By Rabbi Shmuel Wise

Question. Does food inside of a vessel that is inside of a tamei earthenware vessel become tamei?

Answer: We discussed this question on last Shabbos’s daf (25a). The beginning of the Gemara there discusses the distinguishing feature of earthenware vessels: they both conduct and convey ritual impurity through their inner air space (as opposed to other vessels where tumah transfers only as a result of direct contact). This means that if a source of tumah were suspended within an earthenware vessel, the vessel would become tamei. It also means that if some food were then suspended within the earthenware vessel, the food would become tamei as well.

The Gemara then makes a derashah that excludes the following case from this law. There is another vessel inside the tamei earthenware vessel and some food inside the inner vessel. The derashah teaches us that the food in this case does not become tamei since it is “inside the inside” of the earthenware vessel. The basic concept is that the food here is not truly inside the earthenware vessel — it is inside some other vessel which happens to be inside an earthenware vessel.

There is a small phrase that is added to the Gemara’s teaching which gives rise to considerable discussion among the commentators. The Gemara adds that the above exclusion would hold true even if the inner vessel is not made of earthenware. The term “even” clearly implies that for some reason we might have thought that if the inner vessel is not made of earthenware, the food would become tamei. Why would we think this?

Rashi explains that we might have reasoned that this vessel-in-a-vessel exclusion applies specifically if the inner vessel is also made of earthenware—since in such a case the inner vessel itself clearly does not become tamei, given the fact that the event that makes an earthenware vessel tamei (namely, the source of tumah entering its airspace) didn’t happen here. Thus, the inner vessel here functions as a barrier from the tumah that pervades the airspace of the outer vessel and shields the food from becoming tamei. But where the inner vessel is not made from earthenware, it could be suggested that it does become tamei as a result of its contact with the tamei outer vessel. If this were true, the inner vessel would cease to function as a barrier and the food inside of it would become tamei. To dispel such an argument, the Gemara states that even if the inner vessel was not made of earthenware, the food inside of it remains tahor. The reason for this, Rashi explains, is that in reality a tamei vessel is not able to convey tumah to another vessel and thus the above argument doesn’t materialize.

Tosfos here rejects Rashi’s interpretation. A major part of why Tosfos dismisses Rashi’s reading is a Gemara in the beginning of Zevachim which also brings this vessel-in-a-vessel teaching. Rava there states a halachah: If one offers a chatas sacrifice intending for someone else’s chatas, the offering is not valid; but if he intended for someone else’s olah, the offering remains valid. The underlying principle of Rava’s distinction is that only “things of the same type can destroy” — i.e., only a wrong intention within the same realm as the correct intention (e.g., chatas to chatas) can cause a problem.

The Gemara there questions Rava’s theory from the vessel-in-a-vessel teaching of our Gemara. Specifically, the Gemara points to the halachah that even if the inner vessel is not made of earthenware, it does factor into the halachah and is deemed an entirely separate vessel which has the effect of excluding this case from the law of tumah through the interior of an earthenware vessel. Putting this in Rava’s terms, we see that even something of a different type can change the outcome of the halachah. The Gemara responds that this teaching does not refute Rava since it is based on a specific Scriptural teaching that in this particular instance of an earthenware vessel’s tumah, an object of a different type does have an impact.

So we see from the Gemara in Zevachim, Tosfos observes, that the main point of the vessel-in-a-vessel teaching is to teach an exception to the general rule that foreign matter doesn’t impact the halachah’s outcome and not to teach, as Rashi claims, that the non-earthenware inner vessel does not become tamei.

Perhaps Rashi would respond to Tosfos’s proof with the following: The connection that the Gemara in Zevachim makes between sacrifices and tumah is not so simple. For while the idea that an incorrect intention that is completely unrelated to the sacrifice being brought has no impact is fairly intuitive, it is not obvious at all why the fact that the walls of the inner vessel are of a different material should change the analysis that we’re dealing with a vessel inside of a vessel. So while the Gemara there does clearly suggest that this idea of a foreign matter’s ability to “destroy” pertains to the mechanics of earthenware vessels, Rashi, I believe, can argue that this point is only tangentially gleaned from the vessel-in-a-vessel teaching. By contrast, the question of whether the inner vessel contracted tumah is very central to this teaching. For if the inner vessel is tamei it would then utterly fail as a barrier to the tumah and thus the food inside would become tamei. Thus, to Rashi, the key point being revealed here is the law that only food can become tamei from vessels, not other vessels. 

Rabbi Wise is maggid shiur of Real Clear Daf, a website and mobile app that offers free audio shiurim and other resources to assist your journey through Shas. He is also the director of Tehillim Together, a mobile app (for iOS and Android) that offers a translated sefer Tehillim and facilitates Tehillim groups. To be a sponsor or to reach Rabbi Wise, please write to rabbiwise@realcleardaf.com or call 855-ASK-RCD-1 (275-7231).

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