Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s requirement in Parashat Tetzaveh to add special embroidering around the neckline of the kohen gadol’s me’il (robe) to ensure that the neckline would not rip – “lo yikarei’a.” The Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (72a) interprets this phrase as introducing a prohibition against tearing any of the priestly garments. This prohibition is listed by the Rambam as one of the 613 Biblical commands (88).
The Gemara’s implication is that all priestly garments are treated equally in this regard, and the Torah prohibition forbids tearing any of them, even though the command “lo yikarei’a” is written in the particular context of the me’il. The Rambam, however, in codifying this prohibition in Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash (9:3), writes that one who tears the me’il violates this Biblical command, and then adds that one who tears one of the other bigdei kehuna (priestly garments) in a destructive manner – “derekh hashchata” – is liable for a Torah violation. According to the Rambam, it appears, tearing the me’il is forbidden under any circumstances, whereas tearing other bigdei kehuna is forbidden only when this is done for a destructive purpose.
Rav Moshe Galanti, in his Korban Chagiga (cited by the Mishneh Le-melekh in Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash), suggests drawing proof to this distinction drawn by the Rambam from the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Zevachim (94b-95a) concerning the case of sacrificial blood which splattered on one’s garments. The Torah in Sefer Vayikra (6:20) requires washing the garment in the courtyard of the Beit Ha-mikdash. The Mishna there in Zevachim addresses the case where such a garment was mistakenly taken outside the area of the Beit Ha-mikdash, where it became tamei (ritually impure, such as by coming in contact with a human corpse). This situation poses a dilemma, as the sacrificial blood must be rinsed in the Temple courtyard, but it is forbidden to bring an impure garment into the area of the Temple. The Mishna rules that the garment in such a case should be torn such that it loses its formal status as a “garment” and thus is no longer considered tamei and may thus be brought into the Temple courtyard for laundering. The Gemara then cites Reish Lakish as noting that if this garment was the kohen gadol’s robe, it may not be torn. Reish Lakish therefore proposes a different solution, ruling that the garment should be brought back into the Temple courtyard gradually, one stage at a time, such that the piece of garment brought it at any single point is smaller than the minimum required size for violating the prohibition of bringing impurity into the Temple.
Rav Galanti finds it significant that Reish Lakish chose the specific example of the me’il in addressing this case. If the prohibition against tearing applies equally to all bigdei kehuna, then Reish Lakish should have spoken generically of a priestly garment that was splattered with sacrificial blood and subsequently removed from the Temple and then became tamei. The fact that he mentioned specifically the me’il would seem to indicate that this dilemma arises only when this happened to a me’il, and not to one of the other bigdei kehuna, because other priestly garments are allowed to be torn in such a case. Since the tearing is done in this case for a constructive purpose – to permit bringing the garment back into the Temple so it can be washed there, as the Torah requires – it is permissible. Only in the case of the me’il, which may not be torn under any circumstances, even for a constructive purpose, are we left without the solution of tearing the garment to divest it of its impurity. Accordingly, Reish Lakish’s comment lends support to the Rambam’s view, distinguishing between the me’il and other bigdei kehuna, and permitting tearing the latter for constructive purposes but not the former.
The Minchat Chinukh (101) discusses this analysis at length, and refutes Rav Galanti’s proof from Reish Lakish’s ruling. It is possible, the Minchat Chinukh contends, to explain Reish Lakish’s comment even if one disputes the Rambam’s position and maintains that tearing even the me’il is allowed for a constructive purpose. In the Minchat Chinukh’s view, when one tears a garment to divest it of its status of impurity, this is considered a destructive act even if it is done for the purpose of a mitzva. The Minchat Chinukh draws a comparison to the case discussed in Masekhet Sanhedrin (113a) of an ir ha-nidachat (idolatrous city which must be burned) which has a mezuza on one or more its homes. According to one view, the city cannot be destroyed, since the mezuza – which contains the Name of God – may not be burned. The underlying assumption is that burning a mezuza is forbidden even when this is done for the purpose of a mitzva – in this case, to fulfill the command to destroy an ir ha-nidachat. By the same token, the Minchat Chinukh argues, tearing an impure priestly garment so it loses its status of impurity to enable fulfilling the mitzva of laundering it in the Beit Ha-mikdash would qualify as a forbidden destructive act – even though this is done for a mitzva. Accordingly, the Minchat Chinukh writes, one could, conceivably, claim that Reish Lakish mentioned the me’il as just one example of a priestly garment, and maintained that all bigdei kehuna may be torn for a constructive purpose. In the case under discussion, however, the tearing would not be regarded as constructive, and would therefore be forbidden. As such, Reish Lakish’s ruling does not provide support for the distinction drawn by the Rambam between the me’il and other bigdei kehuna.