Decomposing Bodies, Congealing Carcasses, Corpse Dust, and Other Rabbinic Interests by Isaac Pollak
Questions of Ritual purity and Impurity, Tahor and Tamei, received a great deal of attention in the Talmud – much more so then the Laws of Shabbat or Kashrut Laws. The Rabbis developed intricate systems of rules of purity with no practical usefulness. Questions of purity were an issue during temple times but when the Talmud was redacted the Temple had been destroyed for around 500 years or so (as much time as separates us from Columbus); a subject studied diligently with a great deal of intricacy was, and still is useless. There were no Red Heifers and most Jews were living in the Diaspora and all Jews were ritually impure.
To explore this, let’s take a walk thru Chapter 7 of the Tractate Nazir, which I was recently studying, and see the mindset of the Rabbis.
It was known that touching a corpse (dead body) caused one to become ritually impure (Tamei). However, actually touching a corpse isn’t necessary to became impure; just being under the same roof, or in certain cases under an overhanging branch or a projecting wall is enough. It’s as if the impurity of the corpse permeates the area all around it, and taints all with which it comes into ‘contact’.
So the Talmud questions,” How much of a corpse does it take to transmit impurity?” Here is where the text gets into queasy graphic descriptions of various forms of putrefaction.
Say that a dead body has begun to liquefy: Does the fluid from a decayed corpse also transmit impurity? How can one tell that the fluid is actually flesh, and not the remains of spittle or phlegm, which do not transmit Tamei? The answer, Rabbi Yirmeya says in the Talmud, has to do with whether the liquid subsequently congeals. If it does, it is from the corpse, and thus unclean; if it doesn’t, it is probably a bodily fluid, and thus clean.
Animal corpses follow a different protocol. An animal carcass imparts “severe impurity” only while it’s still considered fit for human consumption. Once it has decayed to the point of being inedible for people but still be appetizing to dogs, it imparts “light impurity.” And when dogs would not touch it, the carcass ceases to transmit impurity at all. Then the Talmud starts discussing animals that have putrefied, animal fat that has turned to liquid in the sun, and much more – not for those with queasy stomachs.
The Rabbis ask what happens with a dead body that has turned entirely to dust. According to the Mishnah, a “full ladle of dust” is the amount required to transmit impurity – tumah; the Talmud defined this as the amount you can hold in your two cupped hands. However the Talmud continues, by the time a corpse has turned to dust, it is hard to tell whether the dust contains just the body, or whether matter from other sources has gotten mixed in – for instance, the clothes it was buried in, or wood from its coffin, and the Talmud informs us of a principle “that mixtures do not transmit Tumah.” As a result, the Talmud concludes that dust is Tamei only if it comes from a corpse that was “buried naked in a marble coffin or on a stone floor,” so there is no other source of dust in its vicinity.
The question of mixtures raises a number of other theoretical issues. What exactly constitutes a mixture when it comes to corpse dust? What if you bury two people in the same grave? You might think that this would be twice as unclean as a single corpse, but the Talmud rules otherwise: because mixtures do not transmit Tumah, a mixture of the dust of two bodies therefore does not transmit impurity.
Pushing the question further, the Rabbis ask about borderline cases. Ordinarily, the hair and nails of a corpse are impure as long as they are attached to the body. What if you cut off a corpse’s hair and buried it alongside the body- , would this then constitute a mixture? What about a woman who dies while pregnant, do she and her fetus constitute two separate corpses, or is the fetus considered part of the mother, like an internal organ?
This question, raised in BT Nazir 51:B, would seem to have major implications for our own debates about when a fetus is considered a living being. The Rabbis of the Talmud dig and push the boundaries to attempt to get to the ultimate truth of the penultimate principle of an issue, and its exacting, precise regulation. Ever more complex scenarios and legal conundrums quite removed from reality are elaborated in the process of elucidating precise detailed legal definitions.
The logic of the Talmud often seems convoluted and intimidating, every page alludes to customs and political arrangements which are terribly obscure and have little relevance to our world. But what fun to study its intricacies. The people represented in it were intelligent, articulate and dedicated to the remarkable project of helping an ancient tradition survive and thrive. The arguments stimulate, the logic and disciplined sharpness is at times breathtaking, their language and wit gives pleasure, and the immensity of their achievement provokes awe.
It has been instrumental in our survival over the millennia.
Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning ritual. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses.
[Ed. Note: another article by the same author is to be found HERE. You can also search for other articles in this blog HERE. — JB]
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