Ohalot, Chapter Sixteen, Mishnah One
Today’s mishnah deals with how thick vessels need to be for them to convey uncleanness from a corpse to other vessels which they overshadow.
1) All movable things convey uncleanness when they are of the thickness of an ox-goad.
2) Rabbi Tarfon said: May I [see the] demise of my sons if this is [not] a demised halakhah which someone heard and misunderstood.
a) For a farmer was passing by and over his shoulder was an ox-goad, and one end overshadowed a grave. He was declared unclean on account of vessels that were overshadowing a corpse.
3) Rabbi Akiva said: I can fix [the halakhah] so that the words of the sages can exist [as they are]:
a) All movable things convey uncleanness to come upon a person carrying them, when they are of the thickness of an ox-goad;
b) Upon themselves when they are of whatever thickness;
c) And upon other men or vessels [which they overshadow] when they are one handbreadth wide.
Section one: In this section we learn of an older tradition according to which a vessel needs to be only as thick as an ox-goad in order to convey uncleanness. This means that if one end overshadows a source of corpse impurity and the other end overshadows vessels, it conveys impurity from the corpse to the vessels.
An ox-goad has a circumference of one handbreadth, but it does not have a width of one handbreadth. This is stated directly in Kelim 17:8.
Section two: Rabbi Tarfon bitterly objects to this halakhah, claiming that it is the result of a misunderstood story. A person heard that someone carrying an ox-goad which overshadows a dead body conveys impurity to the person carrying it, but he didn’t properly understand the reason. The story goes as follows. A farmer was carrying an ox-goad and one end of the ox-goad overshadowed a grave. When he came in front of some sages, they declared him impure. However, this is not because a vessel that is less than a handbreadth conveys impurity to another vessel that it overshadows. Rather, the ox-goad itself was made impure by overshadowing a corpse. For this to happen, the ox-goad does not need to be a handbreadth. The farmer touched the ox-goad and was defiled because a vessel that has corpse impurity defiles a person (see 1:3). The person who heard that the farmer was impure thought that it was because the ox-goad overshadowed the person and therefore he said that a vessel need only be as thick as an ox-goad to convey impurity.
Section three: Rabbi Akiva acts as the traditionalist and a type of peace maker. He wishes to preserve the accuracy of the statement transmitted in section one, without changing the halakhah that for a vessel to convey uncleanness it must be a handbreadth wide. He now proceeds to outline three halakhot.
If someone is carrying a vessel that is as thick as an ox-goad (less than a handbreadth) and the vessel overshadows a corpse, even though the person didn’t actually touch the vessel and it only touched his clothes, and the person should only be impure until the evening as is the rule when a person touches a vessel that touched another vessel that had contact with a corpse (see 1:2), nevertheless the sages declared that such a person is impure for seven days due to the uncleanness of an ohel. In other words, Rabbi Akiva says that when the rabbis stated the halakhah in section one, it was a stringency related only to that situation.
When it comes to the impurity of the vessel itself, a vessel that overshadows a corpse is impure even if it is less than a handbreadth in width.
Finally, for the vessel to convey uncleanness from the source of corpse impurity to other vessels it overshadows, it must be at least a handbreadth in width. This shows clearly that there is no debate between him and Rabbi Tarfon.