To sum things up quickly as an example: If a woman is in her state of nidah Vayikra 15 teaches that what she touches or if something/someone is touching her, or if someone is touching that which has touched her becomes tamei.

So what is it that's being transfered and causes someone or a thing to become tamei?

The same could be applied to other situations/cases in which someone is in a certain state and causes other things/people to become tamei.

And do people really get Tamei these days?

2 Answers 2


The Hebrew Wikipedia article gives two approaches to understanding Tumah.

הטומאה כמציאות קיימת 1

גישה אחת סוברת, שהטומאה שחלה על אדם או חפץ היא מציאות ממשית – ישות רוחנית מסוימת, אף כי היא בלתי נראית ואינה מושגת לחושים. על פי דרך זו ניתן אף לומר, שההלכות האמורות בטומאה נועדו רק לחשוף את המציאות הקיימת ממילא בטבעו הרוחני של העולם. לפי השקפה זו, רוח הטומאה עלולה לגרום נזקים לנפשו של מי שבא עמה במגע, ושמירת הטהרה מצילה את האדם מנזק זה. ביטויים לתפיסה זו ניתן למצוא בכתבי כמה מן הראשונים.[5]

1] The impurity exists as reality

One approach holds that the impurity that applies to a person or object is an actual reality - a certain spiritual entity, though invisible and unattainable. According to this approach one can even say that the said laws in impurity are intended only to reveal the reality that already exists in the spiritual nature of the world. According to this view, the spirit of impurity may cause damage to the soul of those who come into contact with it, and the preservation of the purification saves the person from this damage. Expressions of this perception can be found in the writings of several of the Rishonim.

Note that even though the impurity is a reality it is only a spiritual entity – not given to detection by the human senses.

2 הטומאה כרעיון סמלי

גישה שנייה סוברת, שאין צורך להניח את דבר קיומה הממשי של רוח טומאה, ועניין הטומאה הוא ריחוק, לרוב כביטוי סמלי של רעיון כלשהו. כך סבר הרמב"ם, שהטומאה איננה ישות רוחנית מציאותית, אלא הגדרה הלכתית גרידא, וכפי שכתב בסיום "ספר טהרה" בחיבורו הגדול משנה תורה: "דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירות הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעת אותן, והרי הן מכלל החוקים. וכן הטבילה מן הטומאות - מכלל החוקים היא, שאין הטומאה טיט או צואה שתעבור במים, אלא גזירת הכתוב היא... כיוון שטבל - טהור, ואף על פי שלא נתחדש בגופו דבר." (משנה תורה לרמב"ם, ספר טהרה, הלכות מקואות, פרק י"א, הלכה י"ב)

2] Impurity as a symbolic idea

A second approach holds that there is no need to assume the actual existence of a spirit of impurity. The essence of impurity is a symbolic expression of the idea of distancing. Thus Maimonides believed that impurity is not a real spiritual entity, but rather a purely halakhic definition, and as he wrote at the end of Sefer Tahara in his great book Mishneh Torah: "It is abundantly clear that the impurities and the purity are the decrees of Scripture. And they are beyond human understanding - they are part of the decrees (of the Almighty). And the immersion (in a mikvah) for the impurity – is also one of the decrees. Impurity is not mud or feces that will be removed by the water, but it is the decree of Scripture is ... that after he has immersed he becomes pure and even though nothing has changed in his body. "(Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, , Chapter 11, Halacha 12).

Here, impurity is not even a spiritual reality.

Therefore, the transfer of tumah is the transfer of either a spiritual reality or the transfer of the decrees of the Almighty.

Tumah finds its expression in our days through the laws of Family Purity and Niddah and through the [Prohibition of Kohen defilement by the dead] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_of_Kohen_defilement_by_the_dead#Modern_applications) .

