The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
#49:Siman 88 - 89:3
Rav Asher Meir
Siman 88: TAKANAT
The halakha discussed in our siman went throught various historical
stages, as is evident from the SA itself.
THE CONCEPT OF "TUM'A" IN
Quite a bit of the Torah deals with the rules of ritual purity - "tum'a
ve-tahara." Even those rules
mentioned in the Torah are quite complicated, and if we add the inferences of
the sages as well as rabbinical decrees, the rules become intricate indeed. The usual translation of "tum'a" is
"defilement" or "impurity," but these translations do not adequately capture the
meaning of the concept. A short
introduction to the rules of tum'a may help dispel some misconceptions and show
that "tum'a" is on the whole a normal state - though one which does require
The most general significance of "tum'a" is that the Temple surroundings
are kept free from it. A person who
is "tamei" is restricted in his entry to the Temple surroundings. Depending on the level of impurity, a
person may be denied access to all of the sanctified area of Yerushalayim, to
the Temple mount, or only to certain areas of the Temple. Likewise, food which is "tamei" is unfit
for Temple offerings (kodashim) and for ma'aser sheni (the second tithe) which
is eaten only in Yerushalayim. In
addition, teruma and challa, which are similar to kodashim, may not be made
tamei and if they are tamei, they are unfit.
A kohen is not allowed to do anything which would make him tamei "tum'at
met" - defilement which arises from a corpse. This is true even if the kohen is
already tamei. A nazir is also
forbidden to become subject to this tum'a.
It follows that most kinds of tum'a are really of very little
significance for the average Jew in his everyday life. Such a Jew typically needs to worry
about sprinkling (for tum'at met) and immersing (for all other kinds of tum'a)
only if he wants to bring a sacrifice or go to Yerushalayim for "aliya
Three closely related kinds of tum'a are of concern to all Jewish
families all the time: "nida," "zava" and "yoledet." The tum'a of nida is the result of a
woman's menstrual cycle (but the tum'a of the woman can also affect a man). That of "zava" is a result of an
abnormal genital discharge in a man or a woman. Any woman who undergoes normal
childbirth incurs tum'at yoledet.
Marital relations are forbidden if one spouse is "tamei" with one of
these kinds of tum'a.
Tum'at keri has in common with tum'at nida that it is incurred as part of
a person's ordinary routine. This
tum'a is a result of a man's ejaculation. If this event is part of marital
relations, then the wife also incurs tum'a. Like most kinds of tum'a, the Torah does
not restrict a keri from anything except for access to the Temple (he is
excluded from two "camps," i.e., the entire area of the Temple) and contact with
The textual source for a man's "keri" is in Vayikra 15:16: "And when a
man's seed goes out of him, he shall wash all his flesh in water [i.e., immerse
in a mikveh] and then he is tamei until evening." Exclusion from areas of the Temple is
learned from Devarim 23:11: "If there should be among you a man who is impure
from a nocturnal event, he should leave the camp, he may not come into the
camp. Until the evening he may wash
in water [immerse] and when the sun sets, he may enter the camp." The "camp" referred to is "machaneh
leviya" as mentioned by Rashi on these verses. This corresponds to the entire interior
of the Temple.
RESTRICTIONS ON A KERI - THE
Yet the Mishna and Gemara are filled with restrictions on a "ba'al keri"
- a man who has incurred this tum'a.
The mishna in Berakhot (20b) reads: "A ba'al keri recites [KS] silently,
and does not say the benedictions preceding and following [KS]; at a meal he
blesses afterwards but not before.
R. Yehuda says, he blesses before and after." The gemara on 22a lists various opinions
as to how severe the limitation on a "ba'al keri" is; according to one opinion
he can not learn Torah at all, and preferably should not even recite principles
of proper conduct - "derekh eretz!"
The reason is that the verse "And you shall make them [the laws of the
Torah] known to your children, and your children's children" (Devarim 4:9) is
followed by the verse "The day which you stood before HaShem your God at Chorev"
(Devarim 4:10), indicating that the TEACHING of Torah should be filled with awe,
fear, trembling and sanctity just as the GIVING of the Torah
However, according to R. Yehuda ben Beteira: "Words of Torah can not
receive tum'a!" In the prophecy of
Yirmiyahu God compares His word to fire; just as fire can not become "tamei," so
the words of Torah can not become "tamei."
