... [A comb used] for wool from which every second tooth was removed is tahor (i.e. no longer susceptible to tumah). If three [teeth] remained in one place it would be tameh (susceptible to tumah). If one of the external teeth was one of [the three remaining teeth] then it is tahor...
The above Mishnah deals with a wool comb whose “teeth” break, focusing on when it is no longer susceptible to tumah.
At a quick glance, one would be hard pressed to extract a rule for when this comb would be tahor. The first statement that the comb would be tahor if every second tooth was removed seems to imply that provided that two consecutive teeth remained, the comb would be susceptible to tumah. However the next statement explicitly states that three teeth must remain in one place. Do we require two or three teeth?
The above observation is not new; the Gemara asks this very question. Before bringing the answer, one must first understand that the wool comb in the times of the Mishnah was made of multiple rows (we might refer to it as a narrow brush). The Gemara therefore responds that one statement refers to the “inner” row of teeth while the other statement refers to the “outer” row of teeth. Rashi explains that most of work when combing wool was performed with the outer teeth. Consequently the outer row required a greater number of teeth (three) than the inner rows (two) for the comb to maintain its susceptibility to tumah.17
When the Rambam brings this Halacha (Hilchot Keilim 11:3) he appears to require three teeth under in all cases:
A comb used for wool from which teeth were removed, if three remained in one place then it is tameh...
The Kesef Mishnah draws our attention to the above cited Gemara and is at a loss for why the Ra’avad did not even question the Rambam.
Rav Shach ztz”l explains (Avi Ezri, Keilim 11:3) that according to the Rambam there are two reasons why this comb can become tahor. If there are less than three teeth together in any part of the comb then the comb is indeed tahor for it is no longer fit for purpose. The first statement of the Mishnah however refers to a different reason why the comb becomes tahor as will be explained.
The Rambam writes (Hilchot Keilim 18:10):
All utensils that broke and lost their form, the broken parts are not susceptible to tumah, even if those parts are useful, except for klei cheres...
The loss of form is therefore another means to which the utensil becomes tahor. Therefore if the comb does not have three teeth together, it might not be fit for purpose, but still have the form of the comb. It is only when every second tooth is removed that it also has lost its form.
One would then understand the Gemara’s explanation of our Mishnah differently. The first statement (regarding the removal of every second tooth) refers to the “outside” of the kli - its form. The second statement (regarding the requirement of having three teeth together) refers to its “inside” – its function.
[Rav Shach explains (based on Rambam 19:13) that the following is the practical difference. If a utensil loses its function but still maintains its form, then (using the above example) even if a third tooth was replaced with one whose substance ordinarily would not be susceptible to tumah, the comb is now susceptible to tumah. If however the comb lost its form and (using our case) every second tooth was replaced with one that is not susceptible to tumah, then the comb would still not be susceptible to tumah as it no longer can be.]18
17 The Chazon Ish (Nashim 143, 43a) explains that according to this understanding a total of five teeth would be required.
18 Rav Shach adds that the first statement is not included explicitly in the Rambam as the rule is covered by the above cited Rambam and “loss of form” is something that depends on the opinion of people. See inside for more detail. Also see the volume 6 issue 4 for a similar discussion regarding earthenware utensils. Rav Shach brings the Rabbeinu Chaim cited in that issue to explain the Rambam (Keilim 19:14) which at face value seem to imply that the loss of form removing the ability for a kli to become susceptible to tumah only applies to kli cheres.
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