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Thought for the Day: Transmission of Tuma and Differences for Earthenware Vessels

"Wow!" you are thinking, "I always wanted to know about the details of how tuma can be transmitted and especially how earthenware vessels are different!  At last I can take all the worry and stress I have suffered because of this hole in my knowledge off my plate!"  Or maybe not.  None the less, I am interested because I am once again learning the mishnayos of masechta keilim.  (Since I have asked for participation in learning mishnayos l'zecher nishmas Aaron Dovid ben Yitzchak, a"h, I decided to act quickly to get one of the fun ones before they all got snapped up.  If you hurry, I am sure you can still find something you'll enjoy; just click here and let the good times roll!)  I chose keilim because it's not one the more popular masechtos (it is long and complicated).  I figured this way I'd get the better part of a year to go through it carefully and get some understanding.

The word "keilim" in lashon ha'kodesh is quite flexible.  It includes everything from clothing, to pots and pans, to gardening tools, tables and chairs.  Basically, it is anything that is moveable and has a function.  Things that don't fit this category include cisterns, houses, and many husbands.  One of the complications of learning the laws of tuma is that we don't have any experience with it.  We live in a world without a Beis HaMikdash (may it be rebuilt soon and in our lifetime), so the k'dusha of the whole world is decreased.  Being tamei today is like having a runny nose in daycare; even if you could cure one runny nose, it will catch something in less that 13 seconds or so and start running again.  If we were sensitive to tuma, however, we would feel it most acutely in our keilim.  After all, kelim (by their nature) mediate essentially every interaction with our world.

Masechta keilim, therefore, is not about how to make or use keilim, but the various ways that keilim become tamei and transmit that tuma.  In order to understand that, the first perek is where you will find the laws of different kinds of tuma how they are transmitted.  In order to understand that, R' Pinchas Kehati, ztz"l, gives a very cogent summary of the different materials out of which keilim need to be made in order to participate.  There are seven d'oraisa: metal, wood, leather, bone (which includes horns and hoofs), woven fabric, sackcloth, and earthenware.  Chazal added glass because it's a lot like metal; that is, it can be melted to be shaped and then reshaped.

Tuma can be transferred in a variety of ways.  Touching almost always works.  Sometimes carrying (even with out touching, such as carrying it in a bag) or resting on it (again, even without touching, such as separated by a mattress).  Some tuma is so intense that even being in the same room with it can render you and/or your keilim tamei.

Ok, ok... enough teasing; let's get to earthenware.  First, earthenware cannot become tamei from the outside.  Really; you can put a clay pitcher right on a corpse ("avi avos ha'tuma" -- the ultimate source of all tuma) and the oil inside remains as tahor as the day it was pressed.  However, dangle a dead rat into the cavity of an earthenware oven and the whole oven becomes tamei.  Not only that, if you then dangle a loaf of bread into that same oven (after reeling in the rat, of course, per department of health regulations), then the bread will also become tamei.  Finally, while most keilim can become tahor by immersion in a kosher mikveh, earthenware has to be broken to return to tahor-ness.

There's lots more details, but I don't want to ruin the drama of seeing it all unfold yourself!

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