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Mishna Berura -
Lesson 49

Simanim 88-89:3 Takanat Ezra

Rav Asher Meir
Text file

            The halakha discussed in our siman went throught various historical stages, as is evident from the SA itself.




            Quite a bit of the Torah deals with the rules of ritual purity - "tum'a ve-tahara."  Even those rules mentioned in the Torah are quite complicated, and if we add the inferences of the sages as well as rabbinical decrees, the rules become intricate indeed.  The usual translation of "tum'a" is "defilement" or "impurity," but these translations do not adequately capture the meaning of the concept.  A short introduction to the rules of tum'a may help dispel some misconceptions and show that "tum'a" is on the whole a normal state - though one which does require consideration.


            The most general significance of "tum'a" is that the Temple surroundings are kept free from it.  A person who is "tamei" is restricted in his entry to the Temple surroundings.  Depending on the level of impurity, a person may be denied access to all of the sanctified area of Yerushalayim, to the Temple mount, or only to certain areas of the Temple.  Likewise, food which is "tamei" is unfit for Temple offerings (kodashim) and for ma'aser sheni (the second tithe) which is eaten only in Yerushalayim.  In addition, teruma and challa, which are similar to kodashim, may not be made tamei and if they are tamei, they are unfit.


            A kohen is not allowed to do anything which would make him tamei "tum'at met" - defilement which arises from a corpse.  This is true even if the kohen is already tamei.  A nazir is also forbidden to become subject to this tum'a.


            It follows that most kinds of tum'a are really of very little significance for the average Jew in his everyday life.  Such a Jew typically needs to worry about sprinkling (for tum'at met) and immersing (for all other kinds of tum'a) only if he wants to bring a sacrifice or go to Yerushalayim for "aliya le-regel."


            Three closely related kinds of tum'a are of concern to all Jewish families all the time: "nida," "zava" and "yoledet."  The tum'a of nida is the result of a woman's menstrual cycle (but the tum'a of the woman can also affect a man).  That of "zava" is a result of an abnormal genital discharge in a man or a woman.  Any woman who undergoes normal childbirth incurs tum'at yoledet.  Marital relations are forbidden if one spouse is "tamei" with one of these kinds of tum'a.


            Tum'at keri has in common with tum'at nida that it is incurred as part of a person's ordinary routine.  This tum'a is a result of a man's ejaculation. If this event is part of marital relations, then the wife also incurs tum'a.  Like most kinds of tum'a, the Torah does not restrict a keri from anything except for access to the Temple (he is excluded from two "camps," i.e., the entire area of the Temple) and contact with sanctified foods.


            The textual source for a man's "keri" is in Vayikra 15:16: "And when a man's seed goes out of him, he shall wash all his flesh in water [i.e., immerse in a mikveh] and then he is tamei until evening."  Exclusion from areas of the Temple is learned from Devarim 23:11: "If there should be among you a man who is impure from a nocturnal event, he should leave the camp, he may not come into the camp.  Until the evening he may wash in water [immerse] and when the sun sets, he may enter the camp."  The "camp" referred to is "machaneh leviya" as mentioned by Rashi on these verses.  This corresponds to the entire interior of the Temple.




            Yet the Mishna and Gemara are filled with restrictions on a "ba'al keri" - a man who has incurred this tum'a.  The mishna in Berakhot (20b) reads: "A ba'al keri recites [KS] silently, and does not say the benedictions preceding and following [KS]; at a meal he blesses afterwards but not before.  R. Yehuda says, he blesses before and after."  The gemara on 22a lists various opinions as to how severe the limitation on a "ba'al keri" is; according to one opinion he can not learn Torah at all, and preferably should not even recite principles of proper conduct - "derekh eretz!"  The reason is that the verse "And you shall make them [the laws of the Torah] known to your children, and your children's children" (Devarim 4:9) is followed by the verse "The day which you stood before HaShem your God at Chorev" (Devarim 4:10), indicating that the TEACHING of Torah should be filled with awe, fear, trembling and sanctity just as the GIVING of the Torah was.


            However, according to R. Yehuda ben Beteira: "Words of Torah can not receive tum'a!"  In the prophecy of Yirmiyahu God compares His word to fire; just as fire can not become "tamei," so the words of Torah can not become "tamei."  The gemara concludes that the custom is according to R. Yehuda ben Beteira.


