Parshas Matos (5771)
By Rabbi Zee
Judaism sure has a lot of strange rituals, doesn’t it? I mean, we throw bread into lakes on Rosh HaShanah, we swing chickens (or coins) around our heads the day before Yom Kippur, we live outside in Gilligan’s Island-type huts and shake fruits and branches on Sukkos, we hang strings from some of our garments (tzitzis), we wear black boxes on our heads and arms when we pray (tefillin), etc. etc.
One of the more interesting – and misunderstood - rituals that Jews have been doing for over 3300 years is the mitzvah of Tevilas Keilim, immersing food utensils in a mikvah (ritual bath).
The source for this mitzvah can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Mattos. When the Jews had returned from their ‘war of revenge’ against the evil nation of Midian, they had brought back with them the spoils of war – including all kinds of pots and pans that had been used by their enemy to make food. Elazar, the Priest, instructed the people how to make these vessels ‘kosher’ and usable.
He said to them: “Only the gold and the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead – everything that comes into the fire – you shall pass through the fire and it shall be purified… and everything that would not come in the fire, you shall pass through the water” (Numbers 31:22-23).
Rash”i explains that this verse is actually teaching us two laws: Those vessels which have been used previously and have absorbed the taste of non-kosher food need to be purged through fire or hot water in a process called hagalah (a Hebrew word meaning to purge, or expel) to render them fit for use in a kosher kitchen. [To learn more about the laws of hagalah and ‘kashering’ utensils, see: http://www.kashrut.com/articles/hagalah/ ]. Additionally, the Torah is teaching us that all vessels used for preparing food and for dining that were acquired from a non-Jew - even vessels that are brand new - must be immersed in a mikvah before they can be used.
Here are some basic guidelines for immersing vessels (taken from “Kashrus Kurrents” magazine at www.star-k.org): Utensil to be immersed must be completely clean – free of dirt, dust, rust, stickers, labels or glue.
One wets one's hands in the mikvah water, holds the vessel in the wet hand and says Baruch Atah Ado-noy, Elo-heinu Melech Ha’olam, Asher Kid-shanu B'Mitzvosav V'Tzivanu Al Tevilas Keili (Keilim, for multiple utensils) and immerses the vessel(s).
The water of the mikvah must touch the entire vessel inside and out.
The entire vessel must be under water at one time, but does not have to be submerged for any prolonged period of time. Care must be taken that no air is trapped in the submerged vessels.
Utensils require tevilah (immersion) with a blessing when they have direct contact with food during preparation or meal time and are made from metal such as aluminum, brass, copper, gold, iron, lead, silver, steel, tin, or glass including pyrex, duralex, and corelle.
[To learn more about the laws of immersing vessels, see: http://www.star-k.org/kashrus/kk-containers-tevilas.htm and http://www.torah.org/advanced/weekly-halacha/5762/vayera.html. Please note: Most Jewish communities around the world have specially designated “Tevilas Keilim” mikvahs for the public to use. Ask your local rabbi to find the one nearest you].
All that’s left now is to explain the rationale for this seemingly strange ritual of dipping dishes and frying pans in some bath before using them. If it’s not about ritual contamination or non-kosher residue, then what is it about? And why does this biblical commandment apply only to metal utensils (and, according to Rabbinical law, to glass utensils) and not to vessels made of wood, earth, etc.? And why only to utensils used in preparing food and dining?
The commentaries explain that the mitzvah of immersing food vessels in a mikvah before using them is similar to the requirement for a convert to immerse himself in a mikvah before becoming a Jew. Immersion symbolizes rebirth and renewal (the waters of the mikvah represent the mother’s womb, so that immersing in a mikvah is akin to being reborn anew).
And just as a convert, upon his passage from non-Jew to Jew, immerses in a mikvah to symbolize his accepting upon himself the elevated and sanctified Jewish mission to be “a light unto the nations” and a beacon of Torah morals and values, so, too must a vessel, when passing from non-Jewish possession to Jewish, be ‘converted’ by being immersed in a mikvah, thus serving to elevate the mundane activity of eating, and vesting it with special sanctity and meaning, as prescribed by the Torah.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the aforementioned verse, explains further why this immersion is required specifically for metal utensils used for food purposes. He writes that man consists of two parts – a physical body with animal-like instincts and an intellectual/spiritual soul – and the former must always be used in the service of the latter. This is what it means to be a Jew living a sanctified life. As long as we eat, drink, and perform other physical ‘animal-like’ activities with the primary focus that we will now have the energy to sustain our intellectual/spiritual functions – i.e. we are “eating to live” versus “living to eat” - we are maintaining this hierarchy and fulfilling our mandate as Jews.
Metal utensils represent Man’s intelligent mastery over the earth and its materials Metal – and glass - must be refined, heated, and hammered/blown into shape before it can be used. Animals simply don’t have these skills. Eating food is an activity which primarily belongs completely to the ‘animal side’ of man’s nature. So that metal utensils used for food purposes represents the spiritual/mental side of Man employed in the service of his physical/animal side – and that is an abuse of the hierarchy.
The remedy for this – explains Rabbi Hirsch - is to immerse the utensil in a mikvah at the very moment when it first comes into Jewish possession. By ‘converting’ our dishes in the mikvah, we remind ourselves of our Jewish mandate to elevate and sanctify our eating and all of life.