In the last few days, with the help of God, I finished writing the book “Taharat HaMishpacha” (Family Purity) as part of “Peninei Halakha” series (a few more months of clarifications, proofreads, and polishing remain). On the festival of Hanukkah, we learned that a cruse of pure oil could restore the illumination of the entire Mikdash (Holy Temple). Out of my studies, I gradually came to the realization that taharat ha’mishpacha (ritual family purity) is the cruse of pure oil that has maintained and preserved the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple).
The root of the mitzvot of tahara and tumah lies in the heights of Heavenly secrets, in the Divine idea beyond our attainment, yet we know that Hashem has given us all the mitzvot to sanctify us and enhance us with goodness and blessing, and so, we can find deep and meaningful thoughts and explanations within them.
In general, tahara is associated with life, and tumah is associated with death. The more developed life is, the more death there is in its loss, and consequently, the tumah is more severe. Therefore in man, the most developed form of life – the tumah of his death is the most severe – avi avot (literally, ‘the grandfather of impurity’, in other words, the highest level of impurity). A less severe degree is tumat nevelah (the body of a land animal that died without ritual slaughter) or sheretz (the dead body of a swarming animal) which are av ha’tumah (the father of impurity). Plants are a less developed stage of life, therefore there is no tumah in plants that have wilted and died, but if a person made tools or clothes out of a plant, or grew fruits and vegetables from the plant, they can receive tumah.
Adam's sin brought on him and his seed a curse of sorrow and pain, part of which is the impurity of niddah and zavah of women.
The womb is the source of life and tahara of all human beings, and conversely, it is also the source of tumah. Tumat niddah (the impurity of a menstruant woman) is when the egg that could have developed into a fetus was not fertilized, wasted and died, and came out in menstrual bleeding along with the uterine lining that was intended to help create life.
Shichvat zera (human semen that has left the body) is also an expression of this – the semen that could have given birth to life wasted and died, and therefore there is tumah in it, although its tumah is of a lower degree (Kuzari 2: 60-62).
Because of the sin of Adam Rishon (the first man), the entire world fell from its higher level, and death and impurity appeared in the world; man was punished in that his livelihood would be enmeshed with sadness and sorrow until the time he dies and his body returned to the earth from which it was created. Family life, marital relationships, and childbirth as well would entail sadness and grief, as written in the Torah: “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy. It will be with anguish that you will give birth to children. Your passion will be to your husband, and he will dominate you'(Genesis 3:16).
Our Sages interpreted the words “I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy” – as referring to the blood of a woman, the blood of niddah and the blood of virginity, and also the sorrow of raising children and conception (Eruvin 100b). In other words, “the tumah of niddah and ziva (abnormal discharge of blood) resulted from the sin of Chava (the first woman) … for before the sin, all women were worthy not to have menstruation of niddah and ziva, rather, to be pure without blood” (Tzror HaMor, Parshat Tazria).
Because of the sin, the world was shattered and filled with flaws and shortcomings, and subsequently, along with the joy of all its goodness, sorrow and sadness accompany everything; there is no joy without When a person immerses himself in the water of the mikveh, he puts himself in a place where he cannot breathe or exist, thus indicating his disengagement from his previous life to which sin clung, and the start of a new and pure life
crises and pain, and hence our Sages said that man should not fill his mouth with laughter in this world (Berachot 31a).
A person who ignores the pain and shortcomings will fall and crash, and his grief and pain will be even greater. Therefore, man’s awareness of the punishment that Adam and Chava received for their sin and the pain and sorrow that accompanies life is the key to starting the process by which they can gradually rectify the schism, until they ultimately reach a higher level than they were in the beginning, since the spiritual level of baalei teshuva (penitents) is even higher than that of tzaddikim gemurim (the wholly righteous) (Berachot 34b) for out of an understanding of the world, with all its peaks and abysses, they choose the good.
The many mitzvot associated with tumah and tahara give expression to the shortcomings, and pave the way for its rectification.
While the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) existed and the Jewish nation resided in their land, all of Israel was connected to the fountain of Divine life in the Mikdash, where all the Divine values were expressed, and from which life and blessing spread to all parts of the Land of Israel and the world. To this end, all of Israel had to contend with all types of tumah and be cleansed from them three times a year so they could make the pilgrimage to the Beit HaMikdash.
The Kohanim (priests) throughout the Land had to maintain their purity throughout the year, and immerse in a mikveh and purify themselves whenever they were defiled from one of the impurities explained in the Torah, because they were commanded to eat in purity the offerings and challah they would receive from the Israelites. There were even Israelites throughout the Land who consecrated themselves and observed the laws of tahara.
