With the beginning of masechet Ohalot we begin learning about tumat ha'met -- tumah originating from a corpse -- in more detail. A corpse is defined as an avi avot ha'tumah -- the highest form of tumah. As we have learnt, as tumah is transferred and passed on, it drops down a level and its potency degrades. That which comes into contact with a corpse would be defined as an av ha'tumah -- a source of tumah, like a sheretz -- and can make anything else susceptible to tumah tameh. Furthermore, having become tameh met, it would require the seven-day purification process involving the mei chatat. That object would in turn, make the next item a rishon le'tumah. Unlike the previous object, it would only require immersion in a mikveh to become tahor. Furthermore, it can now only transfer tumah to food and drink.
We learn in the first few Mishnayot that a kli (vessel) presents an exception to this flow. If a kli touched the corpse, it would also become an avi avot ha'hatumah. Similarly, if a kli touched a person that was tameh met, it would also become an av ha'tumah.
The Barenura (1:2) explains that this exception is based on the following passuk (Bamidbar 19:16): "On the open field: Anyone who touches one slain by the sword, or one that died or a human bone, or a grave, shall be contaminated for seven days". Since the Torah writes "bechalal cherev oh bemet" the Chachamim understand that the cherev (sword) is considered like the cherev (corpse) such that it also becomes an avi avot hatumah.
The Bartenura continues that the second exception is based on the following pasuk (31:24) that discussed the soldiers that returned from the war against midyan: "You shall immerse your garments on the seventh day and become purified, afterward you may enter the camp." From this pasuk we understand that clothing is treated like the individual that touched the corpse and is also considered an av ha'tumah requiring the seven-day purification process.
The Rishonim debate exactly which keilim are included in these exceptions. The Bartenura understands that all keilim (aside from earthenware utensils) are included, despite the fact that the first pasuk only discussed a sword. Indeed the Baretnura deriving the second exception from the pasuk that discusses clothing supports this thesis. This is the opinion of the Rambam (Tumat Met 5:3).
Rabbeinu Tam (cited by the Rash 1:2) however restricts the exception to metal keilim only - the pasuk specifically discusses a cherev (sword). What about the second exception that that a kli that touches an av ha'tumah also becomes an av ha'tumah? The Bartenura cited a pasuk that seems to suggest it applies to more materials? The Rash explains that in truth the Gemara (e.g. Pesach 14b) cites the first pasuk, "chalal cherev", as being the source for the second exception also (and not the pasuk cited by the Bartenura).1
Rav Wolf (Mincha Tehora, 112) suggests that there is a fundamental difference between these two positions. Rabbeinu Tam understands the Torah is defining the cherev as a new source of tumah -- consequently it is only the cherev, the metal kli, that is given this new definition. According to the Rambam however, the law of chalal cherev is novelty in the laws of the transfer of tumah, which need not be limited to just metal keilim.2
1 Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer HaYashar, Chidushim, 761) explains that the term "bigdeichem" in the pasuk cited by the Bartenura could be understood in a restricted sense as only those metal ones. The Chazon Nachum adds that it could also be referring to a case of tumah bechiburin.
2 Rav Wolf suggest that perhaps this distinction applies also between the first and second exception. In other words, when a metal kli, specifically, is in contact with a corpse it is defined as a new source of tumah. However, if keilim are in contact with something that is tameh met, then it is an issue of transfer and can be applied to more keilim. He uses this distinction to resolve our Mishnayot that do not appear to limit the discussion to metal keilim with the Gemarot that do.
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