Tumah and taharah

This article is presented as a compilation of the laws of tumah and taharah as recorded in the Torah and Rabbinic literature. For taharah in terms of Kosher animal consumption, see Kosher. For the taharah ritual for the deceased, see Bereavement in Judaism

The Hebrew terms tumah and taharah refer to ritual "impurity and purity" under Jewish law.[1][2] The Hebrew noun tum'ah (טָמְאָה) "impurity" describes a state of ritual impurity. A person or object which contracts tumah is said to be tamei (Hebrew adjective, "ritually impure"), and thereby unsuited for certain holy activities and utilisations (kedusha in Hebrew) until undergoing predefined purification actions that usually include the elapse of a specified time-period.

The contrasting Hebrew noun taharah (טָהֳרָה) describes a state of ritual purity that qualifies the tahor (טָהוֹר; ritually pure person or object) to be used for kedusha. The most common method of achieving taharah is by the person or object being immersed in a mikveh (ritual bath). This concept is connected with ritual washing in Judaism, and both ritually impure and ritually pure states have parallels in ritual purification in other world religions.

The laws of tumah and taharah were generally followed by the Israelites, particularly during the First and Second Temple Period, and to a limited extent are a part of applicable halakha in modern times.


The Hebrew noun tum'ah (טֻמְאָה) derives from the verb tam'a (טָמֵא), in the qal form of the verb "to become impure"; in the niphal to "defile oneself"; and in the transitive Piel to defile something or pronounce something impure.[3] The verb stem has a corresponding adjective, tame (טָמֵא), "impure."

Likewise the Hebrew noun tahara (טָהֳרָה) is also derived from a verb, in this case taher (טָהֵר) "to be ritually pure". and in the transitive piel "to purify". The verb and noun have a corresponding adjective, tahor (טָהוֹר), "ritually pure." The word is a cognate to the Arabic word 'طهارة' (pronounced almost identically, with the elongation of the second 'a') which has the same meaning in Islam.

Some sources claim that the meaning is "entombed," meaning the person or item that is in the tame state is blocked and not in a state of receiving holy transmission. Tahor, by contrast, is defined as "pure" in the sense that the person or object is in a clear state and can/may potentially serve as a conduit for Divine and Godly manifestation. Although tumah and taharah is sometimes translated as unclean and clean, it is more a spiritual state than a physical one. Once initiated (for the physical signs that initiate tzaraath, zav and niddah, see below) it is generally immeasurable and unquantifiable by known mechanic detection methods, there is no measure of filth, unsanitary, or odorous affiliation with the state of tumah, nor any mechanically measurable level of cleanliness, clarity, or physical purity for the state of taharah.

Biblical usage


The noun form of tumah is used around 40 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible is generally translated as "uncleanness" in English language Bibles such as the KJV, and JPS Tanakh.[4] The majority of uses are in Leviticus. Though uses for national impurity occur in Ezra and Ezekiel, and Zechariah prophesies the removal of the "prophets and spirit of impurity (רוּחַ הַטֻּמְאָה) from the land".[5] The adjective tamei' (טָמֵא) "impure," is much more common.


The verb form of taharah (טָהֳרָה), the verb taher (טָהֵר) "be pure", is used first in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 35:2, where Jacob tells his family to "put away strange gods, and be pure".

Types of tumah

A person or object can become tame (טָמֵא) "ritually impure", in a number of ways:

