“And of the rest of the oil that is in his hand shall the priest put upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed” Leviticus 16:14


In the 21st century, it might seem absurd to imagine that there exists in the world the notion of tumah and taharah, ritual impurity and purity. It is a often dismissed with the scientist’s casual rolling of the eyes or worse, as evidence of the stupidity of a folk-like mythology clothed in religious doctrine.

To be sure, ritual impurity and purity has all but disappeared from our religious practice. Temple Judaism, as detailed in this week’s sidrah, has long ceased to be a part of our daily lives.

Yet, we are keenly instructed as to how a person deals with the consequences of their own particular form of tumah, and what the priests need to perform for the ritually impure in order that they may return to normal life activities.

Every person was touched by tumah of one sort or another — proximity to a dead body or birth, very common experiences — and the process demanded a certain withdrawal from religious participation and recognition that one’s body was intimately bound up with the service of God.

Metaphorically, the concept of tumah and taharah has always reminded me of electricity. Before we discovered its properties, we were unable to measure, utilise or store it; electricity was simply a nameless invisible force.

Perhaps the ebbing and flowing of our relationship with God might be better understood were we willing to imagine there exists such forces in the world which we have yet to discover, either scientifically or philosophically, but which nevertheless impact daily on our spiritual wellbeing.

How fortunate are we to be both reminded and humbled by the lesson of not yet knowing how God and the natural world work in harmony and by the promise of new discovery.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive