Degrees of impurity (Daf Yomi Pesachim 14)

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“In what sense is there a case of adding impurity to its impurity here?”

I know I am in trouble when the day’s Daf Yomi reading requires elaborate charts. The charts and graphs in the pages of the Koren Talmud present a detailed view of four levels of impurity. If previously asked, I would have said that if something is impure, its impure, and establishing levels makes no sense. It is just like getting wet. Once you are wet and the cold rain soaks through your clothes and your skin is chilled from all the dampness, you might as well grab an umbrella and sing and dance in the rain.

Today’s reading starts with the peaceful image of two cows who are grazing on the Mount of Olives on Passover Eve. I imagine the entire town of Jerusalem bustling about preparing for the holiday with all that leaven to discard while keeping an eye on the mount in the distance. We are told that while the cows were on the mount, people could consume the last bit of leaven before the onset of Passover. If one cow was taken away, they were to put the leaven aside and if both disappeared, it was time to burn the leaven that was left.

The discussion of the signaling of the start of Passover Eve leads into a protracted discussion of impurity. I fear that the lovely cows on the hill might have been sacrificed for this dialog. We are told that it is permissible, as observed by priestly practices, to burn meat that became ritually impure through contact with a secondary source of impurity “even though they would thereby add a degree of impurity to the impurity of the first piece of meat, which was previously impure to a lesser degree.” In other words, just throw it on the fire and be done with it.

But we are not done with this confounding discussion. We are told that one can burn an impure loaf of teruma (the offering put aside for the priests,) with a pure loaf on Passover Eve. There is no need to burn them separately. The rationale seems quite logical: “since both items are being burned, one may disregard the fact that one item will assume a higher degree of ritual impurity in the process.” Being burned to a crisp is not something that can be parsed. Ashes are ashes regardless.

Rabbi Yosei, who has his lucid moments but perhaps not today, says in fact there is no inference that can be made from the mixing of teruma, because they are both impure, although tainted by different degrees. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua challenge everything that is known about burning teruma and say that one must burn pure and impure teruma separately. They disagree about teruma that is of unknown purity, but that argument is for another day.

We are not done yet with the tutorial on degrees of impurity. How should we consider a slab of impure meat that comes into contact with a secondary source of impurity, which the chart in the Koren tells us are foods and liquids that have come into contact with something of first-degree impurity status. We are told that it assumes second-degree impurity status, although Rabbi Hanina argues that in fact it would assume a third-degree impurity status and he has the final word on the matter.

And after all this, we are told by the disembodied voice of the Gemara that there is a difficulty. Food does not transmit ritual impurity to other food. So why all the discussion of slabs of meat touching each other on the cooking pit? The Gemara backtracks and says that all along what was meant to be discussed was liquids, which are a primary source of transmission of impurity. But there is yet another correction and we are told that the Torah may state that food does not impart impurity to food, but that is not the case according to Rabbinic law, which is the overriding code for today’s discussion.

Today’s Daf Yomi establishes a hierarchy of impurity, with a corpse sitting at the very top as the ultimate primary source of contamination.  The next rung down is labeled the first level of impurity, which is effectuated by contact with a creeping animal, a zav, or an animal carcass. The next level down are the items that transmit second degree impurity, such as food and liquids that come in contact with first level impure items, followed by the third level of impurity which are food and liquids that come in contact with second level impurity.

Almost every day, no matter how impenetrable the day’s reading appears on the surface, I find some small significance to my own life. There is relevancy in today’s reading to the pandemic times we are living through. There are primary sources of contamination with the coronavirus, such as being in the direct path of someone who is transmitting virus through coughing or sneezing. There are secondary sources, such as touching an elevator or doorknob after someone who is infected. There are third levels of contamination, such as entering a room that has a residue of viral crowns floating in the air. And then there is the fourth level of contamination, which is the fear and sense of foreboding that comes with anticipating getting infected.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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