  1. By contact with a "dead body"—tumat met—which, in addition to the body itself, includes significant parts of a body, soil in which the body decomposed, and others.
  2. By being present in a building or roofed structure containing a dead body (tumat ohel) .
  3. By coming in contact with certain dead animals, including most insects and all lizards (enumerated in Leviticus, Chapter 11, verses 29–32).
  4. By contact with certain bodily fluids—niddah, zav/zavah - This view is held by Orthodox Judaism and remains a traditional view within Conservative Judaism. Although Conservative Judaism retains the concept of niddah and a prohibition on sexual relations during the niddah period (including childbirth), recent decisions by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards have endorsed multiple views about the concept of zavah, as well as the tumah status of a niddah. The liberal view held that the concepts of tumah and taharah are not relevant outside the context of a Holy Temple (as distinct from a synagogue; hence a niddah cannot convey tumah today), found the concept of zavah no longer applicable, and permitted spouses to touch each other in a manner similar to siblings during the niddah period (while retaining a prohibition on sexual conduct). The traditional view retained the applicability of the concepts of tumah, taharah, and zavah, and retained a prohibition on all contact. See Niddah. (See Leviticus Chapter 15)
  5. By giving birth to a child (the time of tumah is 7 days for a boy, followed by 33 days of taharah and 14 days for a girl followed by 66 days of taharah).
  6. By contact with a primary source of tumah or an object that has been in contact with a primary source of tumah.
  7. By contracting tzaraath—see Leviticus chapters 13–14.

In the Torah

The Torah first alludes to the concept of taharah in terms of ritual purity (for taharah in terms of Kosher animal consumption, see Kosher) in God's directive to Moses to instruct the children of Israel not to have sexual relations for a period of three days prior to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai;

"And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives."
(Exodus 19:15) KJV

After the giving of the Torah, during the second year of the Israelite exodus from Egypt, more specified mitzvoth involving tumah and taharah were given to the Israelites;

Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead:
Numbers 5:2, KJV

The brunt of tumah and taharah law as recorded in the Torah is centralized in the book of Leviticus, a book which deals primarily with the Temple service carried out by the Kohen. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, special sacrifices and ceremonies were performed for purification from various types of impurity, including the Red Heifer ceremony for contact with the dead, and special ceremonies for tzara'ath and childbirth.

In the Mishnah

The Mishnah dedicates one of its six sub-divisions to the Torah laws of tumah, impurity, and taharah, purity. This division or "order" is called Tohorot (plural "ritual purities") and consists of twelve tractates.

In Talmudic and Medieval Jewish literature

Although the Mishnah division of Tohorot is not treated systematically in the Talmud, rabbinic literature continued to analyze laws of impurity and purification.

Maimonides (d. 1204) clarifies that, in addition to all of Israel, the priests are expected to be knowledgeable and fluent in the general and specifics of tumah and taharah law. Given his role of Temple service and year round consumption of terumah, each priest was required to be in a tahor (pure) state (Maimonides, end of introduction to Seder Taharoth). Hezekiah ben Manoah rationalizes the Latin name Leviticus given to this book as a demonstration of its contents pertaining primarily to the Kohen who is part of the Tribe of Levi.[6]

Mandatory or optional

Common Torah knowledge stipulates that there is no letter-of-law requirement for the Israelite to abstain from becoming tamei (impure) save for the three annual holiday periods, where visiting the Temple in a tahor (pure) state is a mitzvah, and thus mandatory.

However, based on the verse "And ye shall be holy men unto me" (Exodus 22:31), Jewish sages writers during the Second Temple period, such as Gamaliel,[7] the Jerusalem Talmud to Shabbat 8b; Hiyya the Great to Abba Arika, have encouraged the act of keeping the nuances of tumah and taharah all year round (Targum Yonathan to Exodus 22:30 et al.) An Israelite who volunteered to keep the laws and details of tumah and taharah all year round was called a porush; meaning "separated", i.e. separates himself from tumah.

A niddah hut (Mergem Gogo) at the Jewish village of Ambober in northern Ethiopia, 1976.

