I'm sorry if this question is too basic (I'm really impressed with the learned people answering questions on Mi Yodeya!).

I was reading about the Council of Jamnia on Wikipedia:


And I came across this:

Jewish sources contain echoes of debate about biblical books but canonicity was not the issue and debate was not connected with Jabneh... Moreover, specific canonical discussion at Jabneh is attested only for Chronicles and Song of Songs. Both circulated prior to Jabneh. There was vigorous debate between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel over Chronicles and Song; Beth Hillel affirmed that both "defile the hands." One text does speak of official action at Jabneh. It gives a blanket statement that

"all Holy Scripture defile the hands,"

and adds "on the day they made R. Eleazar b. Azariah head of the college, the Song of Songs and Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) both render the hands unclean" (M. Yadayim 3.5).

Can someone explain to me what is meant by "all Holy Scripture defile the hands"?


1 Answer 1


I have no time to read the article - and therefore do not endorse anything they write.

The Rabbis instituted that Holy Books like a Sefer Torah would defile the hands.


Because people would keep their Teruma (tithes to be given to the Cohen) with their Holy Books.

This was to prevent their Teruma from becoming Tameh (impure).

The rationale was the Terumah has some holiness and so do the books - so let's keep them together.

The result was that mice started chewing away at the Holy Books. Not good!

So to prevent the mice eating the Holy Books, the Rabbis instituted that Holy Books defile the hands - and would cause impurity to the Terumah.

Result? Nobody puts Terumah for safekeeping near the Holy Books, and the mice no longer chew the Holy Books.

Sample [non-primary] source: Bartenura on Shabbat Mishna 1:4

וְהַגְּזֵרָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ הַסְּפָרִים שֶׁל כִּתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ פּוֹסְלִים אֶת הַתְּרוּמָה בְּמַגָּע, שֶׁבִּתְחִלָּה הָיוּ מַצְנִיעִין אֳכָלִין דִּתְרוּמָה אֵצֶל סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה, אָמְרֵי הַאי קֹדֶשׁ וְהַאי קֹדֶשׁ, כֵּיוָן דְּחָזוּ דְּקָא אָתוּ סְפָרִים לִידֵי פְּסֵידָא, שֶׁהָעַכְבָּרִים הַמְּצוּיִין אֵצֶל הָאֳכָלִין הָיוּ מַפְסִידִין אֶת הַסְּפָרִים, גָּזְרוּ שֶׁיִּהְיוּ הַסְּפָרִים, דְּהַיְנוּ תּוֹרָה נְבִיאִים וּכְתוּבִים, בְּמַגָּעָן פּוֹסְלִין אֶת הַתְּרוּמָה. ‏

  • 4
    +1 The Hebrew entry on Wikipedia on this subject provides 2-3 more explanations.
    – Cauthon
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 14:47
  • @Cauthon, sounds like that'd be worth writing up in another answer.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 19:12
  • I like the answer given, but my feeling is that more can be said on this. It's a powerful statement - - that it defiles the hands. It's seems there would be a deeper meaning also to this?
    – Digityogi
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 7:07
  • I just ran across this: zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/… The principle articulated in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5 that ‘all holy scriptures defile the hands’ is one of the most perplexing in rabbinic literature, for how can something that is holy impart uncleanness to the hands? The enigma lies within the principle itself: it is precisely because scriptures are holy that they impart uncleanness; writings that are not holy, such as the books of Homer (m.Yad. 4:6), the Gospels, other heretical books,
    – Digityogi
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 8:05
  • and the book of Ben Sira (t.Yad. 2:13), do not impart uncleanness. What I should like to propose in this article is an explanation that seeks to clarify the principle of tum’at yadayim by the concept of holiness as a sacred contagion. Holy scriptures, like other holy objects of cultic worship, were considered sources of contamination. But unlike them, holy scriptures do not render objects with which they come into contact holy; rather they make the hands unclean. Holy scriptures were considered a particular kind of sacred contagion. It is suggested that the key to understanding the defilement
    – Digityogi
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 8:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .