The second Mishna in the ninth perek of Masechet Keilim describes the case of an earthenware jug in an Ohel Ha’met sealed with a tzamid p’til and containing liquid and some type of metal straw inside. Beit Shammi and Beit Hillel argue over whether the tzamid p’til is able to protect the contents of this jug from contracting Tumah. Beit Shammai is of the opinion that the jug and the liquid are pure and the straw is tameh, while Beit Hillel argue that all of the contents (including the straw) are tahor. The Mishna then adds that following this argument, Beit Hillel then reconsidered and ruled according to the opinion of Beit Shammai.
At first glance, the opinion of Beit Shammai appears puzzling. How is the tzamid p’til able to protect the jug and the liquid and yet allow the straw to contract Tumah? The mishna in Eduyot (1:14) explains Beit Shammai’s reasoning as stemming from the fact that we are concerned of vessels belonging to Amei Ha’aretz. In general, there is a Rabbinic decree that any vessels belonging to an am ha’aretz are deemed tamei. In addition, we are aware that keilim that are tameh do not protect their contents even when totally sealed.
The Chachamim did not disallow chaverim from working with or borrowing keilim from amei ha’aretz. Indeed, such a measure would be deemed too harsh as it would severely limit the capacity for chaverim to function in society. Despite this, a chaver would not borrow earthenware vessels from an am ha’aretz or their food or drink, since there is no way to purify them from Tumat Am Ha’aretz. However, a chaver is able to borrow non-earthenware vessels of an am ha’aretz and purify them in a mikvah. This would only work if the kli did not have tumat hamet, which requires a more protracted purification process. Beit Shammai was worried that if we allowed the metal straw to be protected by the sealed vessel, then the am ha’aretz would mistakenly tell the chaver that it did not contract tumat hamet, and the chaver would not undertake the required extended purification process. Therefore, Beit Shammai rules that the jug and food or drink are tahor (as they would never be requested or used by the chaver) and the metal straw is deemed tameh, despite them being in the same vessel.
The Rambam interprets the Mishna differently. He explains that the straw described in the Mishna is also fashioned out of earthenware, rather than metal. The Rambam therefore explains that if the straw was totally contained within the sealed vessel then it too would remain tahor. He continues to explain the reason behind Beit Shammai deeming the straw tameh, is because the case of the Mishna is where the straw is slightly protruding from the sealed vessel, and therefore contracts tumah on its own for being contained in an ohel with a corpse.
*The Mishna Achrona finds this explanation of the Rambam problematic. Firstly, the straw described in the Mishna is an unfashioned simple piece of earthenware (pshutei kli cheres) which as an unfashioned product, should not contract tumah.The Kesef Mishna answers by stating that the straw may be slightly inverted, such that droplets could remain contained inside which may be considered a receptacle. The Mishna Achrona again takes issue with this explanation, because if this were indeed the case, it would be obvious that it contracts tumah and would not need to be taught in our Mishna. Additionally, this straw would not be considered as a vessel to contract tumah as it was not made with the intention to be a receptacle, and anything not made with the express intention to be a receptacle will not contract tumah*.
Additionally, the Mishna Achrona writes that if the Rambam’s explanation was correct, then the straw would be tameh on a biblical level. If this is the case, then anything that comes in contact with the straw would contract tumah. The difficulty with this approach is that the Mishna rules that the liquid, which is making contact with the straw is deemed to be tahor.
In light of these difficulties, the Mishna Achrona rules that the case must be referring to a metal straw fully contained within the sealed vessel, which has been deemed tameh by virtue of a Rabbanic decree as explained above
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