Home – Laws of Religion, Judaism and Islam

 

Next – 4. The Impurity of Leprosy

 

Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

 

Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism

Concerning Ritual Purity and Cleanliness

 

3.  Corpse Impurity

 

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

Corpse Impurity

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

(Editor’s note: While there are numerous laws concerning ritual purity in Judaism, only certain specific practices based on these laws are observed today, as explained in the Introduction to this section. Ritual purity laws whose procedures are still followed today are so noted in our summaries.)

 

Touching a dead human body or a human bone or a grave, or being in a tent with such a body, makes a person impure for seven days. Purification was accomplished by being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of a red heifer on the third and seventh days and then, on the seventh day, washing one’s body and one’s clothes and waiting until evening. The red heifer was slaughtered and burned in a ritual that included sprinkling its blood before the Tabernacle of Meeting (later the Temple in Jerusalem). One who did not purify himself defiled the Lord's sanctuary.[1]

 

Whoever was made impure by a corpse was to be put out of the camp.[2] If a person who is impure because of a corpse touches something, that thing also becomes impure. Anyone who touches that impure thing will be impure until evening.[3] An open vessel, with no cover on it, is made impure by being in a tent with a human corpse.[4]

 

A person who was impure because of a corpse was still permitted to make an offering to the Lord at Passover.[5] An Israelite who had killed any person during the battle against the Midianites, or touched someone who had been killed, was declared to be impure for seven days and was required to stay outside the camp. During this seven day period, he was to purify himself and his virgin female captives (all others among the enemy Midianite population having been killed, as ordered by Moses). He had to wash his clothes and also pass through fire his metal things that could withstand the heat and then purify them with water. Only then would he be permitted to reenter the camp.[6]

 

Any son of Aaron – meaning a male priestly descendant of Aaron – is to avoid becoming impure by any dead Israelite except for his closest relatives: his parents, his children, his brother and his unmarried virgin sister.[7]

 

 

Corpse Impurity

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

Contents:

 

Contracting corpse impurity

 

Purification from Corpse Impurity

 

(Editor's note: As discussed below, there are many ways to contract corpse impurity but there is no longer any way to become rid of such impurity. This is because since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. there has been no way to prepare ashes of the red heifer, which are required to lift corpse impurity from a person. Therefore, every Jew today is considered to be ritually impure with corpse impurity and no effort is generally made to avoid ritual impurity. Nevertheless, it is still the practice among males of the priestly line to avoid situations that would, if they were ritually pure, defile them with impurity from dead bodies or graves.)

 

 

Contracting corpse impurity. A person becomes ritually impure through contact with a human corpse.[8] Such impurity is also transferred to a person who carries a corpse[9] or causes it to move[10] even without touching it. This impurity by touching or carrying occurs whether the corpse is of a Jew or a non-Jew.[11] Even just being above a corpse, or having the corpse above oneself, makes a person impure,[12] though this applies only to the corpse of a Jew.[13] (Editor's note: Where the Moznaim translation of the Mishneh Torah refers to a person "overhanging" a corpse or the Yale translation says a person "overshadows" a corpse, we say that the person "is above" the corpse.)

 

When both a corpse and a person or a vessel are within the same tent (Numbers 19:14), that person or vessel becomes impure.[14] Maimonides describes a tent as an object at least one handbreadth square that creates a space under it of at least one cubic handbreadth.[15] It need not have been intentionally made to be an actual tent; it could even be a hole created naturally.[16]

 

The only people who become ritually impure from corpses or by any other means are Jews.[17]

 

A piece of a corpse, an aborted or miscarried fetus or even congealed putrefied liquid resulting from the tissue of a corpse can convey impurity, but only if it exceeds the size of an olive. This follows from the tradition of the Sages that a developing fetus is considered to be a human body only when it reaches the size of an olive.[18]

 

Similarly, many useful objects become impure by contact with, or being above or being below, a corpse.[19] The nature of these useful objects that can become impure is discussed on the previous page on General Considerations – Ritual Purity and Impurity.

 

Being above a grave makes a person impure,[20] but only if it is the grave of a Jew.[21] A monument made as a memorial to a dead person that is put over a grave transmits seven day impurity to a person who touches it.[22]

 

If a field is plowed and a grave within the field is lost as a result, then touching or carrying any soil in that field make a person impure.[23] In fact, any time the soil over a grave is plowed, even if it is known that the plow did not touch the grave, touching or carrying soil from an area around the grave of 100 cubits by 100 cubits (about 150 ft by 150 ft) makes a person impure.[24] This only applies if the person who plows the field is Jewish[25] and is the owner of the field.[26] Similarly, a field in which a grave has been lost renders impure a person who touches or carries any of its soil or who is above the field.[27]

 

