Truly Tamei?

Vayehi anashim asher hayu temei’im l’nefesh adam (Bamidbar 9:6).

When the time arrived to offer the korban Pesach in the wilderness, there was a group of people who were temei’im (ritually impure) and therefore ineligible to perform this mitzvah. They approached Moshe to lament their inability to participate, questioning why their status should cause them to miss out on this mitzvah.

Moshe told them that he would consult Hashem for guidance, and Hashem responded by teaching the mitzvah of Pesach Sheini (the second Passover offering), which offers a second chance to those who were unable to bring a korban Pesach because they were impure or too far away. The Gemara (Sukkah 25a) discusses the identity of these impure individuals, with one opinion stating that they were the people tasked with transporting the bones of Yosef from Egypt to Israel, and another opinion maintaining that they were the men who buried Nadav and Avihu.

The Satmar Rebbe Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, raises two difficulties with this episode. First, the Gemara’s need to identify these individuals, and the precise source of their impurity seems to imply that the presence of such impure people was unusual, when in fact the laws of nature were not suspended in the wilderness; and in a group of millions of Jews, death and its resulting tumah was a regular occurrence. As such, there should have been many Jews in this predicament; why did the Gemara specifically need to identify them as having become impure either through contact with Yosef or with Nadav and Avihu?

Additionally, the claim of these people that they were being unfairly treated due to their tamei status is also hard to understand. A Jew who is impure is disqualified from performing many mitzvos, not as a punishment, but due to basic legal requirements. If so, what were the grounds for the complaint that these individuals presented to Moshe and Aharon?

Tosefos (Bava Metzia 114b) discuss the question of whether tzaddikim (righteous individuals) who have died transmit impurity. Although this is a fascinating concept which is mentioned in some Midrashic sources, Tosefos maintain that it does not have any basis in halachah (Jewish law); and every Jew who dies — no matter how great and holy he was — imparts tumah, and a Kohen is forbidden to have any contact with them.

The Satmar Rebbe suggests that in reality, a truly righteous individual is so pure that even after he dies, his body does not possess any impurity. However, halachah does not establish rules and guidelines that require knowledge of the innermost depths of a person’s heart in order to evaluate them. Therefore, even though in theory a tzaddik should not transmit tumah, because it is impossible for us to determine who is genuinely a tzaddik, in practical terms we do not discriminate and must view all dead bodies equally. Nevertheless, although we have no choice but to treat all dead bodies as sources of impurity, in Heaven it is known who is truly a tzaddik and completely pure.

With this novel insight, the Satmar Rebbe explains that in the case of the tamei individuals who approached Moshe, the law was clear: They were considered impure due to their contact with the dead. Nevertheless, they argued to Moshe that he knew how great Yosef was, as we hold him up as the paradigm of righteousness in referring to him as Yosef Hatzaddik, and how great Nadav and Avihu were, as Moshe himself described them (Rashi Vayikra 10:3) as being even greater than he and Aharon were.

If so, why should they lose out on the opportunity to bring a korban Pesach when it was clear that in Heaven, Yosef, Nadav and Avihu were completely tehorim (pure) and did not impart any impurity to them? This is alluded to by their use of the unusual expression “anachnu temei’im l’nefesh adam — we are impure through the soul of man,” instead of the more precise “anachnu temei’im l’meis — we are impure through a dead body.” The Zohar Hakadosh teaches that of the many Hebrew words that refer to a person, the term adam is used to connote a respected and important individual, which is the point that they were trying to make.

In light of this explanation, the Satmar Rebbe explains that the aforementioned difficulties with this episode are now resolved, as the ability to present this challenge to Moshe was unique to these individuals, whose only “impurity” was due to their contact with either Yosef or with Nadav and Avihu, but those Jews who had become temei’im through contact with those who died naturally in the wilderness didn’t have any grounds to make this complaint.

Similarly, those who made this argument were not bothered by the law excluding an impure person from performing certain mitzvos, but rather were claiming that they shouldn’t miss out on this important mitzvah when they weren’t truly temei’im altogether.

Q: The Torah records (12:13) that Moshe prayed on behalf of his ill sister Miriam. Why do we pray for the healing of a sick person using his mother’s name?

A: The Maharshal and Chasam Sofer suggest that we pray using the name of the sick person’s mother because we are certain about the identity of the mother, while paternity may only be assumed based on probability. The Ben Yehoyada questions this reason, arguing that it is degrading to imply that the identity of a person’s father is in doubt. However, this explanation is supported by the Zohar Hakadosh.

Alternatively, the Ben Ish Chai maintains that we use the mother’s name because the sick person needs as many merits as possible, and the mother is less likely to have Heavenly accusations against her, as she is exempt from most positive time-bound mitzvos, as well as from the mitzvah of Torah study.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email