my opening questions, it seems that taharah is the purity of the mind and of free will from the pernicious belief that we are nothing more than physical beings and puppets of our physical drives.

And halakhah's concept seems to derive directly from it. Look at how Rav SR Hirsch (Commentary on Lev. 11:47; sorry, I couldn't find an on-line copy) describes the tum'ah of a dead body:

A dead human body tends to bring home to one's mind a fact which is able to give support to that pernicious misconception which is called tum'ah. For, in fact, there lies before us actual evidence that Man must -- willy-nilly -- submit to the power of physical forces. That in this corpse that lies before us, it is not the real human being, that the real human being, the actual Man, which the powers of physical force can not touch, had departed from here before the body -- merely its earthly envelope -- could fall under the withering law of earthly Nature; more, that as long as the real Man, with his free-willed self-determining G-dly nature was present in the body, the body itself was freed from forced obedience to the purely physical demands, and was elevated into the sphere of moral freedom in all its powers of action and also of enjoyment, when the free-willed ruling of the higher part of Man decided to achieve the moral mission of his life;

R. SR Hirsch portrays the tamei object as one that causes the illusion that man is nothing more than a physical object, an animal, a helpless subject to physical forces and physical desires. In reality,

death only begins with death, but that in life, thinking striving and accomplishing Man can master, rule, and use even his own sensuous body with all its all its innate forces, urges, and powers, with G-d-like free self-decision, within the limits of, and for accomplishment of, the duties set by the laws of morality; ...

"Thinking striving and accomplishing Man," the conscious man, should use the "sensuous body with all its innate forces, urges, and powers," the physical man, as a tool for doing good. The object which halachah calls tamei is that thing which will cause mussar's tum'ah to awaken itself within the mind. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind that is prejudiced by physical needs and urges can not fully choose its own destiny.

Since the tamei is that which reinforces the idea that man is a being of mere physicality, tum'ah is only associated with the dead bodies of animals "whose body-formation is similar to that of Man, primarily the larger mammals." The shemonah sheratzim, the only smaller animals that are tamei, are vertebrates "that live in the vicinity of human beings," the weasel, mouse, mole, etc... All these are animals we see about us, living much as we do. The animals that closer resemble man have stricter rules of tum'ah. Similarly, menstruation and sexual emissions, which also cause tum'ah are things that happen to man, unwittingly, "willy-nilly submitting to the power of physical forces."

In contrast, to become pure we immerse in a miqvah. The root of "miqvah" is ambiguous. The straight-forward definition would be "a gathering of water," which a miqvah is in a very literal sense. But the word can also be read "source of hope." Perhaps (my own suggestion) this is an allusion to the idea that it provides us with the faith that we are not mere creatures of the laws of biology, but can rise above those laws to master our own fate.

As for its relationship to qedushah.... I have a longer discussion in my book (Widen Your Tent, sec. 3.5: "התיחדות — Being Set Apart"). In short...

Both taharah and qedushah derive from havdalah (separation). The key to the difference is looking at which preposition is used after each. Someone becomes "tahor mei- / tahor from..." Whereas qedushah is always "qadosh le- -- separated for", or "consecrated". Such as the tzitz (gold forehead plate) of the kohein gadol (High Priest) reads "Qadosh Lashem -- Consecrated to G-d". And at a wedding, the groom declares "Harei at mequdeshes li... -- You are hereby separated to be fpr me..."

Taharah is a precondition for qedushah because I cannot commit myself to do my mission in life until I get myself disentangled from and deal more objectively with those things that pull me down.

And since this is true of the middos of taharah and qedushah, it is also true of the halakhos of objects, places and activities that are set aside by halakhah because they tend to cause tum'ah or qedushah in one's character..

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    Which answers on the page do you consider "Qabbalistically inclined?" Also while we find the term Tahor used to mean "pure" like you showed with gold, I'm not aware of tumah used in that sense. i.e. adultered gold isn't called zahav tamei. – Binyomin Apr 25 at 20:44
  • @Binyomin: Because the dross found in gold isn't usually about thinking it's nothing but a physical being who must be a slave to physical forces without free will. (And if the gold were under that impression, it would be right, anyway. <grin>) – Micha Berger Apr 26 at 1:08
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    @Binyomin: MichoelR and Binyamin both begin their anwers by defining tum'ah as "blocked". Worrying about channels of Divine "Light" or shefa being opened and closed is Qabbalah. Whereas Meir's answer sticks to the halachic. I thought there was room in the list for an answer which discusses the hashkafah behind tum'ah while still focusing on man's duty in this world, rather than Qabbalah's study of how Hashem operates it. – Micha Berger Apr 26 at 1:12
  • just to be clear what I was referencing (as I edited in my answer) was simple usage of the term based on the gemara and rashi. in Brachos the gemara uses the term Tahor to refer to a sky completely clear (clear of light or clear of darkness is discussed there). and in Yuma tumah the gemara and rashi say that doing sins "blocks" one's heart from wisdom (see my edited answer for the text.) I'm not sure if that counts as kabbalah. The gemara continues there that by us contaminating ourselves (or sanctifying ourselves) Hashem responds accordingly. Is that also kabbalah? – Binyomin Apr 26 at 9:43
  • My use of the term "blocked" for tumah does not make this answer Kabbalistic. I chose the term because Chazal chose the term, at the end of Parshas Shemini. It means, tumah is a contradiction to kedusha. It does not require 'channels of Divine "Light" or shefa being opened and closed'; I think that's a mistake. While that is one way of modelling what we're talking about, it's not the only way, and - actually, R' Berger gave my answer as part of his: 'Taharah is a precondition for qedushah because...' – MichoelR May 28 at 13:12
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The first thing to realize is that tumah and tahara are spiritual realities. Tuma'ah is related to the word for "blocked."

