A small piece of cloth, three by three fingerbreadths, is susceptible to tumah. Even though such a small patch does not appear to be very useful, it is for the poor who use it to mend clothing. Nonetheless, the Gemara (Shabbat 26a) learns from the strange wording of the pasuk (“ve-habeged”) that a patch of these dimensions is susceptible to tumah no matter the financial standing of the owner. Elsewhere the Gemara (Sukkah 16a) explains that below the minimum measure, such a patch has no use to anyone and is consequently not susceptible to any tumah. Therefore the Mishnah (29:8) at first appears puzzling:
A poor person’s cloth, even though it is less than three by three [fingerbreadths], is tameh (i.e. susceptible to tumah)…
The Rash explains that one would be tempted to change the text of the Mishnah to read “three by three [tephachim]31”. In other words, while the minimum size for a cloth to be susceptible to tumah met (more accurately the forms of tumah transferred by direct contact) is standard, the larger minimum size for the tumat midras varies. This is indeed the version of the Tosfot (Shabbat 47a).
The Rash and Rosh however wish to preserve this version that is widely found. They explain based on the Tosefta that the cloth in this Mishnah refers to a large one that is well worn out and with multiple tears such that there is not a consistent area of three by three tephachim.
The Rambam and Bartenura (and ultimately the Rash32) also explain the case differently. They understand that the case in the Mishnah refers to a larger cloth that has been put together by small patches. Such clothing was only worn by those hard pressed and it is therefore only theirs which is susceptible to tumah.
What then is the novelty of the Mishnah if we are dealing with a large cloth made of small patches? We have already learnt that different fabrics can combine to complete the minimum measure for tumat midras (see previous article). Certainly then if they are put together from the same fabric they should combine!
The Mishnah Achrona answers that when the Mishnah that taught that different fabrics could combine, it referred to pieces that were larger than three by three fingerbreadths; that were susceptible to tumat met. In this case however the small patches were not susceptible to any form of tumah. One might have thought that such small patches could not combine at all; after all, many multiples of nothing accounts to nothing. This Mishnah is therefore still required.
One might still ask, why should there be a difference between the financial standing of the owner?33 Just as we learnt that it makes no difference by a patch of three by three fingerbreadths, the same should apply in this case as well. The Mishnah Achrona explains that that the universal rule applies by the three by three patch, because it is generally useful for ani’im. The difference here is that ordinarily the patches that are less than three by three fingerbreadths are not useful. It is only when it is considered important to him, through its combination with other such patches, that it becomes considered useful.34
31 The nuances of the text do not translate well into English. Due to the Hebrew grammar the words for “three”, whether masculine or feminine imply handbreadths (tephachim) or fingerbreadths respectively.
32 See the Mishnah Achrona and Tosfot R’ Akiva Eiger.
33 See the Rash who explains that if a wealthy person decided to wear it, it would be susceptible to tumat midras.
34 This is the Mishnah Achrona’s second answer, see inside for more details. Also see the Rash at length.
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