During the Second Temple period, Torah scroll was considered to be a source of ritual impurity? Today this is not the case. When did this halakha change?

  • Why do you say this was the case?
    – Daniel
    Jul 7, 2015 at 22:53
  • 1
    Hi Shalom, this question would get a much better reception if you could source how you know 1) that it was a source of impurity and 2) that it no longer is.
    – Yishai
    Jul 7, 2015 at 23:11

3 Answers 3


In actuality the halacha still applies today. This law can be found in the Shulchan Aruch Chapter 147, section 1 and is derived from the Talmud, tractate Megilla 32a.

We can see the discussion in Megillah 7a - Kisvei HaKodesh Making Your Hands Tamei

Where does this halacha of kisvei hakodesh being metamei come from and why? Rashi references the sugya in Shabbos 14a. The gemara in Shabbos says there were two independent gezeiros made on kisvei hakodesh. One was that it is metamei Terumah because there was a tendency to store the Terumah next to the Torah in the Aron Kodesh causing mice to nibble at the Torah when they went to eat the Terumah. Therefore, chazal were gozer tu'mah on the Torah that it would be metamei teruma as a way to prevent people from putting the Terumah next to the Torah in the Aron. A second gezeira that was made was that a Torah would be metamei one's hands. The rationale for this the gemara explains has nothing to do with Terumah, rather it is based on the din of R. Pranach - האוחז ס"ת ערום נקבר ערום בלא אותה מצוה. One who holds a bare Sefer Torah is punished that whatever mitzvah they were doing while holding the Torah, they lose reward for that mitzvah. Rashi explains that people's hands were generally dirty (not necessarily tamei) and they would touch the Torah with dirty hands, which is why R. Pranach said that it is assur. To prevent people from touching a Torah with dirty hands, they were gozer tu'mah on kisvei hakodesh. Since one's hands would be come tamei by touching the scroll, they would refrain from touching it.

Tosafos (Shabbos 14a) writes that the din of R. Pranach applies equally to all kisvei hakodesh from the simple fact that chazal were gozer that ALL kisvei hakodesh would make one's hands tamei. Rashi in Megilla implies that as well.

As we see Touching a Torah Scroll with One’s Bare Hands

The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (14) cites a Halacha in the name of Rabbi Parnach forbidding touching the parchment of a Torah scroll barehanded. One who must touch the scroll must do so indirectly, while holding some material in his hand, such as a cloth or Tallit. The Gemara warns that a person who touches the scroll barehanded forfeits the Misva in which he is involved, Heaven forbid. Thus, for example, if a Sofer (scribe) is writing a Sefer Torah, or if somebody studies from the scroll, lifts it to show it to the congregation, or rolls it, he forfeits the merit of the Misva if he directly touches the scroll while performing that Misva.

The Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 147:1) codifies this Halacha (listen to audio recording for precise citation), and adds that it applies even if one washes his hands just before handling the Sefer Torah. One might have thought that this issue depends solely on the Tum’a (impurity) of one’s hands, such that it would be permissible to directly touch the scroll after performing Netilat Yadayim. According to the accepted Halacha, however, even immediately after performing Netilat Yadayim it is forbidden to directly touch the scroll.

The exception to this rule is the scroll of Megilat Ester. Although the prohibition against directly touching a Torah scroll applies also to the Megila, Hacham Ovadia Yosef rules (based on the Kaf Ha’haim) that the one who reads Megilat Ester may touch the scroll after washing his hands, as the Megila may be treated more leniently than a Sefer Torah.

Summary: It is forbidden to directly touch the parchment of a Sefer Torah; one who must touch the scroll should make sure to do so indirectly, while holding a cloth or his Tallit. This applies even if one washed Netilat Yadayim. However, one may directly touch a Megilat Ester after performing Netilat Yadayim without a Beracha.

