A needle whose hole or tip broke off is tahor (no longer susceptible to tumah). If it was “fixed” for stretching [the edge of a curtain for weaving] then it is tameh (susceptible to tumah)...
When the end of a needle breaks, it can no longer serve its original purpose. It might however be used to pin down fabric. The Bartenura explains that it was indeed the practice of weavers to use broken needles. The Mishnah however explains that it must be “fixed” for that purpose to be susceptible to tumah. There are two ways to understand this requirement. The Mishnah may be understood literally requiring some modification to the broken needle. Alternatively, we sometimes find that designation is enough.
The Tosfot (Shabbat 49b, 123a) explains that ordinarily simple designation is enough. For example if a utensil breaks and its remainder is still fit for another purpose, designating for that purpose would make it susceptible to tumah. In this case however some physical modification is required. Based on the Gemara (Shabbat 123a) on which the Tosfot comment, it would appear that the reason that this case is different, is because once the utensil is broken it is no longer defined as a kli (utensil) and generally discarded. Consequently a more significant act is required then simple designation.
The Mishnah Achrona (12:7) understands the Tosfot in the above described manner but raises a difficulty from a Mishnah learnt previously. The Mishnah (12:7) explains:
A dinar (coin) that is no longer in circulation and was “fixed” to hang [as a necklace] around the neck of a minor is susceptible to tumah...
The Mishnah Achrona explains that a coin is not defined as a kli as it has no function and is not used as jewellery. Consequently, one would expect that the Tosfot would explain that the term “fix” there is also understood literally and some change is required.
Based on the above expectation the Tosfot (Bava Metzia 52b) are surprising. They explain that if the coin requires some modification to be used as a necklace then fine. If however the coin does not require anything, then designation alone is enough because “all utensils descend to tumah (i.e. become susceptible to tumah) through machshava (thought).” What is odd here is that it appears that even items that are not defined as keilim can become susceptible to tumah with designation alone.
Perhaps we can answer the Mishnah Achrona’s question based on the Ritva’s understanding of our Mishnah. He explains that once it is broken in this manner such that it is normally discarded, “thought [alone] no longer helps, because since it was once [susceptible] then rejected (i.e. no longer susceptible), it can no longer be susceptible with machshava unless it is [physically improved].” Based on this explanation, perhaps it not just because the needle is not a kli that it requires more than machshava; indeed we find by the coin that machshava is enough. This needle is subject to a worse circumstance; it had the ability and then lost it. Only with a physical modification can new life be given to it, enabling it once again to be susceptible to tumah.16
16 See Tosfot in Chulin 55a from which this idea could be based.
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