Parashat Hukat / The Flow of Ritual Impurity

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

“He that toucheth the dead, even any man’s dead body, shall be unclean seven days” ‏(Numbers 19:11‏) is what the Torah teaches in this week’s reading, Parashat Hukat.

There are two heroes in this scene − one dead, the other living. The dead body demarcates for the living person his boundaries and also reflects the fate that awaits him sometime in the future. The biblical religious laws, however, do not stop at the threshold of reflection, but instead go one step further: The body of the dead person creates a transitive quality of death, “tuma” ‏(“religious impurity”‏), and transmits it to the living person by means of touch, or even if the dead body shares the same space with the living person under a single roof. The ritual impurity is transmitted to the living person, who must purify himself through a special ceremony: “the same shall purify himself therewith on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall be clean; but if he purify not himself the third day and the seventh day, he shall not be clean” ‏(Num. 19:12‏).

The “water of sprinkling” ‏(“mei hatat”‏) is dashed upon a person who has become ritually impure through direct or indirect contact with a corpse. The water is dashed upon him on the third and seventh days of his ritual impurity and only afterwards can he return to his previous existence.

These minutely detailed and complex religious laws molded the relationship between the living and the dead during the Temple period but totally ceased to be in force after the Temple’s destruction. During the talmudic period, hardly anyone strictly observed the biblical laws of ritual impurity and purity.

Although the rules have disappeared from the world of religious practice, they still exist as an abstract sphere in which talmudic scholars can sharpen their intellectual skills.

An example of this abstract sphere can be found in Sifrei Zuta, the tanaitic midrash on the Book of Numbers from the school of Rabbi Akiva: “They said that the son of the Shunammite woman, when he died, caused everything in the house to become ritually impure for seven days but that, when he was brought back to life, he was ritually pure. However, the house immediately rendered him ritually impure and he therefore said, ‘That which defiled you did not defile me, but you yourself have defiled me’” ‏(Sifrei Zuta, Parashat Hukat, section 11‏).

The original account of the Shunammite woman whose son dies appears in 2 Kings 4:8-37. She calls on the Prophet Elisha for help and he brings her son back to life. In this tale, our sages find a test case for exploring the fine details of the laws governing the ritual impurity caused by a dead person. The resurrected dead son challenges the accepted categories of Jewish religious life: Here, instead of a living person becoming a dead body, a dead body becomes a living person once more. The moment of metamorphosis raises an important question in religious law: What is the connection between the “I who am dead” and the “I who am alive”?

When the process unfolds in the reverse direction from what happens in the biblical narrative − that is, when the process is the natural passage from life to death − there are no serious problems. A living person is not a source of ritual impurity as long as he is alive, and, when he dies, he becomes a source that disseminates ritual impurity. A living person poses no threat to the space occupied by a dead body, which demarcates the living person’s boundary. However, when the natural process of transition from life to death is reversed and a dead person is brought back to life, the categories of religious law become jumbled.

When the “I who am dead” is brought back to life, does he “touch” the “I who am alive,” and if so is the latter rendered ritually impure? Or rather, does one take the place of the other, without any contact that could facilitate the transmission of ritual impurity, and, in this case, is the dead person who is brought back to life ritually pure?

The reply of our sages is ambiguous. On one hand, the personal metamorphosis is complete; the “I who am dead” does not touch the “I who am alive,” but takes the place of the latter, and the “I who am dead” who has been brought back to life becomes ritually pure. On the other hand, the son of the Shunammite woman is not disconnected from his realistic context. When he dies, the son ritually defiles the room in which he is lying. Afterwards, when he is brought back to life, he himself becomes ritually pure, while the room remains ritually impure, and he too is immediately rendered ritually impure by it.

As a reflective conclusion regarding this somewhat convoluted process, our sages place on the lips of the Shunammite woman’s son a sentence that, as it were, he addresses to the house that has rendered him ritually impure: “That which defiled you did not defile me but you yourself have defiled me.” “That which defiled you” − in other words, I myself who ritually defiled you did not defile myself because I did not touch myself; thus, when I was brought back to life, I was ritually pure. However, you − that is, the house − rendered me ritually impure. The son’s dead body undergoes a process of defamiliarization from living selfhood and becomes an imagined object, an object that existed in the past, had an impact on reality and then vanished. However, it only seems to vanish because, in effect, it becomes real in another sense: It becomes filled with the spirit of life and it becomes a living being that utters this sentence.

The biblical narrative examines the categorical separation between the living and the dead; however, the talmudic treatment focuses on the moment of the metamorphosis and asks a critical philosophical question about the principle of continuity − about the stability of the identity of the Shunammite woman’s son versus the stability of his environment. The wondrous metamorphosis that he undergoes starkly contrasts with the relative stability of the physical set.

The ritual impurity does not vanish when the boy is brought back to life but instead clings to the set, which in turn “contaminates” the son who has now returned to the world of the living. The youth himself is the source of his own ritual impurity; however, he is the source of ritual impurity prior to his being brought back to life, but not as he is now, having been brought back to life. Thus, it can be asked, is he the same person he was when he was dead? Is it the decor that perhaps turns him back into what he was when he was dead?

The intellectual exercise in Sifrei Zuta examines the classic, biblical categories of living and dead and challenges the categories of identity definition, as well as the textual categories of rabbinical literature. What is presented here is not a text of classic religious law nor a classical aggadic ‏(that is, homiletic‏) text; instead, what is presented here is the use of tools of Jewish religious law to discuss homiletic issues or the use of an instance from the homiletic sphere for the purpose of challenging categories of Jewish religious law.

Rationalism and fantasy are tightly interwoven in this tanaitic midrash, and they create a highly intellectual discussion that is far removed from the world of religious practice; however, for that very reason, this intellectual discussion touches on the most fundamental questions that drive this very world forward.

"Elisha Raising the Son of the Shunammite," by Frederic Leighton (1881).