            The gemara continues: "Ze'iri says, the requirement to immerse was eliminated.  Others say, the requirement to wash the hands [before prayer].  The one who renders "to immerse,"  does so because he concurs with R. Yehuda ben Bateira."


            The gemara Berakhot continues with a beraita:


"If nine kavim of water are poured on a ba'al keri, he is tahor.  [The gemara later explains that the nine kavs MUST be poured - immersing or sitting in them is not enough.]  Nachum Ish Gamzu whispered this to R. Akiva, R. Akiva whispered it to Ben Azai, and Ben Azai went out and taught it to his students in the marketplace.  R. Yosi bar Avin and R. Yosi bar Zevida, two Amoraim from Eretz Yisrael, differed on this: One renders "taught," and the other renders "whispered" [like the version in the gemara].  The one who says "taught," because of neglect of Torah study and because of neglect of procreation [sometimes immersion is not practical and the student will not study at all after being with his wife if he does not know that he could solve his problem with a shower; conversely, because of the difficulty of immersion he may refrain from relations with his wife, and family size will be lessened].  The one who says "whispered" - so that Torah scholars will not frequent their wives like roosters.  R. Yanai said: I have heard of those who are lenient and I have heard of those who are stringent, and those who are stringent, their days and years are lengthened.


... Ezra established that a healthy person who brought the keri on himself [through marital relations] requires forty se'a [a kosher mikva], the sages [Tannaim] established that if the keri came upon a healthy person by chance, nine kavim [is enough].  The Amoraim disputed the case of an ill person: one says [a sick person is just like a healthy one], the other says that an ill person even if he brought the keri on himself is like a healthy person whose keri was incidental, and an ill person whose keri is incidental, is completely exempt.


Rava said, the halakha is that one who brings the keri on himself requires forty se'a whether he is well or ill; a healthy person whose keri is incidental requires [only] nine kavim, and an ill person whose keri is incidental, is completely exempt."


            Bava Kama 82a brings a list of regulations of Ezra (evidently a beraita) which concludes with the requirement of a ba'al keri to immerse before Torah study.




            The entire subject seems rather mysterious.  For one thing, the motivation for the ordination is somewhat cryptic.  One explanation is that brought in the SA itself (88:1).  Yet there are several difficulties with this understanding:


1.  The gemara brings this motivation only as the reason not to publicize the leniency of nine kavim.  However, the requirement of nine kavim itself can only be a result of Ezra's ordinance.  If limiting familiarity is the reason for Ezra's regulation, then according to this Amora the regulation is not achieving its goal, unless part of it is kept secret.


2.  The other Amora thinks that the leniency should be publicized, precisely in order that scholars should not be too distant from their wives.  What is the reason for the regulation according to him?


3.  The list of ordinations of Ezra includes two specifically intended to encourage family living!  Does it make sense that another one should mean to discourage it?


4.  The language of the leniency is that nine kavin make the person "tahor" - suggesting that the immersion or the shower are not meant to be a mere annoyance (to be avoided by limiting keri) but a kind of purification.


5.  "Keri" which is incidental should not require an immersion or even nine kavim, since this requirement will not discourage minimizing marital relations.


            The MB (s.k. 1) gives a different reason for the regulation.  This reason solves all the above problems.  According to this view, we can understand that the issue of minimizing over-familiarity is a SEPARATE issue, relevant to WHICH aspect of Ezra's regulation we teach.  In addition, even "incidental" keri is probably connected to levity.  Yet there are objections even to this reason:


1.  R. Yehuda ben Beteira's leniency is seemingly irrelevant.  The stringent opinion also agrees that the words of Torah are not subject to tum'a!  It merely insists on a proper demeanor for Torah learning.


2.  If the levity which accompanies keri contradicts the proper frame of mind for learning Torah, how does immersion or dousing help matters?


            It seems that, at root, the ordinance of Ezra was meant to induce men to purify themselves after keri before engaging in Torah.  Apparently, this particular kind of tum'a, unlike others, presents a kind of spiritual obstacle to Torah study - as if the words of Torah themselves were subject to it!


            The point the MB makes about "kalut rosh" explains WHY this particular kind of tum'a presents a problem for studying Torah - unlike other tumot, keri is correlated with a person's actions and frame of mind.  In particular, it is associated with levity, which contradicts the gravity needed for receiving the Torah.


