Masechet Keilim opens with a discussion regarding tumah originating from a corpse. More specifically, how the level or “potency” of the tumah degrades as it is transferred between people and/or utensils. The case in the first Mishnah is as follows. If a person touches a corpse he becomes tameh met and must engage in the seven day purification process. During that time he is defined as an av ha’tumah, meaning that he has the ability to transfer tumah to anything that is susceptible to tumah, including other people. If he then touches a utensil or another person, it becomes tameh albeit to a lesser degree. Firstly the purification process is shorter. Furthermore, it is defined as a rishon le’tumah and can only transfer tumah to food and liquids.
The Bartenura explains however, that if the second person touches the first person while he is still in contact with the corpse, then he too would be required to undergo the seven day purification process. This is referred to as tumah b’chiburin.35 The Tifferet Yisrael notes that tumah being transferred in this manner, such that it can cause another person to become tameh, is unique to tumat met (tumah originating from a corpse).
There are two ways to understand tumah b’chiburin. On the one hand, one could explain that while the first person is in contact with the corpse his own tumah is as strong as the corpse’s. On the other hand, one may understand that when the second person touches the first, it is as if he is contact with corpse itself.36
The Ramban (Avodah Zara 37b) explains that “...the entire time that person is touching the corpse he is like [the corpse]” which appears to follow the first understanding. The Tosfot Rid however explains that “when Reuven is touching the corpse, and Shimon touches Reuven, it is considered as if Shimon touched that the tumah that Reuven is in contact with.” The Tosfot Rid aligns therefore with the second understanding.
Is there a practical difference between these two understandings? In the Shut Be’er Moshe it is explained that one difference would be if two people, touching one another, each held half a kezayit from a corpse. According to the first understanding, neither person is holding a full kezayit and therefore both would be tahor. According to the second understanding, if it is as if the second person is in direct contact with the tumah, then both people would be considered holding a full kezayit and therefore tameh.
Another practical difference brought is as follows. A kohen is warned against coming into direct contact with a corpse. This appears to be only when in direct contact, because a kohen is not warned against touching a “sword” that touched a corpse which shares the same level tumah as the corpse. Is the kohen warned against touching another person who is in contact with a corpse? The answer might once again depend on how one understands tumah b’chiburin. If it is as if he is touching the corpse itself then yes. If however it is only as if the tumah of the first person is on the same level as the corpse then perhaps no.
Another question, brought down by the Minchat Chinnuch as follows. A kohen is allowed to become tameh for the sake of particular deceased relatives. Can a kohen however touch a person who is touching that relative? Once again the doubt may be based on the above question. If the kohen is only permitted to directly touch the decease relative then the question may depend on whether tumah b’chiburin is considered direct contact.
35 The Bartenura explains that this rule is d’rabbanan. This is however the subject of debate whether it is d’oraita or d’rabbanan. The Rambam (here) and Tosfot Rid (Avodah Zara 37b) holds it is d’rabbanan, while the Tosfot and Ramban (Avodah Zara 37b) maintain it is d’oraita.
36 Much of the content that follows is found in the Metivta, Yalkut Biurim, Nazir 44b, footnote 136.
37 Were one brave enough, they might argue that the concept of tumah b’chiburin only begins when one person is directly in contact with tumat met above the minimum measure of a kezayit and consequently according to both understandings, both people would be tahor.
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