Corpse uncleanness (Hebrew: tum'at met) is a state of ritual uncleanness described in Jewish halachic law. It is the highest grade of uncleanness, or defilement, and is contracted by having either directly or indirectly touched, carried or shifted a dead human body,[1] or after having entered a roofed house or chamber where the corpse of a Jew is lying (conveyed by overshadowing).

Corpse uncleanness is first described in the Books of the Law conveyed by Moses to the nation of Israel, and where, for example, in Numbers 31:19,[2] is the requisite to allow for a seven-day purification period after making physical contact with a human corpse.

Grades of uncleanness

The Mishnah describes several grades of uncleanness. The human corpse itself is the most severe of them all, known as the "Father of fathers of all uncleanness" (prime origin). The person who touches a human corpse contracts a lower grade of uncleanness, known as the "Father of uncleanness" (Avi HaTum'ah).[3] Once he has been defiled, if he touches any other human being, or foods and drinks, he renders them unclean (defiled) at a second remove, making them contract the First-grade level of uncleanness.[4]

A dead human's bone the size of a barley grain, and a dead human's severed flesh the size of an olive's bulk are enough to convey corpse uncleanness when touched or carried.[5][6] They do not, however, convey defilement by overshadowing.[7]

During the time of the Second Temple , those persons who were defiled by the dead and who had not yet purified themselves by the ashes of the red heifer followed by immersion in a ritual bath were prohibited from entering the Court of the Israelites (inner court), located on the Temple Mount.[8][9] Today, in Jewish law, the same stringency is said to apply.[10]

Defilement by overshadowing

Defilement by overshadowing (tumat ohel) applies to cases where the deceased person was of Israelite ancestry, but does not apply to corpses of Gentiles, unless physically touched.[11] Where there were two houses divided by an adjoining wall and the corpse lay in one house (i.e. "overshadowed" by that house), if there was a hole or crevice in the dividing wall the size of a handbreadth in diameter, or what is approximately 8 cm. (3.1 inches) to 9 cm. (3.5 inches) (Hebrew: פותח טפח), defilement by the corpse passes to the other house as well.[12] Any opening less than this defiles by a rabbinic decree. All liquids that came in contact with the airspace of that house are considered contaminated and must be poured out.[13]

The laws of overshadowing apply to a fully-grown human corpse, as well as to an aborted fetus.[14] It may also apply to wherever there is a quantity of at least two-handfuls of "rottenness" from a decayed corpse (bones and flesh).[14] However, a human bone the size of a barley-grain is not enough to convey corpse uncleanness by overshadowing.[15]

A quarter-log of blood (equivalent to the volume of 1½ eggs) from any dead human is enough to convey corpse uncleanness to a house if it came within the house.[16]

Priestly laws

A Jew who is descended from a line of the priestly class known as Kohen is not allowed to intentionally come into contact with a dead body, nor approach too closely to graves within a Jewish cemetery. An ordinary priest of Aaron's lineage is, however, permitted to contract corpse uncleanness for any of his seven closest relatives that have died (father, mother, brother, unwedded sister, son, daughter, or wife),[17] including a married sister by a rabbinic injunction.[18]

Jewish priests were especially susceptible to contracting corpse uncleanness, due to the unmarked graves in foreign lands. Since they were required by a biblical injunction to eat their bread-offering (Terumah) in a state of ritual purity, and they could hardly know if they had trampled upon an unmarked grave, this prompted the early rabbis to decree a general-state of defilement upon all foreign lands.[19] Public roads in the land of Israel, however, were assumed to be clean from corpse defilement, unless one knew for certain that he had touched human remains.[20]


The impurity that is caused by the dead is considered the ultimate impurity, one which cannot be purified through the waters of an ablution alone (mikvah). Human corpse uncleanness requires an interlude of seven days, accompanied by purification through sprinkling of the ashes of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer.[21] However, the law is inactive, since neither the Temple in Jerusalem nor the red heifer are currently in existence, though without the latter, a Jew is forbidden to ascend to the site of the former. All are currently assumed to possess the impurity caused by touching a corpse.[22]

