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Tumah and Taharah – Meaning, History, and Present Day

Tumah and taharah are two terms that you’ll encounter quite often when reading the Torah or other Rabbinic literature. You’ll even see them in the Bible and the Quran.

However, you’ll rarely encounter these terms outside of Abrahamic religious literature. So, what exactly do tumah and taharah mean?

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What Are Tumah And Taharah?

medieval mikveh
Mikveh for ritual purity. Source

For the ancient Hebrews, tumah and taharah were important concepts meaning impure (tumah) and pure (taharah), particularly in the sense of spiritual and especially ritual purity and lack thereof.

This means that people who had tumah weren’t suitable for certain holy rituals and activities, at least not until they underwent specific purification rituals.

It’s also important not to mistake tumah for sin and taharah for being without sin. The impurity that is tumah is more akin to having dirt on your hands, but for the soul – it’s something impure that has touched the person and that needs to be cleaned away before the person can be pure again.

What Causes A Person To Become Tumah/Impure And What Does That Even Imply?

This purity or impurity wasn’t something people were born with, of course. Instead, the impurity of tumah was acquired through certain actions, often through no fault of the person. Some of the most common examples included:

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  • Giving birth to a son makes a woman tumah, i.e. impure for 7 days.
  • Giving birth to a daughter makes a woman impure for 14 days.
  • Touching a corpse for whatever reason, even briefly and/or accidentally.
  • Touching something that’s impure because it has been in contact with a corpse.
  • Having any of the tzaraat – the various possible and disfigurative conditions that can appear on people’s skin or hair. English translations of the Christian Bible often incorrectly translate tzaraat as leprosy.
  • Touching linen or wool clothing as well as stone buildings that have had some sort of disfiguration happen to it – also commonly called tzaraat.
  • If a corpse is inside a house – even if because the person has just died there – the house, all people, and all objects in it become tumah.
  • Eating an animal that has died on its own or has been killed by other animals makes one tumah.
  • Touching the corpse of any of the eight sheratzim – the “eight creeping things”. These included mice, moles, monitor lizards, spiny-tailed lizards, fringe-toad lizards, agama lizards, geckos, and chameleon lizards. Different translations such as Greek and Old French also listed hedgehogs, frogs, slugs, weasels, newts, and others.
  • Touching something (such as a bowl or a carpet) that’s been made impure because it has been in contact with the carcass of one of the eight sheratzim.
  • Women are tumah or impure while they are menstruating (niddah), as is anything that has come in contact with their menstrual cycle.
  • Men having abnormal seminal discharge (zav/zavah) are tumah or impure, as is anything that has come in contact with their semen.

Those and many other actions can make someone tumah or ritually impure. While this impurity wasn’t considered a sin, it was important for life in Hebrew society – tumah people were asked to live outside the village for a while until their impurity could be cleaned and they could become taharah, for example.

A tumah person was also prohibited from visiting a sanctuary or temple of worship – doing so was considered an actual sin punishable with karet, i.e. a permanent expulsion from society. Priests also weren’t allowed to eat meat while they were tumah for whatever reason.

How Can A Person Become Taharah/Pure Again?

Taking the bride to the bath house

The way for removing a tumah impurity and becoming taharah again varied depending on the manner in which the person became tumah in the first place. Here are the most notable examples:

  • Impurity caused by tzaraat required a shaving of the hair, washing of the clothes and body, waiting for seven days, and then offering a temple sacrifice.
  • Tumah after seminal discharge was cleansed by taking a ritual bath on the next nightfall after the act that caused the impurity.
  • Tumah due to touching a corpse required a special Red Heifer (a red cow that has never been pregnant, milked, or yoked) sacrifice performed by priests. Ironically, some of the priests participating in certain roles in a red heifer sacrifice also became tumah as result of it.

Sinful Tumah

While tumah, generally, wasn’t considered a sin, there are some sins that were also refered to as tumah, as in moral impurity. There was no cleansing or purification for these sins and people were often expelled from Hebrew society for them:

  • Murder or manslaughter
  • Witchcraft
  • Idolatry
  • Adultery, incest, rape, bestiality, and other sexual sins
  • Delivering a child to Moloch (a foreign deity)
  • Leaving a hanged man’s corpse on the scaffolds until the next morning

While these sins were also considered moral tumah, it’s important to differentiate between them and ritual tumah – the former are sins while the latter are ritual impurities that can be both forgiven and cleansed, as well as seen as understandable.

Are Tumah And Taharah Relevant To People Of The Hebrew Faith Today?

Silver Washing Cup

All things in the Torah and Rabbinic literature can be said to still be relevant in conservative Judaism but, the truth is that most types of tumah aren’t taken seriously today. In fact, tumah and taharah lost a lot of their relevancy all the way back with the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE – nearly 2,000 years ago.

Niddah (female menstruation) and zav/zavah (male abnormal seminal discharge) are probably the two exceptions and examples of tumah that followers of conservative Judaism would still call ritual tumah impurity but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Do Tumah And Taharah Matter To Followers Of Other Abrahamic Religions?

As the Old Testament in both Christianity and Islam is based on ancient Hebrew writings, the terms tumah and taharah can be seen the word for word too, especially in Leviticus.

The Quran, in particular, puts a huge emphasis on the concept of ritual and spiritual purity and impurity, although the terms used there are different.

As for Christianity, a lot of that subject there is a bit muddled due to poor translations (such as translating tzaraat as leprosy).

Wrapping Up  

Concepts such as tumah and taharah give us a glimpse into what the ancient Hebrew people believed and how they saw the world and society.

A lot of those beliefs have evolved over time but, even though tumah and taharah don’t matter as much today as they did two milennia ago, understanding them is crucial for understanding modern Judaism as well as modern Christianity and Islam.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.