In Judaism, spiritual purity is a desirable factor. This has nothing to do with hygiene and personal cleanliness; it is a spiritual state called taharah—what we will call “purity.” The opposite of taharah is tumah, which we call “impurity.”

But the truth is, it’s very, very difficult to give an accurate English translation to these two terms—taharah and tumah—simply because they do not exist in the English language. These concepts do not exist any place other than in Torah, and therefore foreign languages don’t have the capacity to provide good synonyms for them.

At any rate, the Torah describes many situations that can impart this state of impurity to a person. Among these is contact with a dead body. This is why when one attends a funeral, G‑d forbid, one washes one’s hands before entering one’s home, pouring water on each hand alternately, six times in total; this is a spiritual formula for removing impurity from your hands. A person from the priestly family (a kohen) is not allowed to go to a cemetery at all, except under special conditions.

Another situation that can cause a person to become spiritually contaminated is the biblical disease of tzaraat (which was signified by patches of discolored, dead skin). Yet another situation which causes impurity is birth. When a woman gives birth, she contracts a spiritual impurity.

There are various other situations, which the Torah describes, that also cause impurity. The common denominator of all these kinds of impurity is that they are all somehow related to the concept of death. Even childbirth is associated with death, not because of the dangers involved, but simply because the mother who carried the child for nine months had an extra soul in her—an extra life—during the pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman is extra-pure. But when the child is born and leaves her body—even though the child is independently alive outside the mother’s body—then as far as the mother’s body is concerned, there was a loss of life. This loss of life is the reason for her temporary state of spiritual impurity.

Similarly, when a man has discharged seed from his body, this seed can potentially impregnate a woman and cause a child to be born; there is a potential for life in every drop of seed. Every time a man lets his seed out, even if his wife becomes pregnant, he becomes impure. When a woman has her menstrual period every month, that egg which died, if it had become impregnated, could have become another person. Therefore, there is a vestige of death every month, when a woman has her period. And that is why she has the impurity.

We can see how Torah values life—how the highest thing in Judaism is life. The Torah itself is called “a Tree of Life.” Where there is life, there is holiness and purity, and where there is death or the loss of life, there is impurity.

Though a person may be alive today, there was once a period when he wasn’t alive, and there will be another period when he won’t be alive. But to be really alive even when one is alive, it is not sufficient to just live. “You who cleave to G‑d are all alive today,” a verse states. An evil person—even while he’s still alive—is called dead. Breathing and having your heart pumping do not denote life. What the Torah considers life is connected with Torah, with Judaism. The righteous man is called living even when he has passed away from this world—because he clung to the Source of Life.