            However, this particular spiritual obstacle can be partially removed even without full purification, merely by pouring nine kavim of water on the person.  (Just as it can be completely removed by immersion, even though immersion does not effect ritual purification until nightfall.)  In effect, it IS the tum'a itself which causes problem and that is why dealing with the tum'a helps matters.  (Alternatively, we could say that since immersion is ASSOCIATED with purity, even if it does not accomplish purity because it is before nightfall or because a "shortcut" of nine kavim was used, it puts the person in an appropriate frame of mind.)


            Some scholars felt that it was better if scholars limited their contact with their wives altogether.  They decided it would be better if the leniency of nine kavin were not publicized, except to scrupulous scholars who would only rely on it if immersion were impossible.  Others felt that this would excessively limit family life and Torah learning, so the leniency should be publicized.


            Whereas R. Yehuda ben Beteira seemingly objects even to the ORIGINAL reason for the regulation: tum'a, even tum'at keri, is not an obstacle to Torah study at all!  It is true that the holiness of the Beit HaMikdash obliges us to keep tum'a away from it.  Tum'a is an obstacle to Temple holiness, but the holiness of the Torah is a completely different level.  Temple worship and performance of mitzvot are an interface between the rarefied, pure world of Torah and the coarse material world.  But Torah study itself is not an interface - it is entirely in the realm of sprituality and perfection!


            The conclusion is, that this immersion was eliminated as a requirement, but even so one who practices it lengthens his days and years - meaning that his days are more productive and his life lengthened.  It seems that according to the conclusion, BOTH aspects of Torah learning are present: there is a "nivdal"  (transcendent) element, completely removed from mundane considerations, so that learning Torah is not forbidden to someone who is a ba'al keri.  However, there is ALSO an element of interface and influence of the mundane world in Torah study; therefore it is praiseworthy for a ba'al keri to immerse or at any rate to achieve partial purification through a shower before Torah study.  It is no coincidence that the Chasidim, whose philosophy of Torah most emphasizes an engagement with the material world, are the most scrupulous about immersion before prayer and study.


            Let us go back to the explanation of why specifically keri is an obstacle to Torah learning.  It seems to me that the unique aspect of tum'at keri is that it can come about as the result of a voluntary act.  In general, tum'a is the embodiment of the lack of control we have over our bodies.  A person acts as if his body were under his control, but eventually he will die; a woman is subject to a menstrual cycle, perhaps an irregular one; babies decide to be born when it suits them; a morbid discharge certainly subjects a person to a feeling that his body is out of his control.  Such a state is problematic for entering the Temple, which symbolizes our ability to subdue and direct the material in the service of the spiritual.  But it does not affect Torah learning, because even if our bodies are not in our control, our will itself, which like Torah is in the realm of "nivdal" - transcendence - is not affected.  Keri, on the other hand, involves an amalgam of voluntary and involuntary which in effect symbolizes that we have not succeeded in subduing even our will itself.


            This explanation accords with the fact that involuntary keri is problematic (something the SA's reason does not explain) but is somehow more lenient: there is often a voluntary element in this kind of keri as well, but it is less than the usual kind.  It also explains why the prohibition does not extend to women - who also incur "keri."


            It is possible to harmonize this explanation with that of the SA.  Ezra did not want Torah scholars to frequent their wives like roosters - not regarding the frequency, but regarding the frame of mind.  Marital relations are a serious and holy matter, and customs of holiness such as immersion help induce the appropriate elevated state of mind.




            How much are 9 kabim?  The SA (YD 201) explains that forty se'a is equal to three cubic amot.  A precise Rav Chaim Naeh ama of 48 cm. gives us 332 liters - 8.3 liters/se'a.  Using a Chazon Ish ama of 57.7 cm, we get 576 liters - 14.4 liters/se'a.  A se'a is six kabim, so nine kabim is a se'a and a half - about twelve and a half liters per Rav Naeh, and almost 22 per the Chazon Ish.  A person can measure how many seconds his shower takes to fill a one-liter "natla" (hand-washing cup) and multiply by twelve and a half or by twenty-two.  Then he knows how long he has to shower to comply with "tevilat Ezra" if it is difficult to reach a mikva.  If the shower is so strong that some of the water doesn't land on him at all, the amount of time needs to be adjusted.


            Note that a liter is 1.1 quarts, so according to Rav Naeh about fourteen quarts (three and a half gallons) are needed.  If you look at s.k. 4 in the MB you will see that a Polish quart seems to have been very close to an English one.


(Please note: for an actual ladies' mikva, even 576 liters is not usually considered adequate.)



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