All heathen (non-Jewish) land is impure; it may have human bones in it since heathens do not pay attention to such things.[28] Touching or carrying any soil from heathen land makes a person impure and a Father of Impurity.[29] All land outside the Land of Israel is heathen land, though some land directly adjacent to the Land of Israel may be declared pure after examining it for impurity.[30] Similarly, land in places within the Land of Israel where non-Jews have lived for at least forty days transmits impurity unless it has been examined and found to be free of buried abortions.[31] Touching or carrying soil from heathen land makes a person impure for seven days, and purification of such a person requires sprinkling on day three and day seven.[32] (Editor's note:  This sprinkling refers to water containing ashes of a red heifer, as discussed on this page below. These ways of contracting corpse impurity from land mean that virtually every Jew is now ritually impure since it has not been possible to purify corpse impurity since the last time ashes of a red heifer were prepared, which was before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.) Impurity resulting from having one's body in the airspace of heathen land, without touching the soil, is lifted by immersion in water and waiting until evening.[33]

 

A person or a useful object that is impure due to a corpse is a Father of Impurity.[34] When a useful object that is impure due to a corpse touches a person, that person becomes impure as if he had touched the corpse himself.[35] (Editor's note: This is another reason for assuming that all Jews today are defiled with corpse impurity. Such impurity can result from touching an object which is ritually impure because, at some time in the past, it touched or was above or in a covered space with a corpse. As discussed on this page above, a person’s corpse impurity can, in our times, never be lifted.) However, when an earthenware container becomes impure by contact with a corpse, no person or thing becomes impure from such earthenware.[36]

 

A priest (descendant of Aaron through the male line), like anyone else, is to observe mourning for his parents, his children, his spouse and his siblings.[37] He is required to make himself ritually impure in attending to the corpse of his closest relatives – parents, children, brother, qualified sister (cf. Leviticus 21:1-4, cited on this page above)[38] and also his wife.[39]

 

A male[40] of the priestly line is, however, forbidden from defiling himself with ritual impurity for any other dead relative or any other person. The punishment for doing so is flogging, whether the defilement occurs by touching, carrying or being above the dead body[41] or touching a grave.[42] Therefore, a close family member of a priest must be buried at the outer edge of the cemetery so that the priest can participate in the burial without becoming impure from the graves of others.[43] Once the burial of the relative is completed, the priest is forbidden to defile himself with impurity again at the grave. At that time, the close relative becomes like any other dead person to the priest and defilement at the grave is to be punished by flogging.[44] (Editor's note: One of the rules related to ritual impurity that is still observed is the prohibition against a priest (a man descended from the male line of Aaron) incurring corpse impurity. Even though all Jews, including priests, are nowadays considered to be ritually impure, and so a priest does not actually contract impurity from a corpse or grave, nevertheless males of the priestly line still avoid forbidden corpses and graves.)

 

If a priest defiles himself with corpse impurity by entering an area known to contain graves or by traveling to non-Jewish lands, this is permitted if it has a valid religious purpose such as studying the Torah or getting married.[45] A priest is permitted to enter a graveyard of non-Jews and walk on the graves. Being above or below the corpse of a non-Jew does not transfer impurity. A male of priestly descent is only forbidden from touching or carrying such impure things, which would transfer impurity to him.[46] Also, if a priest finds a dead body in the road and there is no one else available to bury it, he is required to do so even if it is not the body of a close relative.[47]

 

A person who had corpse impurity was forbidden to enter a specified part of the Temple area in Jerusalem.[48] Violators were subject to a flogging for disobedience.[49]

 

 

Purification from Corpse Impurity.  To become purified of corpse impurity a person must be sprinkled with water into which the ashes of a red heifer have been mixed. The sprinkling is done with hyssop buds on stalks, preferably at the first light of morning.[50] This sprinkling is to be done on day three and day seven after the corpse impurity occurs, though provision is made for sprinkling if the purification ritual is delayed for any reason. Then, after the sprinkling on the seventh day, the person immerses himself, waits until sunset and is then free of corpse impurity.[51] However, this procedure does not remove impurity of any other kind from a person.[52]

 

The sprinkling is only valid if the person doing it intends to do it and to make the sprinkled person pure. However, the person being sprinkled does not have to have the intention of being purified.[53] There is no minimum amount of water required; any amount touching the skin is effective.[54]

 

The red heifer used in the purification ritual must be flawless in its reddish color; two white or black hairs next to each other disqualified the animal.[55] It was taken to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to be slaughtered and burned by the priest.[56] The priest that burns the red heifer must be purified by procedures that exceed those of most ritual purifications.[57] Only those who have been purified that same day by immersion can participate in the ritual of the red heifer.[58]

 

Part of the purification of the priest includes being sprinkled, himself, with water with ashes from a previous red heifer by children who have never in their lives been subject to corpse impurity. Since it is almost impossible for anyone to avoid corpse impurity, such children were intentionally birthed in and confined to special areas in Jerusalem of hollowed out rock known not to contain any grave. They were taken from this area only when the time came to sprinkle the priest who was going to burn the red heifer. At that time, the children were transported to Temple court in a manner that would ensure that no corpse impurity would be transferred from any possible gravesite or other buried corpse during transit. There they would sprinkle the priest.[59] (Editor's note:  These elaborate procedures required to avoid corpse impurity reinforce the point that in our times virtually all Jews have corpse impurity. Since the ritual of the red heifer has not been conducted since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, there is no way to become purified of this impurity. All Jews are today considered to be ritually impure.)

