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Hirsch At Your Table

Cleansing and Purifying

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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כל דבר אשר יבוא באש תעבירו באש וטהר אך במי נידה יתחטא וכל אשר לא יבוא באש תעבירו במים. (Nm 31:23)
After dealing with the captives that were brought to the Israel camp against the instructions given by Moshe, the Torah then goes on to the matter of the non human booty that the Israelite army brought back. In order for these utensils, primarily those used for food, to be permitted for use by Jews, they must undergo a cleansing process. This verse refers specifically to utensils created by the use of flame or fire i.e. metal and those formed without the need for fire. Those created by flame must be cleansed by flame plus the immersion special waters. Those created without fire i.e. wood requires only immersion in water.

The cleansing process, both for humans and for utensils is a fundamental law that must be scrupulously observed/חוקה. Without the means of extracting prohibited matter and restoring the purity/טהרה to our bodies and our possessions, the Torah goals cannot be achieved.

The word חוקה is from the root ח-ק-ק which means "to circumscribe to protect a core value". The word טהרה is from the root ט-ה-ר which means "to purify and free of foreign elements".


The process mentioned in this verse has been expanded to cover utensils used in the home that have been penetrated by some prohibited material. Utensils that have been penetrated by heat without the medium of water must be heated to a white heat/ליבון in order to draw such matter from the utensil. If it has not been exposed to direct heat, the foreign matter can be extracted by boiling water/הגעלה.

The word ליבון is from the root ל-ב-ן which means "to whiten and purify" through fire. The word הגעלה is from the root ג-ע-ל which means "to empty and release from protective cover".


Reverting to the Torah text above, Hirsch provides and interesting perspective on theמי נידה/distancing water, that is mentioned in the Torah verse that applies to utensils made of metal i.e. those created by the use of fire.

The word (מי (מים is from the root מ-י-י which means "to liquefy". The word נידה is from the root נ-ד-ה which means "to distance". The word נידה designates a condition which makes a temporary separation necessary.


The phrase מי נידה refers to the special water that is created when the ashes of a red heifer/ פרה אדומה are mixed with fresh running water. It is used to purify a person who has become טמא and therefore isolated, by virtue of having come in contact with a corpse.

The word פרה is from the root פ-ר-ה which means"to produce". In our verse it refers to a heifer. The word אדומה is from the root א-ד-ם which means "to be solid and God-directed. The root also refers to "earth" which a reddish-brown color.


The use of the special water does not refer to the foreign elements in the utensil, which have already been purged by fire, but to a type of קדושה which can be interpreted as a moral sanctification of the whole of life. But if so, why limit the use of מי נידה to metal utensils only? The answer relates to man’s role on earth. The use of metals; its mining of ore, its refinement for use, and its formation into practical vessels, signify man’s intelligent mastery over the earth. This mastery must be elevated from the sensory and the physical to the moral free-willed God-serving activities.

Man has the intellect to take materials and create wonderful things. However the Torah demands that man use this power to consecrate life and rid himself and the world of the sin. It requires that the whole life of the senses be elevated from the physical to the spiritual.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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