Dealing with Safek Tumah

Taharot (6:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 6 years ago

Over the past week, the mishnayot have focused on many cases of sefekot (doubts) involving tumah. In some situations that the Mishnah rules that the object is tameh, tahor or left unresolved. A basic question that can be asked is what does it mean when the Mishnah rules tameh or tahor?

Rav Lichtenstein ztz”l (Shiurei HaRal, Taharot, p. 147) explains that there are two ways of understanding a definite ruling regarding safek tumah. The first is that the ruling is on the level of hanchaya (guidance). The doubt still stands and only the question of how to respond or act is being addressed. Alternatively, the ruling may be a hachraah (decision). The doubt is being resolved and a definite status of tumah or tahara is being applied to the object in question.

Rav Lichtenstein explains that these two different understandings find expression in debate in our Mishnah (6:1). The Mishnah deals with a mesukan - a person that collapsed and there is a doubt as to whether he has died. The mesukan is moved from a reshut ha’yachid (private domain) to a reshut ha’rabim (public domain). The Chachamim maitain that when it is in reshut ha’rabim the safek is ruled as being tahor and when it is in the reshut ha’yachid it is ruled as being tameh – consistent with the general rule regarding sefeikot in those domains.

R’ Shimon however maintains that the reshut ha’rabim is mafseket (breaks). The Bartenura explains that since we rule that all the utensils that came into contact with the mesukan in the reshut harabim are tahor we cannot say that the keilim in the first reshut hayachid prior to that are tameh.

It appears that the Chachamim and R’ Shimon are divided on this very question of how to understand rulings in cases of doubt. According to R’ Shimon, he understands that the ruling expresses a hachra’ah – a definite decision. Consequently when the mesukan is moved from the reshut ha’yachid to the reshut ha’rabim, and the ruling changes from tameh to tahor, the hachraah would be contradictory. Consequently, he rules that even in the reshut hayachid the mesukan is still alive.

The Chachamim however understand that in every location the ruling is simply a hanchaya – a direction in how the individual is to respond to the doubt. Yet, no decision is being made about the nature of the doubt – the matter is no clearer. Consequently, the Chachamim or not faced with a contradiction since they are not deeming the mesukan as being dead in one domain and subsequently alive moments later.

Rav Lichtenstein cites the Achiezer (1) that brings these two different understands when stating the following two halachot. The first is regarding one that came into contact with safek tumah in a reshut ha’yachid then went into the reshut harabim and touched a tahor person. What is the ruling regarding the second person? Is he tameh or is this another case of safek tumah in the reshut harabim? He understands that the first person is given a status of definitely tameh and the second person is therefore also tameh.

The second halacha is regarding an item that is a safek sheretz safek tzfardea – there is a doubt regarding whether the mass is a source of tumah. The object was originally found in a reshut hayachid and then moved to a reshut harabim. In this case, despite being discovered in a reshut ha’yachid, it remains in a state of doubt. Any contact with it, will continue to be ruled based on the location in which it is found.

The Achiezer explains that when it comes to an individual that touches safek tumah – the resolution is a hachra’ah – he is giving a definite status of tameh or tahor. When however dealing with a question of metizi’ut – the ruling is a hanchaya and the object in question still remains in doubt.

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