 

All those who participate in the process of slaughtering and burning the red heifer, up to the point of gathering the ashes, themselves become impure as does their clothing.  They must immerse themselves and wait until evening to become purified.[60]

 

________________

 

Laws of Religion is a project of the Religion Research Society.

 

Updated October 16, 2016

 

Home – Laws of Religion, Judaism and Islam

 

Next – 4. The Impurity of Leprosy

 

Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

●  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Num 19:1-21

[2] Num 5:1-4

[3] Num 19:22

[4] Num 19:14-15

[5] Num 9:6-12

[6] Num 31:17-24

[7] Lev 21:1-4

[8] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, secs 1,3 (pages 5-6Y)

[9] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 1 (page 5Y)

[10] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 7 (page 7Y)

[11] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 12 (page 8Y); Chapter 9, sec 4 (page 38Y)

[12] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 1 (page 5Y); Chapter 1, sec 10 (page 8Y)

[13] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 13 (pages 8-9Y); Chapter 9, sec 4 (page 38Y)

[14] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 10 (page 8Y)

[15] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 12, sec 1 (pages 46-47Y)

[16] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 13, sec 1 (page 50Y)

[17] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 13 (pages 8-9Y)

[18] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 2, secs 1-2 (page 10Y)

[19] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 1, sec 5 (pages 6-7Y) Chapter 1, sec 10 (page 8Y)

[20] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 15 (pages 15-16Y)

[21] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 9, sec 4 (page 38Y)

[22] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 6, sec 8 (page 30Y)

[23] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 16 (page 16Y)

[24] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 10, secs 1-2 (page 40Y)

[25] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 10, sec 6 (page 41Y)

[26] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 10, sec 5 (page 41Y)

[27] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 8, sec 1 (page 34Y)

[28] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 16 (page 16Y)

[29] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 16 (page 16Y); Chapter 5, sec 11 (page 26Y); Chapter 11, sec 1 (page 43Y)

[30] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 11, sec 6 (page 45Y)

[31] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 11, secs 7-8 (page 45Y)

[32] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 11, sec 2 (page 44Y)

[33] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 11, sec 2 (page 44Y)

[34] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 5, sec 9  (page 26Y)

[35] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 5, sec 3 (page 24Y)

[36] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 1 on Corpse Uncleanness, Chapter 5, sec 6 (page 25Y)

[37] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, secs 1-2 (pages 402M 166Y)

[38] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, sec 6 (pages 404-406M 167Y)

[39] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, sec 7 (pages 406M 167Y)

[40] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, sec 6 (pages 404-406M 167Y); Chapter 3, sec 11 (pages 418M 172Y)

[41] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 3, sec 1 (pages 412M 170Y)

[42] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 3, sec 2 (pages 412M 170Y)

[43] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, sec 15 (pages 410M 169Y)

[44] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 2, sec 8 (pages 406M 168Y)

[45] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 3, sec 14 (pages 420M 173Y)

[46] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 3, sec 3 (pages 412M 170Y)

[47] MT Book 14, The Book of Judges, Sefer Shoftim, Treatise 4 on Mourning, Evel (Avel), Chapter 3, sec 8 (pages 416M 171-172Y)

[48] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah, Treatise 1 on the Temple, Beit Habechirah,  Chapter 7, sec 16 (pages 116M 33Y); MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah, Treatise 3 on Entrance into the Sanctuary, Bi’at HaMikdash,  Chapter 3, secs 4-5 (pages 232M 93Y)

[49] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah, Treatise 3 on Entrance into the Sanctuary, Bi’at HaMikdash,  Chapter 3, sec 9 (pages 234M 94Y)

[50] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 11, sec 1 (page 130Y); secs 4-7 (pages 131-132Y)

[51] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 11, secs 1-2 (pages 130-131Y)

[52] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 11, sec 3 (page 131Y)

[53] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 10, sec 7 (page 129Y)

[54] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 10, sec 8 (page 129Y); Chapter 12, sec 1 (page 133Y)

[55] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 1, sec 2 (page 97Y)

[56] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 3, secs 1-2 (pages 103-105Y); Chapter 4, sec 10 (page 108Y)

[57] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 2, secs 2-6 (pages 101-102Y)

[58] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 4, sec 15 (pages 108-109Y)

[59] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 2, sec 7 (pages 102-103Y)

[60] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 2 on the Red Heifer, Chapter 5, secs 1-4 (pages 110-112Y)