The gemara concludes that the custom is according to R. Yehuda ben
The gemara continues: "Ze'iri says, the requirement to immerse was
eliminated. Others say, the
requirement to wash the hands [before prayer]. The one who renders "to immerse," does so because he concurs with R.
Yehuda ben Bateira."
The gemara Berakhot continues with a beraita:
"If nine kavim of water are
poured on a ba'al keri, he is tahor.
[The gemara later explains that the nine kavs MUST be poured - immersing
or sitting in them is not enough.]
Nachum Ish Gamzu whispered this to R. Akiva, R. Akiva whispered it to Ben
Azai, and Ben Azai went out and taught it to his students in the
marketplace. R. Yosi bar Avin and
R. Yosi bar Zevida, two Amoraim from Eretz Yisrael, differed on this: One
renders "taught," and the other renders "whispered" [like the version in the
gemara]. The one who says "taught,"
because of neglect of Torah study and because of neglect of procreation
[sometimes immersion is not practical and the student will not study at all
after being with his wife if he does not know that he could solve his problem
with a shower; conversely, because of the difficulty of immersion he may refrain
from relations with his wife, and family size will be lessened]. The one who says "whispered" - so that
Torah scholars will not frequent their wives like roosters. R. Yanai said: I have heard of those who
are lenient and I have heard of those who are stringent, and those who are
stringent, their days and years are lengthened.
... Ezra established that a
healthy person who brought the keri on himself [through marital relations]
requires forty se'a [a kosher mikva], the sages [Tannaim] established that if
the keri came upon a healthy person by chance, nine kavim [is enough]. The Amoraim disputed the case of an ill
person: one says [a sick person is just like a healthy one], the other says that
an ill person even if he brought the keri on himself is like a healthy person
whose keri was incidental, and an ill person whose keri is incidental, is
Rava said, the halakha is
that one who brings the keri on himself requires forty se'a whether he is well
or ill; a healthy person whose keri is incidental requires [only] nine kavim,
and an ill person whose keri is incidental, is completely
Bava Kama 82a brings a list of regulations of Ezra (evidently a beraita)
which concludes with the requirement of a ba'al keri to immerse before Torah
WHAT IS THE REGULATION
The entire subject seems rather mysterious. For one thing, the motivation for the
ordination is somewhat cryptic. One
explanation is that brought in the SA itself (88:1). Yet there are several difficulties with
1. The gemara brings this motivation only
as the reason not to publicize the leniency of nine kavim. However, the requirement of nine kavim
itself can only be a result of Ezra's ordinance. If limiting familiarity is the reason
for Ezra's regulation, then according to this Amora the regulation is not
achieving its goal, unless part of it is kept secret.
2. The other Amora thinks that the leniency
should be publicized, precisely
in order that scholars should not be too distant from their wives. What is the reason for the regulation
according to him?
3. The list of ordinations of Ezra includes
two specifically intended to encourage family living! Does it make sense that another one
should mean to discourage it?
4. The language of the leniency is that
nine kavin make the person "tahor" - suggesting that the immersion or the shower
are not meant to be a mere annoyance (to be avoided by limiting keri) but a kind
5. "Keri" which is incidental should not
require an immersion or even nine kavim, since this requirement will not
discourage minimizing marital relations.
The MB (s.k. 1) gives a different reason for the regulation. This reason solves all the above
problems. According to this view,
we can understand that the issue of minimizing over-familiarity is a SEPARATE
issue, relevant to WHICH aspect of Ezra's regulation we teach. In addition, even "incidental" keri is
probably connected to levity. Yet
there are objections even to this reason:
1. R. Yehuda ben Beteira's leniency is
seemingly irrelevant. The stringent
opinion also agrees that the words of Torah are not subject to tum'a! It merely insists on a proper demeanor
for Torah learning.
2. If the levity which accompanies keri
contradicts the proper frame of mind for learning Torah, how does immersion or
dousing help matters?
It seems that, at root, the ordinance of Ezra was meant to induce men to
purify themselves after keri
before engaging in Torah.
Apparently, this particular kind of tum'a, unlike others, presents a kind
of spiritual obstacle to Torah study - as if the words of Torah themselves were
subject to it!
The point the MB makes about "kalut rosh" explains WHY this particular
kind of tum'a presents a problem for studying Torah - unlike other tumot, keri
is correlated with a person's actions and frame of mind. In particular, it is associated with
levity, which contradicts the gravity needed for receiving the
However, this particular spiritual obstacle can be partially removed even
without full purification, merely by pouring nine kavim of water on the
person. (Just as it can be
completely removed by immersion, even though immersion does not effect ritual
purification until nightfall.) In
effect, it IS the tum'a itself which causes problem and that is why dealing with
the tum'a helps matters.