  • Why is Esther different from Ruth or Job?
    – Double AA
    Jul 7, 2015 at 23:21
  • @DoubleAA I did not mention it as it was not part of the question. Actually that is a separate question. The citation about Megila 7a starts "The gemara cites a machlokes regarding Megillas Esther whether or not it makes one's hands tamei. The gemara uses this din as a litmus test as to which books were canonized as part of Tanach. The gemara says that specifically for Megillas Ester would depend on whether there is a hint to the writing of it within the Torah itself. The gemara also suggests that Shir Hashirim and Koheles are questionable." Jul 7, 2015 at 23:25
  • Does anyone post-talmudic actually rule like any of those options? Why are they relevant? We hold esther is metammei. The hand washing trick works for all of nakh.
    – Double AA
    Jul 7, 2015 at 23:27
  • @DoubleAA I might guess the difference between Esther and Rus was based on when they were written, but that is a guess only and I did not see this inside. It may be that Rus written by Shmuel Hanavi and Esther written at the end of nevius also made a difference. Jul 7, 2015 at 23:29
  • More likely your websites are imprecise and don't mention an Iyov scroll bc it's uncommon. Nu nu...
    – Double AA
    Jul 7, 2015 at 23:30

It's not really that the law has changed; it's just that it's become rather moot.

The problem was that people would store their holy scrolls (Torah or other parts of Nach) with the "holy food" in the house, i.e. the tithes that had to be given to a Kohen. The problem is that pests eating the food would damage the scrolls. The rabbis therefore decreed that the scrolls were just impure enough that they would contaminate "holy food", forcing people to keep the scrolls away from the holy food. It's highly technical, but here are the mechanics, roughly: a corpse is contamination level -1, a dead lizard level 0, a contaminated clay pot, or a person who touched a dead lizard, level 1; contaminated normal food, level 2; contaminated tithings are level 3, and contaminated sacrifices are level 4. (I'm following Talmudic nomenclature here, in which lower levels are stronger; sorry it's confusing.) The scrolls were declared to be Level 2, which contaminate tithings (Level 3) but not ordinary food (can only become a Level 2 by touching a Level 1 or stronger).

If a person touches weak-level impurity, they remedy the situation by washing their hands. There is some discussion about washing hands concerning those who directly handle a scroll, but otherwise it's pretty moot today. We're all sufficiently contaminated (usually at Level 0) today that we don't really care. A Kohen is only prohibited from exposure to a corpse, not scrolls.

  • All answers I see here avoid the issue: it is not that hands make Torah impure, but Torah that makes one's hands impure. Jul 9, 2015 at 0:22
  • @sabbahillel; @Shalom; @Clint Eastwood; Double AA; All answers I see here avoid the issue: it is not that hands make Torah impure, but Torah that makes one's hands impure. The answers given here simply try to put everything upside down. The meaning of Torah making hands impure meant that any cohen who touched or was touch by a scroll of Torah needed miqve and was disqualified to serve at the Temple that day. Jul 9, 2015 at 0:29
  • @ShalombenZahar no! Miqva and disqualification for the day is for stronger sources of contamination, such as a dead lizard. Touching a Torah scroll would simply require him to wash his hands, then he can get back on duty.
    – Shalom
    Jul 9, 2015 at 1:12
  • Does it mean that you also say that a Torah scroll is a source of ritual pollution? Because this was precisely the central point of my question. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found here even one person who understood the nature of the problem. Jul 10, 2015 at 3:16
  • @ShalombenZahar yes, it's very funny. The best way to achieve proper protection of the scroll was for the rabbis to decree it to be a very low-grade contaminant, so low-grade it doesn't affect us today. Recall that "ritually impure" does not equate to "evil." Members of Jewish burial societies are holy, righteous people, but they're ritually impure because they touch corpses -- doing a tremendous mitzvah in the process.
    – Shalom
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:02

I asked this question to a rabbi last week. He said that people used to store their torahs in the safest, most water resistant part of their dwelling- the pantry. Apparently scrolls were being damaged by rats in the pantry so they made this decree so people would find the mixture of food and scrolls repugnant. Apparently tosafos says this.

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