The Talmud says that Rabbi Judah derives his halakhah, that only human made tents count as “tents,” from the fact that the same word is used in Numbers concerning purity as is used in Exodus concerning the “tent” that was used in making the Tabernacle. Just as that was a real tent so too the tent in Numbers 19 which conveys impurity must be a real “tent,” meaning it must at least have been made by human hands. A tent made by animals or water does not count as a tent.
The Talmud then asks the typical question—how can the rabbis hold otherwise? How do they deal with the fact that “tent” should imply that it is made by human hands. The answer is that the Torah uses the word “tent” several times in Numbers 19:14. The repetitions of the word are interpreted to mean that any structure that has the dimensions of a “tent” can act as a tent, even if it was not made by human hands.
In yesterday’s section we encountered a mishnah in which R. Judah says that any “tent” not made by a person doesn’t count as a tent. Today’s section asks whether this is really R. Judah’s opinion.
This mishnah discusses how in the Second Temple period would preserve the purity of the children of priests so that they could perform the red cow ritual (needed to purify others from corpse impurity) without ever having become impure. This was an extra stringency due to the high degree of gravity with which they took the red cow ceremony.
They would not build the courtyards in which these children were raised directly over the ground just in case there was a grave deep in the ground, and the dead body’s impurity would rise and defile the priests above. The hollow between the rock and the building platform would serve to capture the impurity and prevent it from rising. This was a concept we learned much about in Mishnah Ohalot—a space the size of one handbreadth by one handbreadth prevents impurity from rising up above the space.
They would bring pregnant women there to give birth and raise their children there so that the children would never become impure. Again, this is not strictly necessary but it demonstrates the extra degree of severity with which they treated this purity ritual.
The end of the mishnah describes how they would draw water from the Shiloah spring without possibly coming into contact with a source of impurity. The children would ride oxen down to the spring. The doors on the oxen’s backs would prevent the children from overshadowing (making an ohel over) any source of impurity. They used stone cups because stone cannot become impure.
They filled their cups from the Shiloah spring which is on the southern side of Jerusalem (also called the Silwan). Rabbi Yose says that they didn’t even get off the backs of their oxen to do so. Again, this was an extra stringency to make sure they did not become impure.
The Talmud then cites a baraita in which Rabbi Judah says doors aren’t necessary because the oxen themselves would form a tent to stop the feared impurity from rising from the depths and defiling these kids. This contradicts his earlier opinion from the mishnah in Ohalot where he says that for something to function halakhically as a tent it must have been made by a person.
R. Dimi responds that R. Judah agrees that if the “tent” is as large as a fistful, meaning larger than a cubed handbreadth, it can count as a tent even if it was not made by a human being. There is also a baraita in which R. Judah agrees that an empty space like a crag or cleft in a rock, formations clearly not made by human beings, can still count as “tents.”
The problem with R. Dimi’s interpretation is that R. Judah seems to say the opposite. R. Judah seems to imply that they didn’t use doors because the oxen were sufficient. And yet the doors would have had many fistfuls of distance from the ground to the door.
Abaye answers that what R. Judah meant was that the doors on the backs of the oxen were unnecessary. But the doors would have been sufficient to act as a tent.
Rava gives a slightly different answer. They didn’t bring the doors because the kids sitting on the doors might get curious and peak their heads over the door. This would cause them to be defiled because of the fear of the dread “grave in the depths.”
Thus both Abaye and Rava uphold R. Dimi’s explanation. R. Judah does not disallow a tent not made by human hands, as long as that “tent” is at least a fistful in size.