Rebirth Of Sorts
‘Immersing Impure, Emerging Pure’
A mikveh purifies impure utensils, clothes, and people. But when exactly does the transformation from impure to pure take place? Can we pinpoint the moment?
An interesting statement appears in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos She’ar Avos Hatumah 6:16). The Rambam writes that if a person in a mikveh is touching a neveilah, sheretz, or other impure item, he is impure, “and when he emerges from the mikveh, he becomes pure…and the same applies to someone who stepped on a mishkav lying in a mikveh.”
A zav, who defiles an article on which he sets his weight, entered a mikveh and stepped on an article placed on the floor of the mikveh: “The mishkav (the article stepped on) becomes impure and when the mishkav emerges from the mikveh, it becomes pure as the immersion amended. In other words, when the article emerges from the mikveh, its status metamorphoses into that of purity.
A sensational chidush emerges from the Rambam’s phrasing, as the Kesef Mishneh writes (ibid): “the impure becomes pure when he emerges from the mikveh and not while he is still in it!” The impurity leaves, not when a person enters the mikveh but when he leaves it, and if someone touched the impure person while he’s still in the water, he becomes impure even though he’s in a mikveh! If so, the possibility exits for a person to immerse in a mikveh and yet not become purified!
Immersion at Sunset
An impure kohein must immerse during the day and afterwards “when the sun sets, he becomes pure” (Vayikra 22:7). After sunset, he may eat terumah (before sunset he may eat maaser sheini) and after he offers required sacrifices, he may eat the meat of sacrifices. But if a person immersed close to sunset and his whole body was in the water as the sun set and only afterwards stuck his head out of the water, he is not pure until after sunset of the next day (Gilyonei Hashas, Shabbos 35a; Or Sameiach, ch. 12, Hilchos Metamei Mishkav Umoshav).
The author of Gilyonei Hashas (ibid.) finds a source for this exclusion in the Gemara (Shabbos, ibid.), which says that an impure person who needs sunset for his final purification “should immerse in the sea and emerge.” The Gemara emphasizes that he must emerge from the water before sunset since if he doesn’t do so, he won’t become pure until sunset the next day.
The Achronim extensively discuss the Kesef Mishneh’s chidush and assert that the statement of the Rambam is “a very new thing,” citing Rishonim from whose words this understanding is not discernable (see Or Sameiach, ibid, and Makor Baruch, 39).
With a Sheretz in Hand
Many are familiar with the following statement in the Gemara (Taanis 16a): “If a person holds a sheretz, even if he immerses in all the water in the world, the immersion is of no avail; if he discarded it, as soon as he immerses in 40 seah, the immersion helps him.” Two different poskim found proofs for contradictory positions in this statement.
Rabbi Meir Arik, zt”l, writes that it proves that someone who immerses in a mikveh becomes pure while still in the water since the Gemara says: “if he discarded it, he is pure.” Why if he discarded it? Must he not emerge from the water? Evidently, he doesn’t. An impure person becomes pure while still in the water (Tal Torah, Yerushalmi, Terumos).
Others, however (Responsa Kisvei Eish 3:32), derive the opposite conclusion. Why does the Gemara say he is pure “as soon as he immerses”? After all, he’s already in the water. Evidently, the purification process requires entering and exiting. Thus, he must discard the sheretz and enter the water again.
We should conclude with the careful clarification of Rabbi Yonah Mertzbach, zt”l, as to why an impure person only becomes pure 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, so to speak, when he emerges. He leaves his previous world and enters a new one; therefore, he becomes pure only when he leaves the water (Aleh Yonah).