Ohalot, Chapter Sixteen, Mishnah Two
The beginning of the mishnah illustrates the general rules listed in the end of yesterday’s mishnah.
1) How so? A spindle stuck into the wall, with [a portion of corpse] of half an olive-size above it and [a portion of corpse] of half an olive-size below it.
a) Even though one [portion] is not directly [above] the other, [the spindle] becomes unclean.
b) Hence it is found that [a movable object] conveys uncleanness to come upon itself whatever its thickness.
2) A pot seller passes by a grave with a yoke over his shoulder, one end of which overshadows a grave, vessels on the other side remain clean.
a) If the yoke is one handbreadth wide, they become unclean.
3) Mounds which are near to a city or to a road, whether they are new or old, are unclean.
a) [As for those that are] far away, new ones are clean but old ones are unclean.
b) What counts as near? Fifty cubits.
i) And old? Sixty years old, the words of Rabbi Meir.
ii) R. Judah says: Near means there is none nearer than it, and old means that no one remembers [when it was made].
Section one: The mishnah illustrates the principle that a vessel can convey uncleanness to itself through overshadowing even if it is of minimal thickness.
The mishnah describes a small spindle that is stuck into the wall (perhaps for storage) and there is half an olive size of corpse above it and half an olive size below. In other words, the spindle overshadows half and half overshadows it. Even if the two portions of corpse are not one on top of each other, the spindle overshadows one and is overshadowed by the other and therefore serves to join them into one olive and the spindle is impure.
Section two: This section illustrates the principle that vessels don’t convey impurity to other vessels which they overshadow unless they are a handbreadth wide. If the yoke is one handbreadth wide, then it conveys the impurity to the other vessels. If it is not a handbreadth wide then the vessels remain clean.
Section three: This section deals with mounds that are found outside a city. It seems that women would bury their miscarried fetuses in these mounds, and lepers would bury their lost limbs. These fetuses and limbs are impure and therefore the mounds, under certain circumstances, must be treated as impure.
The impurity of the mound depends on two factors: its proximity to the city and its age. The closer it is to the city, the more likely it is that people buried fetuses or limbs there. And the older it is, the more likely that people forgot whether or not anything was buried there.
A mound that is close to the city whether or not it is old is impure; but if it is far from the city it is impure only if it is old.
Rabbi Meir provides objective numbers for “near” and “old.” For a mound to be near, it must be within fifty cubits. And for it to be “old” it must be sixty years old, which probably is the upper end of how long a person might live during that period.
Rabbi Judah provides relative numbers. A mound is close if it is the closest mound to the city, for people will be likely to bury their fetuses and limbs there. So if there is one mound that is 25 cubits away and another that is 35, only the one 25 cubits away is impure. Likewise, if the closest mound is 100 cubits away, it is impure.
And “old” means that no one remembers when the mound was made. There is no way of giving an objective age.