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Thought for the Day: When a Vessel Has Multiple Uses and It Is No Longer Suitable for Its Main Function

I didn't go to middle school.  We had elementary school, which was grades 1-6; we finished with high school, which was grades 9-12; in between we went to junior high, grades 7 and 8.  We were in one classroom all day in elementary school and ran from classroom to classroom during a three minute break in high school.  Junior high was basically where we learned how to do that.  The junior high I attended was brand new and had one big room that was used for lunch (mostly), school plays and concerts, and addresses from the principal to the entire school.  It was called the "Multipurpose Room".  My mom, she should rest in peace, loved that.  "It says just what it is and no more!"  She seriously used to giggle every time she thought about it.

One of the ways tuma can be transmitted is by treading/sitting/lying on something which is meant to be treaded/sat/lied upon.  This is known as "tumas midras".  The condition "meant to be treaded/sat/lied upon" is key.  For example, sitting on a stack of boards or rebar (such as those seen at construction sites) does not render the that stack of stuff tamei.  The rule is that an object does not accept tumas midras if workers could come to you any time while you are sitting on their stack of stuff and say, "Pardon us, sir and/or madam, but we need that material upon which you are sitting to continue our work.  If you would be so kind as to arise and thereby enable their use by us, we would be ever so grateful."  Also, if something was meant to treaded/sat/lied upon, but then broke in such a way that it can no longer be treaded/sat/lied upon, then the tumas midras also goes away.  This is basically the general rule concerning broken keilim and tuma.

What if you have a multipurpose (see, the introduction was not simply a fond memory of my mother!) keili; that is, it can be treaded/sat/lied upon in addition to its main function.  (Obviously if its main function is to be treaded/sat/lied upon, than it is no different than a keili that can only be treaded/sat/lied upon.)  On that point there is a machlokes R' Meir and the chachamim.  R' Meir holds that as long as the keili can be treaded/sat/lied upon, then it is still capable of accepting tumas midras and if it it was tamei before, the loss of its main function does not make it tahor.  The chachamim hold "bahtel ha'ikar, bahtla ha't'feila"/when the main function is lost, then the remaining ancillary function is not enough to keep it tamei.

There are two mishnayos at the end of the 19th chapter of keilim, that both appear to make this point.  The Tiferes Yisrael explains why we need two mishnayos.  First, suppose you have a keili that really has dual function; for example, at work we have two drawer filing cabinets that fit under our desk and have a cushion on top.  The cushion is so that someone coming over for a quickish consult can pull out the filing cabinet and sit on it.  The object's main function is obviously to be a filing cabinet, but even if the drawers were broken we would continue to use it as a seat for quick consults.  Even in that case, the chachamim say that once the drawers are broken, the filing cabinet no longer can receive tumas midras; hence the first mishna.  Second, you could have seat that is only there in order to enable using the keili for it's main function.  A playground near my house has a small hand crane in the sand box (my grandchildren love it).  It has a seat, because you sit on it to operate the levers and pulleys.  If the levers and pulleys would rust up or the crane piece fall off, there wouldn't be much point in sitting on it.  The second mishna comes to tell you that even in that case, R' Meir would maintain that that keili still accepts and retains tumas midras.

Some people think that hilchos tuma and keilim occupy an esoteric corner of Jewish law.  Yet, here you have a memory of my mother, my daily work environment, and playing with my grandchildren all in one TftD.  Pretty all encompassing and relevant; don't you think?


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