By means of all this, Israel clung to life with great devotion, and were able to add life and blessing to every sphere of life in the world.
Since we have learned that all matters of tumah are associated with death, it is thus understandable that by tevilah (immersion in a mikveh), in which a person who is impure is cleansed of his impurity, is similar to being re-created and returning to life (Sefer HaChinuch, 173).
The essence of tevilah is that the entire body of a person be immersed in the water, and since while in the water one cannot breathe or exist, at the moment of tevilah he is in a state in which he is cannot live, and hence, when he comes out of the water, it is as if he has been re-created. In other words, the impure person to whom a certain degree of death has clung to is completely immersed in water, purging himself and his previous life, and consequently, when he comes out of the water, his life is renewed without the tumah and the death that clung to it.
However, if a person were to immerse himself because he thought of it, the tevilah would not benefit him at all; However, through the mitzvah given by Hashem, tevilah purifies oneself. For life, the mitzvah, and tahara are from Hashem. And Hashem, who created the heavens and the earth and all in them, chose us from all peoples, and gave us His Torah, and sanctified us in his mitzvot, and gave us the mitzvah of tevilah, by which we can be cleansed from the impurity that accompanies our lives.
And thus, although man lives in this world where the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) is coupled with the yetzer tov (good inclination), and weaknesses and shortcomings accompany every good virtue, and death and life are linked – by means of Torah and mitzvot, man merits connecting to Hashem, and extricates himself from death. “Only you, the ones who remained attached to God your Lord, are all alive today (Deuteronomy 4: 4).
We find then, that the basic meaning of tevilah is that when a person immerses himself in water according to the mitzvoth of the Torah, he nullifies himself and his life to Hashem, and from this, Hashem purifies him of the impurity that had clung to him; he rises from the water as if re-born, and in connection with him, the words of the prophet are fulfilled: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36: 25-26).
“Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And who is it that purifies you? Your Father who is in heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean” (Ezekial 36:25). And it further says: “O hope (mikveh) of Israel, O Lord” (Jeremiah 17:1) – just as a mikveh purifies the unclean, so too does he Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel” (Mishnah Yoma 8: 9).
Thus, by means of tevilah a Jew merits connecting to his root in Knesset Yisrael, since Clal Yisrael is the true purifying mikveh, and from this, he merits connecting to Hashem, and be purified.
Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and Israel’s exile from its Land, taharah was annulled, and all the laws of tumat met, tumat nevilot and shratzim, tumat zav, baal keri, and metzurah and their order of purity have been abolished, and there is no more a mitzvah from the Torah to tovel in order to purify oneself, except for one type of tevilah – that of a woman to purify herself to her husband.
The foundation of tahara and life is in the brit (covenant) between Hashem and Israel His nation, who reveal His Shechina (Holy Presence) and blessing in the world. For the sake of this idea the world was created, and in its merit, the world exists. In order to express this connection we were commanded to build the Mikdash, as written: “They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25: 8).
Also, the order of all the service in the Beit HaMikdash was intended for this purpose, as written: “I will sanctify the Communion Tent and the altar, and I will also sanctify Aaron and his sons to be priests to Me. I will make My presence felt among the Israelites, and I will be a God for them” (Exodus 29: 44-45).
And in the most holy place, in the Kodesh HaKodeshim (Holy of Holies), we were commanded to place the Ark of the Covenant, with the Tablets of the Covenant and the Torah in it, which expressed the brit that Hashem had made with Am Yisrael, His Nation. And above the Ark of the Covenant, we were commanded to place two cherubim, which were in the form of a loving man and woman in sexual union, to express the love between Hashem and Israel His Nation, and as it is said: “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
Our Sages said: “Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman” (Yoma 54a). But when Israel ceased to do the will of God, the cherubim parted each other, and turned their faces away (Bava Batra 99a).
However, the iniquities escalated, and the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, the Land was devastated, and the Jewish nation was exiled from their Land. This was comparable to a divorce, as if Hashem had expelled his wife, Knesset Yisrael, as written: “Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isaiah 50: 1).
Our Sages said (Berachot 32b) that a wall of iron was intervened between Israel and their Father in Heaven, and their prayer is not accepted; the world continues in its regular, natural way – the wicked rule over the righteous, and it seems as if life continues immorally, devoid of its Divine origin.
However, even as the world darkened for us, and Israel was enslaved and tormented in exile among the nations, there remained another similar kedusha (sanctity) to that of the Mikdash within Jewish homes, in the sacred and faithful love between man and wife.
Only because of this, there remained the mitzvah of tahara, by means of which women continue the sanctity of the Mikdash into their families, to add blessing and life, and bring redemption to the world.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.