Before the flood, God instructed Noach to bring with him onto the ark two of every non-kosher animal species – a male and a female – and seven pairs of every kosher species of animal (7:2). As we read later (8:20), Noach used some of the kosher animals as sacrifices which he offered to God upon exiting the ark after the flood.
The Torah here refers to the different groups of animals as “tehora” (“pure”) and “asher lo tehora” (“which is not pure”). The Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (3a) famously observes that the Torah went out of its way to use the cumbersome expression “asher lo tehora” in reference to the non-kosher animals, instead of the much simpler word “temei’a” (“impure”). On this basis, the Gemara teaches that one should avoid speaking a “davar meguneh” – meaning, using unbecoming or unrefined language. If the Torah found it appropriate to avoid even the seemingly innocuous term “tamei” in favor of the lengthier but more delicate expression “asher lo tehora,” then we should certainly choose respectable, dignified words with which to express ourselves.
Many commentators raised the obvious question as to how to explain, in light of the Gemara’s remark, the Torah’s frequent use of the word “tamei” in other contexts. Whereas here the Torah avoids this word in reference to non-kosher animals, in Sefer Vayikra (11), where the Torah elaborates on the laws governing kosher and non-kosher animals, this word is used numerous times. Why is it only in the context of Noach’s preparations for the flood that the word “tamei” is avoided in favor of the less convenient but more refined expression “asher lo tehora”?
Apparently, the precise application of the Gemara’s teaching – that we must avoid “davar meguneh” – depends on context. The Torah’s discussion in Sefer Vayikra appears amidst a lengthy, detailed section outlining the laws of tum’a and tahara – purity and impurity – as these statuses affect the Mishkan and the sacrifices. The intent of this section is to establish the need to distance tum’a from the Mishkan and its rituals, to preserve its sanctity by barring anything impure from its territory. In this context, it is indeed fully appropriate to use the word “tamei” as the label assigned to that which must be distanced from the Sanctuary. As these laws are specifically designed to establish the need to keep impurity away from the Mishkan, the Torah uses the direct term “impure” in order to underscore its incompatibility with the sacred domain of the Mishkan. Here in Parashat Noach, however, the context is the interest in preserving all animal species, regardless of their status vis-à-vis the laws of purity. The focus here is not on the relatively negative aspect of non-kosher animals – their disqualification for consumption and for use as sacrifices – but to the contrary, the need for them to be kept alive during the flood. Therefore, in this context, even when it became necessary to distinguish between the pure and impure animals, the Torah found it appropriate to “downplay” the impure nature of the latter group. Here, the Torah focuses on these animals’ importance as part of the natural world which needed to be protected from the flood, and so the Torah went out of its way to use a more delicate expression rather than the term tamei which has a more directly negative association.