Tumah Behind a Partition

Ohalot (15:4) | Yisrael Bankier | 11 years ago

The Mishnah (15:4) teaches:

If a [one-roomed] house was portioned off with boards or curtains, from the side [near the wall] or from the roof, and there is tumah in the house, keilim in the partitioned area are tahor. If tumah is found in the partitioned area (chatzatz), the house is tameh.

Examples of the case in the Mishnah are the false wall or lowered ceiling, the construction of which leaves a void. The boards act as a barrier, effectively make the keilim in the void as if they were in a separate ohel. Consequently, it is understood that if tumah45 is found in the house, those keilim remain tahor. Why however, if the situation is reversed and the tumah is in the void and keilim are in the house, are the keilim tameh?

The Tifferet Yisrael explains that the reason the contents of the house are tameh is due to the principle of sofa tumah l’tzeit - “the tumah will eventually leave”. To explain, we have seen a number of times the idea that if tumah’s only exit path is via other rooms, even if the tumah is still enclosed in its current location, the contents of those room is tameh. Consequently in this case, the house is in only exit path for the tumah and is therefore tameh.

The Bartenura however explains that the reason why the house is tameh is because this barrier can only prevent tumah from entering, but not from entering. The comparison made is to case of a sealed earthenware utensil (tzamid patil). In such a case if the house contains tumah then the contents of the earthenware utensil remains tahor. However, if the utensil contained tumah, the entire house would be tameh.

The Mishnah Achrona claims that the comparison made by the Bartenura should not alarm. He explains that the principle of sofa tumah l’tzeit is learnt from the law of tzamid patil. The concept of the latter – that since there is no other escape the tumah passes through the house – acts as the basis for the former.

The Rambam however categorically states that an ohel inside an ohel that contains a corpse functions in the same way as tzamid. In other words, it can protect from tumah coming in but not going out. On this the Ra’avad argues on the Rambam that an internal ohel cannot protect tumah from leaving only when it itself is susceptible to tumah or in the case of sofa tumah l’tzeit. Consequently, it would appear that the Rambam holds that the internal ohel cannot protect even if there is another exit path.46

How do we understand the position of the Rambam? Indeed in a number of cases we have seen that an ohel inside or over an ohel ha’met can serve to stop tumah spreading47. The Sidrei Taharot, citing Rashi, draws a distinction between this case and others. Here the boards have been constructed in a temporary manner, for example, as a decoration. Consequently the resulting ohel is defined as an ohel arai. With the distinction drawn, what is the logic?

R’ Chaim Brisker (al HaRambam) explains that there are two ways tumah is prevented from transferring from one ohel to the next. The first is that each ohel is its own independent area in which tumah spreads. Items are only tameh if they are found in the same area. The other is that the ohel itself protects and contains the tumah. In this case since the chatzatz is only a temporary ohel, we have a principle that ein ohel arai mevatel ohel keva (Sukkah 21b). In other words a temporary ohel cannot become an independent area when inside a permanent ohel. Consequently, in this case (unlike others studied) the first method does not apply. Only the second method, in which the ohel must protect, is applicable and in such a case the ohel acts like a tzamid patil only preventing tumah entering but not exiting.48


45 Note: the term tumah in this article refers to tumah originating from a corpse.

46 See the Sidrei Taharot.

47 See for example chapters 9 and 10.

48 Please see R’ Chaim inside, as he develops this idea much further considering additional complexities.

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