  • 1
    In the quote the rambam says tuma is a decree that we don't know the reason for. He doesn't say it doesn't have a spiritual reality. Jan 21, 2018 at 13:47
  • Along the lines of @ykay 's comment, I believe the Rambam writes elsewhere that he himself was personally strict to keep takanas ezra (immersing before prayer/learning) even though it was no longer halacha, suggesting the Rambam also assumed tumah/tahara correspond to a metaphysical reality beyond actual practical halacha.
    – Loewian
    Jan 21, 2018 at 20:28
  • @ykay Your comment is really to the author of the Hebrew Wikipedia article which I quoted. He does not show in this extract, I agree, how he deduces his opinion about the Rambam. You may like to read the rest of what he says in that part of the article (and I admit I have not) and post a comment there. Jan 21, 2018 at 21:03

Rambam explains the reason for the laws of ritual impurity in Guide for the Perplexed 3:47.

THE precepts of the twelfth class are those which we have enumerated in the section on "Purity" (Sefer tohorah). Although we have mentioned their use in general, we will here offer an additional explanation, and [first] fully discuss the object of the whole class, and then show the reason of each single commandment, as far as we have been able to discover it. I maintain that the Law which was revealed to Moses, our Teacher, and which is called by his name, aims at facilitating the service and lessening the burden, and if a person complains that certain precepts cause him pain and great trouble, he cannot have thought of the habits and doctrines that were general in those days. Let him consider the difference between a man burning his own son in serving his god, and our burning a pigeon to the service of our God. Scripture relates, for even their sons and their daughters they burn in the fire to their gods (Deut. xii. 31). This was the way in which the heathen worshipped their gods, and instead of such a sacrifice we have the burning of a pigeon or a handful of flour in our worship. In accordance with this fact, the Israelites, when disobedient, were rebuked by God as follows: "O My people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me" (Mic. vi. 3). Again, "Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? a land of darkness? Wherefore say my people, We are miserable; we will come no more unto thee" (Jer. ii. 31); that is to say, Through which of the commandments has the Law become burdensome to the Israelites, that they renounce it? In the same manner God asks the people, "What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me?" etc. (ibid. ii. 5). All these passages express one and the same idea.

This is the great principle which you must never lose sight of. After having stated this principle, I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command, "You shall reverence my sanctuary" (Lev. xix. 30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words: "Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend" (Prov. xxv. 17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean. For even if a person does not touch a beast that died of its own accord (Lev. xi. 27), he can scarcely avoid touching one of the eight kinds of creeping animals (ibid. 29, seq.), the dead bodies of which we find at all times in houses, in food and drink, and upon which we frequently tread wherever we walk; and, if he avoids touching these, he may touch a woman in her separation (ibid. xv. 18), or a male or female that have a running issue (ibid. ver. 1, seq. and 25, seq.), or a leper (ibid. xiii. 46), or their bed (ibid. xv. 5). Escaping these, he may become unclean by cohabitation with his wife, or by pollution (ibid. 15), and even when he has cleansed himself from any of these kinds of uncleanliness, he cannot enter the Sanctuary till after sunset; but not being enabled to enter the Sanctuary at night time, although he is clean after sunset, as may be inferred from Middot and Tamid, he is again, during the night, subject to becoming unclean either by cohabiting with his wife or by some other source of uncleanliness, and may rise in the morning in the same condition as the day before. All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well known, said, "Even a clean person may not enter the Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath." By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.

