This masechet deals with the para aduma – the red heifer – ashes of which were an essential ingredient in the water used to purify one that came into contact with a corpse. In the third perek we learnt about the full process from the earliest preparation through to the completion of the ceremony. Indeed this process involved many stringencies.
One of these requirements (which was the subject of debate) is that the children that went to collect the water would travel on an ox while seated upon large doors or boards that lay horizontally on the back of the ox. This measure was to ensure that the children, who were raised in an environment protected from any impurity, would not become tameh if any part of their body extended outside the animal and passed over an unmarked grave. Presumably the door served as an ohel, and thereby acted as a barrier preventing any tumah from reaching the child. R’ Yehuda, cited in the Tosefta (Para 2) however argued that this was not necessary. An ox that was sufficiently wide would be enough as the animal itself could serve as a protective ohel.67
The question raised on this Mishnah is that the Gemara (Gittin 8b) rules that a “thrown-ohel”, or an ohel in motion, cannot serve as an ohel; it cannot serve as a protective barrier. The door resting on the back of the animal seems to qualify as a thrown-ohel, so what benefit could it serve?
The Tosfot (Sukkah 21a) explain that the Gemara must be ruling like the opinion of R’ Yehuda who maintains that the door was not, or more accurately, could not be used. Consequently, the Tana cited in our Mishnah must rule that a thrown-ohel can function as an ohel.
The Tifferet Yisrael however disagrees. Firstly, the Gemara (Eiruvin 30b) states that a thrown-ohel cannot function as an ohel. Furthermore, the contradiction remains in Halacha: we rule that a thrown-ohel cannot function as an ohel (Rambam Tumat Ha’Met 11:5) and we rule like our Mishnah that the doors were placed on the ox (Rambam Para 2).
The Tifferet Yisrael therefore presents a different answer. The case referred to from which we learn the law of a thrown-ohel, refers to one that travels in a chest (above the ground) through areas outside Israel. Due to the uncertainty regarding places of tumat met, areas outside Eretz Yisrael were deemed tameh by rabbinic decree. The Beraita records the debate regarding this case and Rebbi rules that the occupant of the chest is tameh as the chest cannot act as the protective barrier. This rule is despite the fact that the chest is large enough such that it is not susceptible to tumah and that the chest was elevate off the ground. Nonetheless, the moving ohel does not serve to protect the person inside the chest.
The Tifferet Yisrael explains that in those cases the object which is attempting to act as an ohel is a kli. Keilim in general cannot act as an ohel to protect against tumah, but can act as an ohel to spread tumah. Now even though such large utensils (greater than forty seah) can act as an ohel when stationary, when in transit they are treated like all other keilim.
Our case of the door is different. It is not a kli. Granted that if it was supported by people or other keilim it would share the same rule as keilim (i.e., spread but not protect), but when placed on the back of animal it can function as an ohel and protect the child rider. Consequently we find that according to the Tifferet Yisrael the rule that a thrown-ohel cannot function as an ohel only applies to objects that are keilim or objects that that are supported by people or keilim.
67 The above explanation follows the opinion of the Bartenura that the doors were used due to the concern that the child would extend its arms outside the animal. The Tifferet Yisrael however explains that the Chachamim argue that the door could be relied upon to alleviate the requirement of having a rotund bovine. According to this understanding it is R’ Yehuda that is being more strict in not allowing the door to be relied upon and instead requiring a large ox.
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