Purification was required in the nation of Israel during Biblical times for the ceremonially unclean so that they would not defile God's tabernacle and put themselves in a position where they would become liable to extirpation (the act of being cut-off from Israel). An Israelite could become unclean by handling a dead body. In this situation, the uncleanness would last for at least seven days, until he could be purified again. Part of the cleansing process would be washing the body and clothes, and the unclean person would need to be sprinkled with the water of purification,[23] without which he remains in a state of uncleanness and passes on defilement by touch to other persons.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah (Hil. Tum'ath Met 1:7)
  2. ^ Numbers 31:19
  3. ^ Mishnah, Kelim 1:1 (in Danby's edition of the Mishnah, p. 604)
  4. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 37b), citing Numbers 19:22: "And whatsoever the unclean person touches shall be unclean." The rabbis decreed that if a person defiled by the dead had touched another person, the person who had been touched is under a seven-day period of defilement, and cannot eat of Terumah or hallowed things until that period had expired (cf. BT Nazir 42b).
  5. ^ Maimonides (1965). Mishnah, with Maimonides' Commentary (in Hebrew). Vol. 2. Translated by Yosef Qafih. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook. p. 130., s.v. Nazirut 7:2. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kama 25b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah (Hil. Tum'ath Met 2:4)
  6. ^ Mishnah (Ohelot 2:3 [p. 652])
  7. ^ Maimonides (1967). Mishnah, with Maimonides' Commentary (in Hebrew). Vol. 3 (Ohelot 2:3). Translated by Yosef Qafih. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook. p. 153. OCLC 13551391.
  8. ^ Aharon HaLevi, Sefer ha-Chinuch, section # 362, on Numbers 5:1–3; Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whiston, A.M. Auburn and Buffalo. John E. Beardsley: 1895, s.v. Antiquities 3.11.3. The Mishnah (Kereitot 2:1) mentions four persons designated as "lacking in the atonement" (Hebrew: מחוסרי כפרה), e.g. the leper, the man who had a repetitive and uncontrollable seminal flux, the woman who had a profuse menstrual flow of blood for several days beyond her period of natural purgation, the woman after childbirth (postpartum). Such people remain in a state of uncleanness until they have immersed and brought their sacrificial animals for atonement. Persons who are defiled by corpse uncleanness are similar to them, in that they, too, remain in a perpetual state of uncleanness until they can be sprinkled twice with the water of purification and immerse in a ritual bath (Sifrei on Numbers 5:1-3).
  9. ^ Mishnah, Kelim 1:8 (in Danby's edition of the Mishnah, p. 606). There is more lenient teaching in the Midrash HaGadol (Be'shelach) where it was learnt from Moses who carried with him the bones of Joseph that persons defiled from the dead were permitted to enter the Court of the Israelites and of the Levites (Moses being a Levite), but not the Court of the Priests.
  10. ^ Ovadiah Yosef, Questions & Responsa Yabia' 'Omer, part 5, responsum # 15, end of letter "beth"; ibid, responsum # 26; Ovadiah Yosef, Questions & Responsa Yeḥaveh Da'at, part 1, responsum # 25; Yitzhak Yosef, Yilqūt Yosef, Section Mo'adim, Hil. Chol Ha-Mo'ed, §4
  11. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 61a); Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Tum'ath Met 1:13; 9:4), ibid. (Hil. Avel 3:3); Tur / Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 372:2)
  12. ^ Mishnah (Ohalot 13:4–5)
  13. ^ Numbers 19:14–15
  14. ^ a b Meiri (2006). Daniel Bitton (ed.). Beit HaBechirah (Chiddushei ha-Meiri) (in Hebrew). Vol. 3. Jerusalem: Hamaor Institute. pp. 10–11. OCLC 181631040., Mo'ed Ḳaṭan 5b, s.v. כבר ביארנו‎.
  15. ^ Meiri (2006). Daniel Bitton (ed.). Beit HaBechirah (Chiddushei ha-Meiri) (in Hebrew). Vol. 3. Jerusalem: Hamaor Institute. p. 11. OCLC 181631040., Mo'ed Ḳaṭan 5b, s.v. כל אלו מטמאין באהל‎.
  16. ^ Meiri (2006). Daniel Bitton (ed.). Beit HaBechirah (Chiddushei ha-Meiri) (in Hebrew). Vol. 7. Jerusalem: Hamaor Institute., s.v. Sanhedrin 4b; Maimonides (1974). Sefer Mishneh Torah - HaYad Ha-Chazakah (Maimonides' Code of Jewish Law) (in Hebrew). Vol. 5. Jerusalem: Pe'er HaTorah., s.v. Hil. Tum'at met 4:1
  17. ^ Sefer ha-Chinuch ("Book of Education"), section # 263, Jerusalem: Eshkol Publishers; Leviticus 21:1–3
  18. ^ Babylonian Talmud (Mo'ed Ḳaṭan 20b)
  19. ^ Maimonides (1967). Mishnah, with Maimonides' Commentary (in Hebrew). Vol. 3 (Ohelot 2:3). Translated by Yosef Qafih. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook. p. 153. OCLC 13551391., Maimonides, s.v. וארץ העמים
  20. ^ Maimonides (1965). Mishnah, with Maimonides' Commentary (in Hebrew). Vol. 2 (Eduyoth 8:4). Translated by Yosef Qafih. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook. p. 222., Eduyoth 8:4, s.v. ודיקרב למיתא מסאב (in commentary).
  21. ^ Numbers 19:11, 19:16
  22. ^ Rutta, Matt (30 March 2008). "Shemini/Parah (The smell of burning death)". Rabbinic Rambling. Retrieved 2009-05-06.
  23. ^ Rowman, Altamira (2004). The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Torah. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 241. ISBN 0-9644279-6-6. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  24. ^ Sifrei on Numbers 19