The easier the diffusion of uncleanliness is, the more difficult and the more retarded is its purification. Most easily is uncleanliness communicated by the dead body to those who are under the same roof, especially to relatives. The purification can only be completed by means of the ashes of the red heifer, however scarce it may be, and only in seven days (Num. xix. 11). The uncleanness caused by a woman having running issue or during her separation is more frequent than that caused by contact with unclean objects: seven days are therefore required for their purification (Lev. xv. 19, 28), whilst those that touch them are only unclean one day (ibid. vii. 18). Males or females that are unclean through running issue, and a woman after childbirth, must in addition bring a sacrifice, because their uncleanness occurs less frequently than that of women in their separation. All these cases of uncleanliness, viz., running issue of males or females, menstruations, leprosy, dead bodies of human beings, carcases of beasts and creeping things, and issue of semen, are sources of dirt and filth. We have thus shown that the above precepts are very useful in many respects. First, they keep us at a distance from dirty and filthy objects; secondly, they guard the Sanctuary; thirdly, they pay regard to an established custom (for the Sabeans submitted to very troublesome restrictions when unclean, as you will soon hear); fourthly, they lightened that burden for us; for we are not impeded through these laws in our ordinary occupations by the distinction the Law makes between that which is unclean and that which is clean. For this distinction applies only in reference to the Sanctuary and the holy objects connected with it: it does not apply to other cases. "She shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the Sanctuary" (Lev. xii. 4). Other persons [that do not intend to enter the Sanctuary or touch any holy thing], are not guilty of any sin if they remain unclean as long as they like, and eat, according to their pleasure, ordinary food that has been in contact with unclean things. But the practice of the Sabeans, even at present general in the East, among the few still left of the Magi, was to keep a menstruous woman in a house by herself, to burn that upon which she treads, and to consider as unclean every one that speaks with her: even if a wind passed over her and a clean person, the latter was unclean in the eyes of the Sabeans. See the difference between this practice and our rule, that "whatever services a wife generally does to her husband, she may do to him in her separation"; only cohabitation is prohibited during the days of her uncleanness. Another custom among the Sabeans, which is still widespread, is this: whatever is separated from the body, as hair, nail, or blood, is unclean; every barber is therefore unclean in their estimation, because he touches blood and hair; whenever a person passes a razor over his skin he must take a bath in running water. Such burdensome practices were numerous among the Sabeans, whilst we apply the laws that distinguish between the unclean and the clean only with regard to hallowed things and to the Sanctuary. (Friedlander translation, emphasis added.)

Essentially, there is nothing inherently bad or wrong or spiritually deficient about ritual impurity. It is either a physical uncleanness, or a legal state of being designed to keep one from frequenting the Holy Temple.

R. Yosef Bechor Shor (Exodus 15:26) also explains ritual impurity as actually being physical uncleanness, and God was doing us a favor by keeping us from these sources of defilement, as it prevents disease.

כמו שהרופא שומר מאכל האדם ומתקנו שלא יבא עליו שום חולי כן אני אשמור אותך שלא תבא לידי חולי כמו שהמתקתי לך המים שלא יזיקו לך וכן הזהיר הקב"ה על ישראל נבילות שקצים ורמסים ובהמות טמאות ועופות טמאים ודגים טמאים שהם מזיקים וממאיסים גופו של אדם כי האוכלם נמאס ומזוהם וגם הפרישם מנגעים ומזבין ומזבות ויולדות ונידות ומנבלת אדם ובהמה ומנגעי אדם ובתים ובגדים שכל אילו מביאין אותם לידי זיהום כי כל דבר שהכתוב קוראו טמא מיאוס הוא כי טמא לשון מיאוס כמו שכתוב ביחזקאל והיא בגללי צאת האדם תעוגינה [לעיניהם ויאמר ה'] ככה יאכלו [בני] ישראל [את] לחמם טמא בגוים אלמא טמא לשון מיאוס וכן אמרו רבותי' כל האוכל פת בלא ניגוב ידים כאילו אוכל לחם טמא מפני שהוא מאוס כשידיו לחים הלחם נמאס מליחלוחית מי ידיו ומביאין זה הפסוק לראיה ככה יאכלו [בנ"י] את לחמם טמא שהוא לשון מיאוס וזהו כי אני ה' רופאך שאפרישך מכל המיאוסין הללו כי המיאוס מביא את האדם לידי חליות וכן הוא אומר וברך את לחמך ואת מימיך והסירותי מחלה מקרבך ואינו אומר כי אני ה' רופאך שתהיה חולה וארפאך דאם כך הוי קללה

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