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Why Is Impurity Not Observed?

Why Is Impurity Not Observed?

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Question

The Torah contains a complex code of laws regulating how a person or tool becomes unclean, and how cleanliness is restored once again. Why are Jews not careful about these laws nowadays?

Reply

I would first note that the correct translations of the Hebrew words taharah and tum’ah are “ritually pure” and “impure,” not “clean” and “unclean,” as these laws have no connection to a person’s or object’s actual hygienic state.

Here is a very basic overview of the different types of impurities:

  • Tum’at meit: coming into contact with, or being under the same roof as, a dead body1
  • Tum’at nevelah and sheretz: coming into contact with certain dead animals2
  • Tum’at zav and niddah: emitting certain bodily fluids3
  • Tum’at yoledet: giving birth to a child4
  • Tzaraat: through contracting tzaraat—i.e., when the skin, a garment or a house is afflicted with an unusual appearance on its surface.(Tzaraat is commonly mistranslated as “leprosy,” but that is beyond the scope of this article.)5

It Is Almost Impossible to Remain Pure Nowadays

It is very easy to become impure, since this can happen not just by touching a primary source of tum’ah, but also by touching an object that came into contact with one.6 For this reason, all people are generally presumed to be ritually impure.7

Depending on the type of impurity, the purification process includes one or more of the following:

  • immersion in a mikvah
  • waiting until nightfall following the immersion
  • bringing an offering in the Temple
  • in the case of tum’at met, being sprinkled with special waters mixed with the ashes of the Red Heifer

Unfortunately, with the destruction of the Holy Temple, sprinkling the ashes of the Red Heifer and bringing a sacrifice are no longer possible.

Since it is so easy to become impure, and impossible to become pure once again, every person is presumed to be impure.

Why Remain Pure?

Generally speaking, there is no prohibition for one to become ritually impure.

If a person becomes impure, he or she isn’t allowed to enter the Temple area,8 or eat any sanctified foods such as terumah or any offerings that were brought to the Temple.9 It is for this reason that, nowadays, observant Jews generally refrain from entering the area of the Temple, and although terumah and other tithes still need to be separated from Israeli produce, the tithes aren’t themselves eaten, as this would require the person eating them to be ritually pure (and a verified kohen).

Thus, it is very difficult to remain pure, and there is very little benefit for someone who would attempt (imperfectly) to remain pure.

Where Purity Still Does Matter

Niddah: When a woman experiences a menstrual flow (or other similar emissions), she and her husband are forbidden to be together until she immerses in a mikvah, a process that very closely parallels the erstwhile process of restoring ritual purity. (For more about this, read here.)

The Kohen: Even if he does not plan on engaging in activities that require purity, there is a unique prohibition against a kohen becoming impure by coming into contact with a corpse, as the Torah states, “The L‑rd said to Moses: ‘Speak to the kohanim . . . Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people.’”10 Kohanim nowadays are therefore careful about visiting cemeteries, attending funerals or otherwise coming into contact with a dead body. (For more on these laws, see here.)

As you can see, the laws of purity are indeed technically in effect; it is just that for the most part we are presumed to be in a state of ritual impurity. We await the day when “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be pure; from all your impurities and from all your abominations will I purify you.”11 May it be speedily in our days!

Footnotes
3.
Leviticus 15.
5.
Leviticus 13-14.
6.
See, for example, Leviticus 19:22 and commentaries ad loc.
7.
See, for example, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deiah 322:4, and Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 561:2.
8.
See Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim 561:2.
9.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 322:4.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Vivian Warshaw Los Angeles cA June 29, 2017

you forgot impurity also occurs when a man has a seminal emission and there are a couple of purification rituals for that. The man should ask his Rabbi for the best answer in his locale.

Also various toxic molds are common in homes these days -they are also require advice from a Rabbi. Reply

Just Answering July 5, 2017
in response to Vivian Warshaw:

The author mentioned:

Tum’at zav and niddah: emitting certain bodily fluids3 Reply

Esther Denver CO June 27, 2017

Do the 1000 Samaritan Israelites living in Israel have a way of purifying their kohanim and people?... Reply

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