In our Mishnah (12:1) we are told that the “the ring of a person is impure (meaning that it is susceptible to impurity) [while] the ring of a beast or an implement is pure (meaning that it is not susceptible to impurity)”. In other words, all jewellery made for people is susceptible to becoming impure, whereas all other jewellery or decoration is not.
The Ikar Tosafot Yom Tov explains that this Mishnah is a continuation of the law explained in Mishnah 8 of the previous perek where it is taught that a woman's jewellery may contract impurity. There, the Bartenura explains that the source is a drasha made from the following pasuk (Bamidbar 31: 23)15
Everything that comes into the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of sprinkling; and everything that will not pass through fire, you shall pass through water.
We deduce from the pasuk that discusses metalware that because the utensil is purified in water, it must be that it can become impure. However, because of the word “and”, we deduce an extra inclusion beyond that which would normally require purification. Since the rule is that only useful tools made of metal may become impure, it must be there is another class of metal object which may become impure - jewellery. The reason why it is only a person’s jewellery which is included in the laws of ritual impurity is not clear, though, logically there should be no difference between metal decorations for people and for other things.
The answer to this question would seem to lie in an exploration of the nature of ritual impurity, or tumah. The Rebbe from Kotsk taught that tumah is simply the lack of Godliness in an object which has instead been filled up with something else. However, when it comes to the ritual impurity of objects, there is a difference, for what we are discussing is a factor which affects our relationship with Hashem, however, animals and inanimate objects have no direct relationship with Hashem. As such, it must be that their tumah is different to ours. We will posit based on this that the tumah of an animal or inanimate object is not the absence of Godliness from the object (for such a description would have no meaning), but rather the ability to induce an absence of Godliness from our own bodies.
The second fact which we must use in explaining the difference between decorations for people and for others things is that when a person wears jewellery, he does so for himself, and similarly, when he decorates something in his control or care, he does so for himself (or at least for other people). What this tells us is that the purpose of jewellery on a person is to impact the person and is directly impacted by being worn, whereas the purpose of jewellery and decorations for animals and things is to indirectly impact people, rather than the animal or things, for what difference does it make to a cat or a pot if it is wearing a necklace? As such, there is a fundamental difference in purpose, human jewellery is meant to benefit the wearer whereas other jewellery is not.
Based on the above the answer would seem to be that an object, whether it is practically useful or merely decorative, must be intended to directly impact human beings so as to be able to contract ritual impurity. Otherwise, the eventual impact on humans is too indirect. There is no point in its contracting ritual impurity, for the animal or the pot it is placed upon have no relationship with Hashem which may be affected by that contact and the impure nature of the object.
15 Ed note: The section of the Torah refers to the kashering of utensils discussed after the war with Midyan.
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