We just read in parshas shmini (Vayikra 11:33) ולא תטמאו בהם ונטמתם בם "don't defile yourself with them (shekatzim, non-kosher insects and bugs) and become defiled with them".

Chazal explains that in the last phrase 'and become defiled with them' the word is spelled missing the letter א to imply that eating these bugs results in טימטום הלב a spiritual "blockage" of the heart. This is the gemara Yuma 39a: תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל עבירה מטמטמת לבו של אדם שנאמר (ויקרא יא, מג) ולא תטמאו בהם ונטמתם בם אל תקרי ונטמאתם אלא ונטמטם

In the school of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: Sin stupefies the heart of a person who commits it, as it is stated: “And do not impurify yourselves with them, so that you should not be thereby impurified” (Leviticus 11:43) Do not read that term as: “And be impurified [venitmetem]”; rather, read it as: And your hearts will be stupefied [venitamtem]

Rashi explains: מטמטמת אוטמת וסותמת מכל חכמה: The word metamtemet means "blocked up from all wisdom." It makes a person less receptive to spirituality (ruchniyos) and less in tune with spiritual needs.

Likewise, Tahara is associated with both purity and clarity (see gemara brachos 2b where a clear sky or completely dark skies are referred to as טוהר.)

It results in the ability to tune into spirituality.

You're right, there is no objective problem with being tameh in general. But, even though it's permissible, there's an advantage to being tahor when possible as it makes a person more receptive to spirituality. This is part of the idea behind Takanas Ezra, Ezra HaSofer's enactment that a person who has had a seminal emission may not learn torah or daven/pray. (See the third perek of Brachos for more details; it's a larger topic for a separate post.)

Besides the reality of the tuma'ah, the torah then told us that certain types of tuma'ah have certain consequences. People who have certain levels can't touch different levels of kadosh things (terumah, maser, korbonos, the beis hamikdosh, etc.) The Tuma'ah which results from menstruation creates a prohibition on marital relations (I'm avoiding the famous chakira about thia).

But all of those consequence follow as a result of there being a spiritual reality first.

The tiferes Yisrael, in the beginning to his commentary on mishnayos taharos, has a decently sized kuntrus (I think called Yevakesh Daas?) which explains all the categories of tumah, including the various halachos each one has (how it's transmitted, how is it removed, as well as the consequences of having such states of tumah).

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  • What’s your source for stating that it’s lated to blocked? – Levi Apr 25 at 13:14
  • @Levi the gemara in Yuma 39a. I'll edit my answer to include the text of that source, with rashi. – Binyomin Apr 25 at 20:06
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It's a great question. Tumah ("blocked") by definition means inability to become kadosh, holy. Tahor is the opposite, able to become kadosh. Something that is tahor may not be kadosh, but it needs to be potentially kadosh. Thus, whenever you call something tamei, you need to be ready to describe which kedushah it blocks.

There are many different types of tumah in the Torah, mostly starting from Parshas Shemini and running well into Parshas Emor; tumah is the major topic of this section of Vayikra. The first mentioned there is not usually thought of as "tamei" at all: which animals are we allowed to eat ("temei hu lachem") . The end of that parsha says, because you my nation are kadosh, and these types of food interfere with that kedushah ("metamtem es haleiv"). Shemini veers into what we usually call tum'as maga - from touching - and that continues for Tazria and Metzora. Even within that, though, there are various levels: metzora is forbidden in the whole camp/city. Zav from the machaneh levi. Most tum'as maga, just from the Mishkan and eating kodoshim. Each of those represents a type of kedushah that is being blocked.

A man and his wife have kiddushin, she is "set aside" to him, so there is a type of tumah of a man to his wife - nidah, znus, sotah, machazir gerushaso. That yields a very interesting phrase in Tazria: d'mei taharah ("blood of purity"). The woman after childbirth is 100% tamei for going into the Mikdash, but she is tehorah to her husband.

In summary, to actually address your question: in Vayikra, Toras Cohanim, there is a large section talking about how to be ready to receive kedushah. After that section there is a lot more further on, on what constitutes kedushah and how to actually receive it (Parshas Kedoshim tih'yu...) Shameless plug, but there is a chapter on this in https://drive.google.com/open?id=1utktKmLJyz3PizHYllmzraCrZ3SmBE4J [sorry! but there really is a chapter on it on this week's parsha (Tazria-Metzora).:)]

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    Are you sure tumah by definition means blocked? How do you know? – robev Apr 24 at 14:03
  • Just a suggestion. I did mention the idea to Rav Tzvi Berkowitz shlit"a years ago and I think he liked it a lot. Take that for what it's worth. I have not seen a source, other than what I wrote. Btw: it certainly means "blocked", metamtem - that was what I quoted from the end of Shemini. But that idea that it means specifically, unable to accept kedushah - for that I don't have a clear source. – MichoelR Apr 24 at 14:05
  • I would add, though, that I think it is always important to look at Torah concepts into terms of impact in this world, halachic or practical. While our mesorah today is the beautiful world of kabbalah, many Rishonim followed a different path, and the Torah was just as profoundly meaningful to them. Every Torah concept needs to have a definition in terms of נפקא מינא. – MichoelR Apr 24 at 14:10
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    I do think, though, that the end of Parshas Shemini can maybe count as a source - if you read it my way. אל־תשקצו את־נפשתיכם בכל־השרץ השרץ ולא תטמאו בהם ונטמתם בם. כי אני ה' אלהיכם והתקדשתם והייתם קדשים כי קדוש אני ולא תטמאו את־נפשתיכם : don't become tamei - because you need to become kadosh. – MichoelR Apr 24 at 14:28
  • @MichoelR which verse are you referring to? – Levi Apr 27 at 5:51

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