Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts of the twelfth class are those which we have enumerated in the section on "Purity" (Sefer tohorah). Although we have mentioned their use in general, we will here offer an additional explanation, and [first] fully
discuss the object of the whole class, and then show the reason of each single commandment, as far as we have been able to discover it. I maintain that the Law which was revealed to Moses, our Teacher, and which is called by his name, aims at facilitating the service and lessening the burden, and if a person complains that certain precepts cause him pain and great trouble, he cannot have thought of the habits and doctrines that were general in those days. Let him consider the difference between a man burning his own son in serving his god, and our burning a pigeon to the service of our God. Scripture relates, for even their sons and their daughters they burn in the fire to their gods (Deut. xii. 31). This was the way in which the heathen worshipped their gods, and instead of such a sacrifice we have the burning of a pigeon or a handful of flour in our worship. In accordance with this fact, the Israelites, when disobedient, were rebuked by God as follows: "O My people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me" (Mic. vi. 3). Again, "Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? a land of darkness? Wherefore say my people, We are miserable; we will come no more unto thee" (Jer. ii. 31); that is to say, Through which of the commandments has the Law become burdensome to the Israelites, that they renounce it? In the same manner God asks the people, "What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me?" etc. (ibid. ii. 5). All these passages express one and the same idea.
This is the great principle which you must never lose sight of. After having stated this principle, I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command, "You shall reverence my sanctuary" (Lev. xix. 30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words: "Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend" (Prov. xxv. 17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean. For even if a person does not touch a beast that died of its own accord (Lev. xi. 27), he can scarcely avoid touching one of the eight kinds of creeping animals (ibid. 29, seq.), the dead bodies of which we find at all times in houses, in food and drink, and upon which we frequently tread wherever we walk; and, if he avoids touching these, he may touch a woman in her separation (ibid. xv. 18), or a male or female that have a running issue (ibid. ver. 1, seq. and 25, seq.), or a leper (ibid. xiii. 46), or their bed (ibid. xv. 5). Escaping these, he may become unclean by cohabitation with his wife, or by pollution (ibid. 15), and even when he has cleansed himself from any of these kinds of uncleanliness, he cannot enter the Sanctuary till after sunset; but not being enabled to enter the Sanctuary at night time, although he is clean after sunset, as may be inferred from Middot and Tamid, he is again, during the night, subject to becoming unclean either by cohabiting with his wife or by some other source of uncleanliness, and may rise in the morning in the same condition as the day before. All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well known, said, "Even a clean person may not enter the
[paragraph continues] Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath." By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.
The easier the diffusion of uncleanliness is, the more difficult and the more retarded is its purification. Most easily is uncleanliness communicated by the dead body to those who are under the same roof, especially to relatives. The purification can only be completed by means of the ashes of the red heifer, however scarce it may be, and only in seven days (Num. xix. 11). The uncleanness caused by a woman having running issue or during her separation is more frequent than that caused by contact with unclean objects: seven days are therefore required for their purification (Lev. xv. 19, 28), whilst those that touch them are only unclean one day (ibid. vii. 18). Males or females that are unclean through running issue, and a woman after childbirth, must in addition bring a sacrifice, because their uncleanness occurs less frequently than that of women in their separation. All these cases of uncleanliness, viz., running issue of males or females, menstruations, leprosy, dead bodies of human beings, carcases of beasts and creeping things, and issue of semen, are sources of dirt and filth. We have thus shown that the above precepts are very useful in many respects. First, they keep us at a distance from dirty and filthy objects; secondly, they guard the Sanctuary; thirdly, they pay regard to an established custom (for the Sabeans submitted to very troublesome restrictions when unclean, as you will soon hear); fourthly, they lightened that burden for us; for we are not impeded through these laws in our ordinary occupations by the distinction the Law makes between that which is unclean and that which is clean. For this distinction applies only in reference to the Sanctuary and the holy objects connected with it: it does not apply to other cases. "She shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the Sanctuary" (Lev. xii. 4). Other persons [that do not intend to enter the Sanctuary or touch any holy thing], are not guilty of any sin if they remain unclean as long as they like, and eat, according to their pleasure, ordinary food that has been in contact with unclean things. But the practice of the Sabeans, even at present general in the East, among the few still left of the Magi, was to keep a menstruous woman in a house by herself, to burn that upon which she treads, and to consider as unclean every one that speaks with her: even if a wind passed over her and a clean person, the latter was unclean in the eyes of the Sabeans. See the difference between this practice and our rule, that "whatever services a wife generally does to her husband, she may do to him in her separation"; only cohabitation is prohibited during the days of her uncleanness. Another custom among the Sabeans, which is still widespread, is this: whatever is separated from the body, as hair, nail, or blood, is unclean; every barber is therefore unclean in their estimation, because he touches blood and hair; whenever a person passes a razor over his skin he must take a bath in running water. Such burdensome practices were numerous among the Sabeans, whilst we apply the laws that distinguish between the unclean and the clean only with regard to hallowed things and to the Sanctuary. The divine words, "And ye shall sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy" (Lev. xi. 44), do not refer to these laws at all. According to Sifra, they refer to sanctity by obedience to God's commandments.
