One of my oldest friends from Hebrew school at Temple Beth Shalom synagogue in Haddon Heights and Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is Rabbi David Ari Schuck. He now lives on Long Island where he has a congregation at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY. Last year his father, Marvin Schuck z'l, passed away. In honor of his father, he asked people to study Mishnah in his honor. According to Wikipedia “The Mishnah or Mishna is the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah. It is also the first major work of rabbinic literature.” It was easy to sign up online, so I looked around and found one that was short. Only four chapters. Called Tevul Yom. How tough could it be?
The first hint that I might have chosen a difficult tractate came when my junior counselor from Camp Ramah in the Poconos from 1988 commented that he was excited to hear what I thought of Tevul Yomi. While I am a Jewish professional, my Mishnah skills are limited. But I persevered. I will get through this. So I found the first chapter and dove in. "If one had collected hallah [portions] with the intention of keeping them separate, but in the meantime they had become stuck together: Bet Shammai say: they are connected in the case of a tevul yom.”(Courtesy of Sefaria) OK. I know it was translated from Hebrew, but I have no idea what this means.
I reached out to my friend in Kansas City, Rabbi David Glickman, and told him my quandary. "Why did you choose that one he asked?" I told him it seemed short. "Ok, well you have found one of the most intricate tractates in the Mishnah. In the days of the temple, the Priests (Cohanim) were fed from sacrifices and tributes called Terumah. Sometimes, a priest becomes unclean (by touching a dead body or bodily fluids), and to purify they need to go into the mikveh (ritual bath). But, after the mikveh they are not considered clean until sundown. So all of these tevul yom situations deal with a priest who was unclean, went to the mikveh, but is in this interim time when they are still unclean for the day but post-mikveh." Let’s think of Tevul Yom as a purity limbo (not unclean, but not yet clean) Then he found me a resource which had a little more context for each of the chapters, written by Rabbi Josh Kulp. So he definitely knows what I am in for. He literally wrote the interpretation.
The first chapter deals with what happens if a Cohen in this post-mikveh state touches challah, or cakes, or even bean cooking scum, that was not intended to be connected, but connects by mistake. Rabbi Shammai says they are unclean. Rabbi Hillel says they are clean. In most cases Hillel and the other Rabbis are more lenient. But if it was intended to be connected, then it is unclean. The second chapter deals with liquids, if touched by a Tevul Yom, then they are unclean. If he touches the outside of a pitcher of wine it is clean, but if he touches the inside of the pitcher of wine, it is unclean. The third chapter goes back to connectors. If food is connected and becomes disconnected, is it unclean or clean, and does it matter whether it was intended or unintended to separate? If an olive pit falls out of your mouth and lands on your shirt and then in the Terumah and you are in this clean yet unclean state between mikveh and sundown, then were you intending to spit the pit? If yes, then you had intentional spit, unclean. But if that was not your intention, clean. The fourth chapter deals with third degree uncleanliness. Third degree uncleanliness is fine for common folk, but makes Terumah unclean for the Cohanim. If a woman makes challah who is a Tevulah yom, if she doesn’t call it challah until it is in an Egyptian Blanket (which for some reason has immunity from unclean properties) then she can call it challah, but not while in her hands.
Reviewing this with a friend she said “those people have WAY too much time on their hands.” And on this I agree. But the point of Torah and Mishnah and studying Judaism in the modern world is to figure out how these ancient, and let’s be honest, sometimes obscure texts relate to modern life. Why such a focus on purity of the Priests and their food? The Torah and Jewish law are used to putting fences around sinning, and if that level of impurity is considered then we will be more aware of transgressions that have higher potential for impurity. As Judaism moved away from the Temple in Jerusalem, our buildings and our bodies have replaced the Temple. When we put salt on challah, we remember the sacrifices, and for those that keep kosher they are applying the dietary laws. Our buildings and homes are swept for crumbs before Passover to keep our lives clean. In the end, our intention is to live a fulfilled life, and to honor God by doing so. Often these discussions seem to me to be a debate between making sure the priests and the tributes remain pure, and not wasting food which is always a scarce commodity.
So what did I learn, other than I am blessed to know Rabbis and not to always pick what looks like the shortest book to read? As my friend and Rabbi Josh Kulp said, why were the sages so interested in this topic? It doesn’t have great practical ramifications. So why? Why is this important for us, and why now? With 2020 as a lens, the purity and levels of cleanliness have a different tone than they might have in the past. We all deal with different levels of purity and what we will and won’t do these days. Unfortunately, we cannot as easily designate clean and unclean. Sanitized and not sanitized. Are we still quarantining our groceries? Wiping them down with Clorox wipes? Does it matter whether it was on the outside or inside? Or is it a matter of touch? Early at the outset of the pandemic, my friend Rabbi Schuck taught on Zoom. One of the blessings of these times is that we have taken learning online and made it available to those around the world. David spoke about going away with friends to Florida and becoming ill. Not wanting to risk spreading the virus if he had it, he rented a car and drove home. And as he heard from his friends he was with, the questions were not how he was doing, but how they were doing, i.e. did he have COVID-19, because that would mean they might? And how that was a lonely feeling. Fortunately he didn’t have it, though his community was one of the ones hit hardest. But that loneliness we have all felt. And how can we avoid passing that loneliness around our community?
And now I have learned in honor of Marvin Schuck, of blessed memory, and you also have learned in his honor. May his memory be a blessing.