The Spread of Tumah

Ohalot (7:3) | Allon Ledder | 12 years ago

The Mishnah (7:3) discusses the spread of tumah from a corpse in a house with more than one exit. If the exits contain recessed doors, then the areas under the lintels are treated as part of the house and the tumah spreads to utensils that are situated in these doorways. If the doors are closed, tumah will still be transmitted, but only through the exit through which the corpse will be removed. If it is not yet known which exit will be used, tumah will be transmitted to utensils in all of the exits. This principle is known as sof tumah latzeit.

When the decision is made to use a particular exit, any other closed exits will no longer transmit tumah. However, Beit Shammai say that this principle only applies if this decision is made before the person dies. If it is made after the person dies, the doorways remain tamei. The only way the tamei status can be removed is if a physical act is done; opening the selected door is such an act (Bartenura). According to Beit Hillel, the other exits become tahor as soon as the decision not to use them as the exit is made, even without an action. If a tahor utensil was then placed in one of the other exits, it would remain tahor.

A Mishnah learnt in the previous masechet appears to be relevant to this machloket. The Mishnah (Keilim 25:9) states: “All utensils descend into impurity through intention, but ascend from impurity only through a physical alteration.” The intention to use an object for a particular purpose is sufficient to render it susceptible to tumah39. However if that intention subsequently changes, the object remains susceptible to tumah. There must be a physical alteration to remove the susceptibility to tumah. Until a physical alteration is made, we are concerned that the person might change their mind (Mishnah Achronah to Keilim 27:4).

It seems that Beit Shammai applies the same principle to the case of our Mishnah. Until the person performs an action such as opening the door, Beit Shammai is concerned that the person will change his mind. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, is not concerned that the person will change his mind. As soon as the person decides to use a particular exit to remove the corpse, the tamei status is removed from the other exits. It follows that the machloket between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai only relates to the time at which the tamei status is removed from the other exits. According to Beit Hillel, this occurs when the decision is made to use a particular exit. According to Beit Shammai, this occurs when the selected door is actually opened.

However, the Gemara (Beitzah 10a) explains that the machloket between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai may go even further. Apparently, the machloket might also concern the principle of breirah (retroactive clarification) (Rashi). The Gemara discusses the status of a utensil placed in a doorway before the decision was made to use another doorway. When the decision is made to use another doorway, does the utensil remain tamei, or does it become retroactively tahor? According to Beit Shammai the principle, of breirah is not valid. The utensils in the doorways become tamei at the moment of death and they remain tamei even after the decision is made to use another doorway.

The Gemara gives two interpretations of Beit Hillel’s opinion:

(a) According to Rabbah and R’ Oshaya, Beit Hillel holds that the decision to remove the corpse through a particular door makes the other exits tahor, but only from that time on. Utensils that were already in the other doorways before the decision is made remain tamei. This would accord with the ruling of Beit Shammai apart from the difference as to what constitutes a sufficient trigger to change the status of the doorways not chosen for the corpse’s exit.

(b) According to Rava, Beit Hillel holds that the decision to remove the corpse through a particular door makes the other doorways tahor retroactively. Rava interprets this to mean that utensils that are in the other doorways also become tahor at the time the decision is made, based on the principle of breirah.

In general, whether or not breirah is a valid principle is a machloket raised in a number of places in the Gemara. The above analysis suggests that Beit Shammai does not accept the principle of breirah while according to Rava, Beit Hillel accepts the principle of breirah as valid. According to Rabbah and R’ Oshaya it would appear that both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai agree that the principle of breirah is not valid, at least in this instance.


39 The same object can be susceptible to tumah or not, depending on the purpose for which the object is to be used. E.g. A ring for use by a person is susceptible to tumah. The same ring, if it is for the use of an animal, is not susceptible to tumah.

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