The rabbinic halakhic system, with its many facets and the literary works that comprise it, reflects a new Jewish culture, almost completely distinct in its halakhic content and scope from the biblical and postbiblical culture that preceded it. By examining Jewish legislation in the area of corpse impurity as a test case, the article studies the implications of Qumranic halakhah, as a way-station between the Bible and the Mishnah, for understanding how Tannaitic halakhah developed. The impression obtained from the material reviewed in the article is that the direction of the “Tannaitic revolution” was charted, its methods set up, and its principles established, at a surprisingly early stage, before the destruction of the Second Temple, and thus at the same time that the Qumran literature was created.
This paper examines the rabbinic concept of impurity in terms of the essence of the reality that this term implies. Did the Rabbis consider impurity to be a force of nature, or rather an abstract formalistic structure devoid of any actual existence? A review of rabbinic sources regarding corpse impurity reveals that the essential structures of tannaitic halakhah are grounded in a natural, immanent perception of impurity, which gave rise to an entire system, intricate and coherent, of “natural laws of impurity.”
Layered onto this system, as a secondary stratum of sorts comprising exceptions and “addenda,” is a more subtle halakhic tapestry woven from a diametrically opposed perception. This view subjects the concept of impurity to human awareness and intention, severing it from reality and, in so doing, also stripping it of its “natural” substance.
An examination of Tannaic sources uncovers a dual strategy regarding the bounds of non-priestly purity. On the one hand, it was common during the period of the Second Temple and thereafter to exercise extreme caution in keeping impurity away even from the profane. On the other hand, however, the sages acted overtly to maintain a clear distinction between the theoretical-biblical concept of ritual impurity, which was steadily limited to the sacred, and the much more stringent customs they lived by. The article argues that, contrary to what has been accepted in the literature, there never existed any disagreement on this issue in the rabbinic world.