[paragraph continues] The same interpretation is given in Sifra of the words, "Ye shall be holy, "i.e. obedient to His commandments (xix. 2). Hence the transgression of commandments is also called uncleanliness or defilement. This term is especially used of the chief and principal crimes, which are idolatry, adultery, and murder. In reference to idolatry it is said, "He hath given of his seed unto Molech to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name" (ibid. xx. 3). In reference to adultery we read, "Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things" (ibid. xviii. 24), and Defile not the land" (Num. xxxv. 34) in reference to murder. It is therefore clear that the term "defilement" [or uncleanliness] is used homonymously of three things: 1. Of man's violation and transgression of that which he is commanded as regards his actions and his opinions. 2. Of dirt and filth: comp. "Her filthiness in her skirts" (Lam. i. 9). 3. Of the above-named imaginary defilement such as touching and carrying certain objects, or being with them under the same roof. In reference to the third kind, our Sages said, The words of the Law are not subject to becoming unclean (B. T. Ber. 224). In the same manner the term "holiness" is used homonymously of three things corresponding to the three kinds of uncleanness. As uncleanness caused by a dead body could only be removed after seven days, by means of the ashes of the red heifer, and the priests had constantly occasion to enter the Sanctuary, the Law exceptionally forbids them to defile themselves by a dead body (Lev. xxi. 1), except in cases where defilement is necessary, and the contrary would be unnatural. For it would be unnatural to abstain from approaching the dead body of a parent, child, or brother. As it was very necessary that the high-priest should always be in the Sanctuary, in accordance with the Divine command, "And it shall always be on his forehead" (Exod. xxviii. 38), he was not permitted to defile himself by any dead body whatever, even of the above-named relatives (Lev. xxi. 10-12). Women were not engaged in sacrificial service; the above law consequently does not apply to women; it is addressed to "the sons of Aaron," and not to "the daughters of Aaron." It was, however, impossible to assume that none of the Israelites made a mistake, by entering the Sanctuary, or eating hallowed things in a state of uncleanliness. It was even possible that there were persons who did this knowingly, since there are wicked people who commit knowingly even the greatest crimes; for this reason certain sacrifices were commanded as an atonement for the defilement of the Sanctuary and its hallowed things. They were of different kinds; some of them atoned for defilement caused ignorantly, others for defilement caused knowingly. For this purpose were brought the goats on the Festivals and the New-moon days (Num. xxviii. 15, 27, etc.), and the goat sent away on the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi. 16), as is explained in its place (Mishnah Shebnot, i. 4). These sacrifices serve to prevent those who defiled the Sanctuary of the Lord knowingly from thinking that they had not done a great wrong; they should know that they obtained atonement by the sacrifice of the goat, as the Law says, "That they die not in their uncleanness" (Lev. xv. 31); "That Aaron may bear the iniquity of the holy things" (Exod. xxviii. 38). This idea is frequently repeated.
The uncleanness through leprosy we have already explained. Our Sages have also clearly stated the meaning thereof. All agree that leprosy is a
punishment for slander. The disease begins in the walls of the houses (Lev. xiv. 33, seq.). If the sinner repents, the object is attained: if he remains in his disobedience, the disease affects his bed and house furniture: if he still continues to sin, the leprosy attacks his own garments, and then his body. This is a miracle received in our nation by tradition, in the same manner as the effect of the trial of a faithless wife (Num. v. ii, seq.). The good effect of this belief is evident. Leprosy is besides a contagious disease, and people almost naturally abhor it, and keep away from it. The purification was effected by cedar-wood, hyssop, scarlet thread, and two birds (Lev. xiv. 4); their reason is stated in various Midrashic sayings, but the explanation does not agree with our theory. I do not know at present the reason of any of these things; nor why cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet were used in the sacrifice of the red heifer (Num. xix. 6); nor why a bundle of hyssop was commanded for the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover-lamb (Exod. xii. 22). I cannot find any principle upon which to found an explanation why these particular things have been chosen.
The red heifer is called a sin-offering, because it effects the purification of persons that have become unclean through the dead body of a human being, and enables them to enter the Sanctuary [and to eat of hallowed things]. The idea taught by this law is this: Those who have defiled themselves would never be allowed to enter the Sanctuary, or to partake of holy things, were it not for the sacrifice of the red heifer, by which this sin is removed; in the same manner as the plate [which the high-priest wears on his forehead] atones for uncleanness, and as a similar object is attained by the goats that are burnt. For this reason those were unclean who were engaged in the sacrifice of the heifer or the goats which were burnt, and even their garments were unclean. The same was the law in the case of the goat that was sent away [on the Day of Atonement]; for it was believed that it made unclean those who touched it, because it carried off so many sins.
We have now mentioned the reasons for those commandments of this class, for which we were able to give a satisfactory reason according to our view.