(Alternatively, we could say that since immersion is ASSOCIATED with
purity, even if it does not accomplish purity because it is before nightfall or
because a "shortcut" of nine kavim was used, it puts the person in an
appropriate frame of mind.)
Some scholars felt that it was better if scholars limited their contact
with their wives altogether. They
decided it would be better if the leniency of nine kavin were not publicized,
except to scrupulous scholars who would only rely on it if immersion were
impossible. Others felt that this
would excessively limit family life and Torah learning, so the leniency should
Whereas R. Yehuda ben Beteira seemingly objects even to the ORIGINAL
reason for the regulation: tum'a, even tum'at keri, is not an obstacle to Torah study at
all! It is true that the holiness
of the Beit HaMikdash obliges us to keep tum'a away from it. Tum'a is an obstacle to Temple holiness,
but the holiness of the Torah is a completely different level. Temple worship and performance of
mitzvot are an interface between the rarefied, pure world of Torah and the
coarse material world. But Torah
study itself is not an interface - it is entirely in the realm of sprituality
The conclusion is, that this immersion was eliminated as a requirement,
but even so one who practices it lengthens his days and years - meaning that his
days are more productive and his life lengthened. It seems that according to the
conclusion, BOTH aspects of Torah learning are present: there is a "nivdal" (transcendent) element, completely
removed from mundane considerations, so that learning Torah is not forbidden to
someone who is a ba'al keri.
However, there is ALSO an element of interface and influence of the
mundane world in Torah study; therefore it is praiseworthy for a ba'al keri to
immerse or at any rate to achieve partial purification through a shower before
Torah study. It is no coincidence
that the Chasidim, whose philosophy of Torah most emphasizes an engagement with
the material world, are the most scrupulous about immersion before prayer and
Let us go back to the explanation of why specifically keri is an obstacle
to Torah learning. It seems to me
that the unique aspect of tum'at keri is that it can come about as the result of
a voluntary act. In general, tum'a
is the embodiment of the lack of control we have over our bodies. A person acts as if his body were under
his control, but eventually he will die; a woman is subject to a menstrual
cycle, perhaps an irregular one; babies decide to be born when it suits them; a
morbid discharge certainly subjects a person to a feeling that his body is out
of his control. Such a state is
problematic for entering the Temple, which symbolizes our ability to subdue and
direct the material in the service of the spiritual. But it does not affect Torah learning,
because even if our bodies are not in our control, our will itself, which like
Torah is in the realm of "nivdal" - transcendence - is not affected. Keri, on the other hand, involves an
amalgam of voluntary and involuntary which in effect symbolizes that we have not
succeeded in subduing even our will itself.
This explanation accords with the fact that involuntary keri is
problematic (something the SA's reason does not explain) but is somehow more
lenient: there is often a voluntary element in this kind of keri as well, but it
is less than the usual kind. It
also explains why the prohibition does not extend to women - who also incur
It is possible to harmonize this explanation with that of the SA. Ezra did not want Torah scholars to
frequent their wives like roosters - not regarding the frequency, but regarding
the frame of mind. Marital
relations are a serious and holy matter, and customs of holiness such as
immersion help induce the appropriate elevated state of
How much are 9 kabim? The SA
(YD 201) explains that forty se'a is equal to three cubic amot. A precise Rav Chaim Naeh ama of 48 cm.
gives us 332 liters - 8.3 liters/se'a.
Using a Chazon Ish ama of 57.7 cm, we get 576 liters - 14.4
liters/se'a. A se'a is six kabim,
so nine kabim is a se'a and a half - about twelve and a half liters per Rav
Naeh, and almost 22 per the Chazon Ish.
A person can measure how many seconds his shower takes to fill a
one-liter "natla" (hand-washing cup) and multiply by twelve and a half or by
twenty-two. Then he knows how long
he has to shower to comply with "tevilat Ezra" if it is difficult to reach a
mikva. If the shower is so strong
that some of the water doesn't land on him at all, the amount of time needs to
Note that a liter is 1.1 quarts, so according to Rav Naeh about fourteen
quarts (three and a half gallons) are needed. If you look at s.k. 4 in the MB you will
see that a Polish quart seems to have been very close to an English
(Please note: for an actual
ladies' mikva, even 576 liters is not usually considered