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Home » Shmini

Shemini: What Is Impurity

Submitted by on April 12, 2018 – 9:48 pmNo Comment | 2,769 views

Why does one who eats non-kosher food become impure? What does impurity even mean?

Hebrew is a delightful language and if we pay attention to the words we can often gain insight into the meaning. The Hebrew word for impure is ta’me. The word is comprised of three letters, a taf, a mem and an alef. If we break the word down into two, it spells the words, tam alef.

Okay, that is all very nice, but what does tam[1] alef mean?

Let’s begin with tam. In modern Hebrew, the word Otem means dull and foolish. In the book of Job,[2] Bildad asks, “Why are we considered dull in your eyes?” The Hebrew word for dull is nitminu. All the commentators say that nitminu is rooted in tam, which means dull. They further explain that the word tam is linked with the Aramaic word tumtum which means stopped up. In fact, when the Mishnah[3] speaks of filling a ditch with earth it uses the term tam. There is a correlation between a dull foolish person and one who is stopped up. When the mind is open, the brain is awake and sharp. When the mind is stopped up with foolishness, the brain becomes dull and sluggish.

Heart of Stone

Returning to the word ta’me, impurity, or its composite version, tam alef, we gain a deeper understanding of biblical impurity. If tam means to be stopped up or closed off, then the alef obviously is what we have closed ourselves off from. Alef has a numeric value of one. The proverbial one is G-d. Ta’me, impurity, thus means that we have closed ourselves off from the alef, from G-d.

When we commit a sin, we move away from G-d and in fact close ourselves off from G-d. Our hearts become dulled to inspiration and spirituality. When we think of G-d, we feel unmoved and we wonder why. This is the height of impurity. We ask ourselves why faith comes so easily to some people, while others find faith so difficult to come by.

The reason is that when we turn our backs on G-d and transgress His will, we close our hearts to G-d. It is like stopping up a river head and preventing the waters from flowing forth. When Jacob met Rachel near the well, the shepherds had covered the well with a large stone. The soul is like a wellspring that flows with inspiration. But when we turn from G-d, we stop up the wellspring with a stone.

This is where the expression, heart of stone, comes from. When Mashiach comes, the prophet assured us that G-d will “remove the heart of stone from their flesh.”[4] This is a reference to repentance. When we turn from G-d, our heart turns to stone and the flow of inspiration that emanates from the wellspring of our soul is stopped up. When we repent, and when Mashiach comes we will all repent, G-d will remove the heart of stone from our flesh and the inspiration will flow again. This is the inner reason for why Jacob forcefully removed the stone from the well. With that heave, Jacob prayed that we always find the strength to reopen our wells, shed our impurity, and find our faith.

Food and Drink

A woman once complained to her rabbi that she lacked faith in G-d. The Rabbi told her that if she would be more scrupulous in her observance of G-d’s commandments, she would find that she is an innate believer. She asked the rabbi to explain how her behavior can affect her faith. The Rabbi told her that the soul is like the brain. When we are famished, the brain becomes weakened and can’t concentrate. The soul also finds it difficult to muster its strength when it is in hungry and weakened. The food of the soul are the divine commandments. When we observe the commandments, we strengthen our soul and it can overcome the doubts and questions of our heart.

One can easily imagine that when we feed our soul a diet of holiness, the soul is strengthened and can shine. Its innate faith shines through and we discover how deeply we believe. But if we starve our soul, it is no wonder that the questions in our mind become stronger than the faith in our soul. We dull our minds and hearts to the message of the soul and the soul is too weak to overcome the resistance.

One can only imagine how severe the impact is when we not only starve our soul, but also feed it poisonous foods. How can we know which foods are poisonous to the soul? The Torah provides the answer when it lays out the kosher dietary rules and then tells us, “velo titamu bahem, venitmetem bam,” you shall not defile yourself (that is the word tame with the alef) by the non-kosher food and you shall not be stopped up through them. The Talmud derives from this verse that a Jewish heart becomes closed off to G-d, completely stopped up, when the Jew eats non-kosher food.[5]

A man once came to his rabbi and complained that his son was suddenly besieged by doubts about G-d. The Rabbi instructed him to inspect the method by which his cows are milked. It turned out that there was something slightly unkosher about the milking process. The rabbi explained that if the child returned to drinking fully kosher milk, his doubts would disappear.

Do, Don’t Think

I know that many are skeptical about this. The usual response to a question is to offer an answer. Only one who doesn’t know the answer says something like, go behave like a Jew and your questions will go away on their own. But the fact is that we cannot think our way to G-d. G-d is far too vast for our little human brains to grasp. We can think, and theorize, ask and answer until the sun goes down and we will not be any closer to G-d than we are now.

We can’t think our way to G-d, but we can do our way to G-d. When we behave in accordance with G-d’s wishes, the divine will washes over us and bathes us in a glow of G-dly holiness. Our souls are inspired, our spiritual dullness is sharpened and our alacrity and enthusiasm for Judaism return.

Try it![6]

[1] Tam with a taf means wholesome, but this is tam with a tet.

[2] 18:3.

[3] Baba Kama 52b. Rashi ad loc. explains that the Mishnah was making use of an Aramaic word.

[4] Ezekial, 11:19.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 39a elucidating Leviticus 11:43.

[6] This essay is based on Or Hatorah p. 478.