Impurity of the deep (Daf Yomi Pesachim 81)

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“It is impurity of the deep until the entire world knows about it.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading continues a discussion of “ritual impurity of the deep” which the notes in the Koren Talmud tell us involves a grave found in a place where people have no previous knowledge of its existence. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish compares such impurity to a road. He said that a road represents impurity of the deep “until the entire world knows about it.” One is absolved by a priest’s frontplate if he sprinkled blood on the alter in the courtyard of the temple and only discovered afterwards that he was impure by contact with a hidden corpse.

In a verse that connects all of us with the world, Rabbi Shimon said that if the entire world knows about the corpse – perhaps it is a well-documented ancestral burial ground – then the concept of the impurity of the deep does not apply. We are told that if even one person knows about the existence of the corpse then one cannot be absolved of their contact with the source of impurity.

If the body that one stumbles upon has been murdered, there is no reprieve from being contaminated with impurity because someone would have placed it there and known of its existence. But if someone fell off a mountain in an avalanche and died from internal injuries, and a poor soul out for a morning walk with his dog stumbled upon the corpse, he could be absolved.

If you find yourself walking along a road and in the middle is a corpse, the assumption is that there is space to walk around the bloated dead body and there is no concern for becoming impure. We are told that “if there is space to pass by”one is still pure. And in a demonstration of leniency, “there is a principle that if a doubt arises concerning the ritual purity of a person or object in the public domain, they are considered pure.” This holds true if the corpse is whole or dismembered, but not if the corpse is in a grave.

So, where do these corpses come from that are found in open roads or fields? The discussion of dead bodies brought me back to when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh and the Yorkshire Ripper was murdering women on a regimented schedule. It was a frightening time for women across the United Kingdom. I traveled to Yorkshire at the time for a poetry workshop and my heart sank as I watched my train pass through Northern England towns with names where women were murdered. Everywhere I traveled in Yorkshire I feared that the ripper was somewhere nearby lurking behind a corner.

The poetry workshop, which was run by Ted Hughes, was held at the Arvon Centre in Lumb Bank, which was within walking distance of the town of Haworth. In the evening after my fellow writers were exhausted from a day of sometimes brutal poetry critiques, we would walk through open fields to the local pub in Haworth. We were terrified that the ripper was out there somewhere, and chanted “stay away Ripper, stay away.” It was the dead of winter and we walked through the darkness arm-in-arm with flashlights through snow-covered fields. The night creatures that we could hear through the cold, dry air were not the crows that Ted Hughes wrote about with their black flags of wings, but pure unadulterated fear.

Beyond the cruel, senseless deaths of at least thirteen women, was the fear that poured over women’s lives during that time like the molten lead we read about in a few readings back. The acts of violence perpetrated by this man, who died last November, instilled a deep fear in the lives of women, who were terrified to leave their homes. They locked themselves up decades before we all headed inside out of fear of another senseless murderer marauding through our towns and cities.

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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