Some Torah commentators and poskim advocate the keeping of prespecified nuances of tumah and taharah even in the absence of the temple in Jerusalem and even in the diaspora.[8] The advocated sub-divisions of tumah and taharah include tumath ochlin v'mashkin (consuming food and drink that did not become tamei)[9] and abstaining from the midras of a niddah.[10]

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, in his Igrot Kodesh, discouraged abstaining from any object made impure by a menstruating woman in modern times, with the exception for unique individuals [11]


Following the destruction of the Second Temple, the only ritual purification method in rabbinic law involves washing or immersion in a mikveh. Orthodox Jews and, to a lesser extent, Conservative Jews still perform such purification rituals as are possible. Typically, a person or an object ceases to be impure by waiting a certain length and then immersion in a mikveh.

In an academic article by Christine Hayes, she argues that moral impurity is the reason for the gentile expulsion and alienation that occurs in Ezra-Nehemiah.[12] However, in another academic article, Olyan presents the argument that Ezra and Nehemiah's attempt of the restoration of Israel to its original state was expressed through the expulsion and alienation of foreign peoples that was caused by both ritual and moral impurities. The Judean people believed that Israel and the priestly bloodline of Israel in itself was pure, being the chosen nation of their God. Furthermore, when the men of Israel committed to relations with Gentile people the acts took away from their purity. Olyan argues that there were different actions that were categorized by the Judean people as ritual impurity and moral impurity. Moral impurity can simply be removed, as in physical removal or separation between groups. This is originally what caused the expulsion of the Gentile people. They simply needed to be removed from the Judean environment and then the environment would be considered pure once again. However, ritual impurity is much more serious. Olyan argues that ritual impurity is deeply embedded into covenants, thus a religious ritual must be performed to rid the impurity from the people group. In Ezra and Nehemiah, an argument is shaped through both moral and ritual impurity that leads to the expulsion and alienation of the Gentiles.[13]

Causes of impurity

It is possible for a person to become impure through the mitzvah (holy deed) of tending to a dead person, the deceased being a source of impurity. This illustrates how behaviour that makes one ritually unclean is in no way necessarily wrongful behaviour, as tending to the dead makes one unclean but is a righteous act.

See also


  1. Martin S. Jaffee Early Judaism: religious worlds of the first Judaic millennium 2006 - 277 "For the conceptual background of rabbinic conceptions of cleanliness and uncleanliness, including the relation of these concepts to moral conditions,.."
  2. The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation IV: Pesahim ed. Jacob Neusner - 1993 "P. If the Israelites were half clean and half unclean, these prepare the offering by themselves, ... Kahuna's ruling: R. Lo, if half of the Israelites were clean and half unclean, the clean ones observe the first Passover and the"
  3. Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon article ta'ama
  4. Johnson M. Kimuhu Leviticus: The Priestly Laws and Prohibitions from the Perspective of Ancient Near East and Africa. 2008 Vol. 115 - Page 352 citing Helmer Ringgren in Bolterweck Theological Dictionary of the OT
  5. Michael Katz (Rabbi), Gershon Schwartz Searching for meaning in Midrash: lessons for everyday living 2002 Page 166 "This spirit is the spirit of impurity, as it is written, 'And I will also make the "prophets" and the unclean spirit vanish from the land' (Zechariah 13:2). Water of purification is sprinkled upon him and it flees."
  6. Hezekiah ben Manoah (Chizkuni)'s closing notes to Leviticus
  7. Tosefta to Hagigah 3:1
  8. Maimonides Chap. 13 of Tractate Nega'im. Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michal, to Sifra on Leviticus 22:3 minor Chap. 66. b
  9. Sefer ha-Chinuch chap. 160
  10. Isaiah Horowitz vol. 1 p. 452; Menachem Recanati Pithkei Harakanti Chap. 586; Isaac Alfasi Teushuvath HaRif Chapter 297
  11. Menachem Mendel Schneerson Igrot Kodesh vol. 3 p. 374
  12. Hayes, C. (1999). Intermarriage and impurity in ancient Jewish sources. Harvard Theological Review, 92(01), 11.
  13. Olyan, S. M. (2004). Purity ideology in Ezra-Nehemiah as a tool to reconstitute the community. Journal for the Study of Judaism, 35(1), 1-16.

External links

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