The Book of Deuteronomy records the statement declared by the ancient Israelites upon fulfilling the mitzvah of tithing. Within this declaration it is written: “I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead....” (Deuteronomy 26:14). This particular verse offers an excellent opportunity to reflect upon the term “unclean.”
The Hebrew word tameh does not have an accurate English translation. It actually refers to the state of one’s spiritual rather than one’s physical being. It is most frequently translated in English as “unclean” or “impure” because one who is tameh may not participate in certain sanctified rituals or enter the Temple. The opposite of being tameh is to be tahor, which is equally inaccurately translated as “clean” or “pure.” These translations are reinforced by the fact that one must go through a ritual cleansing process in order to go from tameh to tahor.
The reason, perhaps, that there is no proper translation for tameh and tahor is that both these terms reflect a metaphysical state of being related to life. The “energy” that is often referred to as one’s life force is a flow of Divine energy. When someone (or anything living) dies and loses that Divine energy, those who come in contact with it become tameh.
Being in mourning after the loss of a close relative and having contact with death can both have a profound effect on one’s spiritual and emotional ability to connect to the Divine, which, in turn, can affect a person’s ability to fulfill a mitzvah properly. On a simplified level, this is the fundamental meaning of the biblical term “unclean” or “impure.”
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