The twenty-forth perek of Masechet Keilim is interesting from a stylistic point of view as each Mishnah begins by mentioning a particular item and its three categories of susceptibility to tumah. The sixteenth Mishnah discusses the impurity of sevachot, which literally refers to a netting-like material. The three types of sevachot and their susceptibility to Tumah are as follows:
A girl’s sevacha is able to contract Tumat Midras – a form of tumah that is imparted through standing, sitting or lying upon, unique to items intended for these purposes.
An elderly woman’s sevacha is able to contract Tamei Met and other forms of tumah transferred through direct contact.
A sevacha for outdoors is tahor and not susceptible to tumah.
The Rishonim provide differing explanations as to the uses of this netting like material and it is this use which impacts its capacity for contracting Tumah.
The Rambam and Bartenura seem to agree that the word sevacha refers to a lady’s head covering. It follows then that the Mishnah is referring to head coverings that belong to different individuals. The Rambam states that a girl’s head covering can be sat upon and therefore contracts Tumat Midras. On the other hand, the head covering of an elderly woman was slightly different and constructed in a manner that one would not sit on it. Interestingly, the Bartenura quotes the Tosefta which reverses the Halacha – i.e. that a child’s head covering has the ability to contract corpse Tumah, and an elderly woman’s contracts Midras Tumah. This is because an elderly woman is not particular about her head covering, and will therefore sit upon it from time to time, while a child is particular about her clothing and will not sit upon it.
The Mishnah Achrona disagrees with the above interpretation. He writes that it does not seem logical that the Mishnah would be referring to a head covering as it is quite rare to find a woman that would uncover her hair to sit on her head covering! Rather, the sevachot mentioned in the Mishnah is some sort of handkerchief which a woman uses to clean her mouth and hands from dirt. According to the Mishnah Achronah, the Mishnah informs us that a girl is particular about her clothes, and therefore will sometimes place this handkerchief on top of her chair in order to prevent her clothes from getting dirty, thus enabling the handkerchief to contract Tumat Midras. The handkerchief of an elderly lady, on the other hand, will only contract corpse tumah as she is not particular about her clothes and will never sit on the handkerchief.
Another explanation is provided by the Tifferet Yisrael who interprets the use of the Sevacha as a veil. He mentions that a girl’s veil typically covered her head, shoulders and parts of her body. Therefore, when she sits down, she will find herself at least partially sitting on her veil (and thus allow for Tumat Midras). An elderly lady however, will typically have a shorter veil and never find herself sitting on the material.
Interestingly, according to all opinions, there is still the question of why a sevacha “for going out” is completely Tahor. Tifferet Yisrael answers that this covering does not have the appropriate shiur as a begged – and therefore remains tahor. Bartenura answers that this type of covering is not really a vessel and therefore cannot receive impurity. The Mishnah Achronah develops this idea further. He says that this sevacha was actually a type of sheet that was worn by women on top of their clothing when they went out to protect them from the rain. Since this sheet was only used as protection, it is not considered a kli in its own right and therefore escapes susceptibility to contracting tumah.
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