Latest update: May 27th, 2013
Rebirth Of Sorts
‘Immersing Contaminated, Emerging Pure’
A mikveh purifies the impure. Utensils, clothing, and impure persons who immerse or are immersed in a mikveh become pure. When exactly does that transformation take place? Can we pinpoint the moment?
An interesting statement appears in the Rambam (Hilchos She’ar Avos Hatumah 6:16). He writes that if a person in a mikveh is touching a neveilah, sheretz, or some other impure object, he is impure, “but when he emerges from the mikveh he becomes pure…and the same applies to someone who stepped on a mishkav lying in a mikveh.” Concerning a zav, who defiles an object on which he sets his weight, the law is as follows: If he enters a mikveh and steps on an object on the floor of the mikveh, the object becomes impure, “but when the mishkav emerges from the mikveh, it becomes pure again.” In other words, when the object emerges from the mikveh, its status metamorphoses into one of purity.
Emerging From A Mikveh Purifies
A sensational chidush emerges from the Rambam’s words, as the Kesef Mishneh writes (ibid): “It seems that the impure becomes pure when he emerges from the mikveh but not while he is still inside it.” Thus, if someone touches an impure person while he’s still immersed in the water, one becomes impure even though he is standing in a mikveh. Hence, in theory, it’s possible for someone to immerse in a mikvehand not become pure!
Immersion At Sunset
Impure kohanim need to immerse in a mikveh and await the arrival of sunset. That is, an impure kohen must immerse before the sun sets and afterwards, “when the sun sets, he becomes pure” (Vayikra 22:7). After sunset, these formerly impure kohanim may eat terumah (before sunset they may eat maaser sheini), and after they offer the required sacrifices, they may eat the meat of sacrifices.
If an impure kohen immerses right before sunset but only sticks his head out of the water after sunset, the law is that he isn’t pure until after sunset of the following day (Gilyonei Hashas, Shabbos 35a; Or Sameiach, Ch. 12, Hilchos Metamei Mishkav Umoshav). The author of Gilyonei Hashas (ibid.) writes that the source for this law is the Gemara (Shabbos, ibid.), which says that an impure person who awaits the arrival of sunset to be completely pure “should immerse in the sea and emerge.” The Gemara emphasizes that he must emerge from the water before sunset. If he doesn’t, he only becomes pure after sunset of the following day.
The Achronim discuss this Kesef Mishneh at length and assert that the statement of the Rambam is “a very new thing.” This interpretation of the Gemara, they believe, is not evident in the words of other Rishonim (see Or Sameiach, ibid, and Makor Baruch, 39).
He Who Immerses With A Sheretz In Hand
Many are familiar with the Gemara (Taanis 16a) that immersion does not purify a person who immerses in a mikveh while holding a sheretz: “If a person holds a sheretz, even if he immerses in all the water in the world, the immersion is to no avail; if he discarded it, as soon as he immerses in 40 se’ah, the immersion helps him.”
It is interesting to discover that different poskim derive different proofs regarding the Kesef Mishneh’s interpretation of the Rambam from this famous law. Rabbi Meir Arik, zt”l, writes that it teaches us that someone who immerses in a mikveh becomes pure while still in the water since, as the Gemara says, “if he discarded it, he is pure.” Why “if he discarded it”? Doesn’t he have to emerge from the water? Evidently not (Tal Torah, Yerushalmi, Terumos).
Kisvei Eish (3:32), on the other hand, derives the opposite conclusion from this case. Why does the Gemara say “as soon as he immerses”? After all, he’s already in the water. The Gemara evidently means that the person must immerse again. In other words, a person who enters a mikveh holding a sheretzis impure until he discards it, emerges from the water, and then immerses himself again.
Immersion As Being Born Anew
We should conclude with the careful clarification of Rabbi Yonah Mertzbach, zt”l, as to why immersion helps the impure person only when he emerges from the water. He writes that the inner essence of immersion is the sinner’s “disappearance” in the water and his rebirth, figuratively speaking, when he emerges, since a human being cannot exist in water. The person leaves, so to say, his previous world and enters a new one. Therefore, he becomes pure only when he leaves the water (Aleh Yonah).
About the Author: RABBI YAAKOV KLASS, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. RABBI GERSHON TANNENBAUM, rav of Congregation Bnai Israel of Linden Heights, Boro Park, Brooklyn, is the Director of Igud HaRabbanim – The Rabbinical Alliance of America.
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