Zavim, Chapter Five, Mishnah Twelve



The final mishnah of this tractate (I’m sure you’re sad we’re done) discusses what things disqualify terumah. These things don’t actually defile the terumah. Rather, the rabbis added a layer of stringency with regard to their impurity such that they would render terumah unfit for use.


Mishnah Twelve

The following disqualify terumah:  

1)      One who eats foods with first degree uncleanness;

a)      Or one who eats food with second degree uncleanness;

b)      And who drinks unclean liquids. 

2)      And the one who has immersed his head and the greater part of him in drawn water;

a)      And a clean person upon whose head and greater part of him there fell three logs of drawn water;

3)      And a scroll [of Holy Scriptures], 

a)      And [unwashed] hands;

4)      And one that has had immersion that same day;

5)      And foods and vessels which have become defiled by liquids.



Section one: From Torah law (deorayta) food and liquid cannot defile a person. Nevertheless, the rabbis decreed that one who eats impure food or drinks impure liquids should be defiled enough such that he would disqualify terumah. This seems to be a way to discourage people who want to eat terumah (kohanim) from eating or drinking impure foods and liquids.

Section two: In order to distinguish between the purity imparted by the waters of the mikveh (which cannot be drawn), and waters that are drawn, the rabbis decreed that a person who either immersed in drawn waters or upon whom drawn waters fell would disqualify terumah. For more information on this see Toharot 4:11.

Section three: We will learn more about these two categories when we learn Tractate Yadayim (after Tevul Yom, which we start learning tomorrow).

Section four: Luckily, the very next tractate is about this category of person, so stay tuned.

Section five: Liquids have greater power to defile than do solids. So if clean food or a vessel has contact with an unclean liquid, the clean food or vessel remains clean but it disqualifies terumah.


Congratulations! We have completed Tractate Zavim!

As I always write, it is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.

Tractate Zavim was not easy, that’s for sure, perhaps one of the most obscure and strange topics we’ve talked about yet. To be honest, I’m not even sure what the larger lessons are that I would draw from the tractate as a whole. Perhaps I might end with some speculation as to why the Torah states that abnormal genital discharge (zivah) defiles. Much has been written about the subject of impurity, and there are many conflicting theories that attempt to explain why things are impure and others are not. In my opinion, the most cogent theory is that impurity seems to be connected largely to moments of birth and death. Birth and death are natural processes in life, but they are fraught with danger and power. Abnormal genital discharge is almost like death—or at least as the Torah may have perceived it to be so. The material was supposed to have the power to create life (semen) but something went wrong. It is also likely that impurity marks transitions. Impurity is neither good nor bad—there is nothing wrong with being impure. But being impure has symbolic significance, and at times, impurity is especially powerful when something is out of place. While this may not explain all forms of impurity, it does explain some of them. For further reading I would suggest looking at the works of Mary Douglas, Jacob Milgrom or Jonathan Klawans.  Impurity can be a much more interesting subject than you might have thought.

As always, a hearty yasher koach upon completing the tractate and keep up the good work. Tomorrow we begin Tevul Yom.