- Avi Gold
Dept. Hebrew Language
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, Israel
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 8-9.
In the tractate Yadayim (4,6) the following discussion appears: "The Saducees say: ' We protest against you, O Pharisees!' That you say : ' The sacred books cause TUM'A of the hands, but the books of Homer do not cause TUM'A of the hands.' Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai said: ' And is this our only complaint against the Pharisees? After all, they say : 'the bones of a donkey are TAHOR , but the bones of the High Priest Yohanan are TAMEI .' They replied to him: 'According to their affection, so is their TUM'A determined, LEST A MAN MAKE THE BONES OF HIS FATHER AND MOTHER INTO SPOONS!' He said to them: It is also thus in the case of the Sacred Books. According to their affection their TUM'A is determined. And the books of Homer are not beloved, so they do not cause TUM'A of the hands." (the translation is my own)
Explanation: The Saducees and Pharisees were two different groups within Judaism. Each represented a different school of thought, and thus, their interpretation of the sacred texts was often different. In this discussion, a group of Saducees protest against the Pharisee interpretation which stated that if someone handled a Sacred Book, the result would be "TUM'A" of the hands, whereas if one handled the books of Homer (i.e. Odyssey, Illiad), this would not cause "TUM'A" of the hands. The word "tum'a" is often rendered "impurity" or "uncleanliness" in English, although it is difficult to find an exact equivalent. The main complaint of the Saducees is this: How can it be that a sacred text causes the hands to become impure, but a secular text does not cause this? One would not expect a sacred thing to cause impurity.
Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, although he himself was a Pharisee, continued along the Saducee method of reasoning in order to demonstrate to them their misunderstanding. He pointed out to them that the example of the sacred texts is not the only example in which an esteemed thing causes "TUM'A" where a non-esteemed thing does not. The example which he gave was that of bones.
The bones of a donkey do not cause "TUM'A", but the bones of a human being do cause "TUM'A". This was a fact that the Saducees had to agree with, because this is based on a direct quote from Numbers (19,16), a text which both the Pharisees and Saducees viewed as authoritative.
The Saducee reply to Rabbi Yohanan is interesting. They explain that the reason human bones cause "TUM'A" is so that one's parents bones not be made into spoons (i.e. to prevent human bones from being used as implements or tools). The bones of a donkey, or other animal, do not cause TUM'A, and their bones are useable as implements or tools.
Rabbi Yohanan then uses the Saducee reply to respond to their first claim, and says that tum'a is also used as a safeguard in the proper handling of books. The sacred books deserve special care, therefore they cause tum'a of the hands.
Special care in the handling of an object causing "TUM'A" results from the fact that in order to rid oneself of tum'a, one must undergo a special ritual. Thus every time one handles a sacred text, a purification ritual must be observed. Similarly, in the case of human bones, a special purification ritual must be observed after each time the bones are handled. The ritual of purification necessary after handling parts of a dead human body is a very complex ritual, and so, this is one way that distance is maintained and respect is given to the human body.
A similar reference can be found in another place in the Mishna, regarding human skin. In the tractate Hullin (6,2) it is stated: "As regards these, their skin is as their flesh: the skin of the human, and the skin of the domestic pig.......(there follows a discusssion of various species and their statuses)......" "And all of them, if they were processed, or if they were worked- they are TAHOR (pure), EXCEPT THE SKIN OF THE HUMAN....." (again the translation is my own)
In this section, there is a discussion about leather work. According to these statements, although the skin of a pig has the same status as its flesh (i.e. impure), if the pig's skin has been processed (such as tanned, etc.), then the resulting leather is no longer impure. The only exception to this rule, and this is specifically stated, is HUMAN SKIN. This skin remains impure no matter what process it has undergone. Interestingly, a central commentary to the Mishna, Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro  states: "And why was it stated that human skin after being worked remains impure? It is a decree lest a person make the skins of his father and mother into carpets to sit on them....". (translation my own)
Here Rabbi Ovadia uses a line of reasoning similar to the reasoning used in the above-mentioned section in Yadayim. Human skin is declared to be a cause of "tum'a" in order to preserve human dignity, and in order to prevent a part of the human body from being used as an implement. The skins of various animal species, however, have no such restriction, and even the skins of unclean animals are useable for household objects.
Thus it can be seen from these two examples, of bones and skin, that tum'a can be a mechanism to prevent use of human body parts in ways considered undignified, and so, tum'a can be seen as a safeguard to human dignity.
1] The Mishna is a collection of the writings of the ancient rabbis. The content is mainly their comments on Biblical laws. It is divided into 60 books, or tractates. See also Encyclopedia Judaica 12:93-109.
2] "tahor" is the adjectival form of the word "tahara". Thus, "tahor" = "pure".
3] Similarly, "tamei" is the adjectival form of "tum'a". "tamei" = "impure".
4] Rabbi Ovadia of Bertinoro was an Italian rabbi (c. 1450-1516). See Encyclopedia Judaica 4: 698-699.