Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Pet Peeve of Mine: Tumah vs. Tamei

WIY, I agree with you that secular newspapers or magazines are sources of tumah. THEY ARE TUMAH. Who would want to bring tumah into their house?

The above quote is from a thread over in the Yeshiva World Coffeeroom.  And the above quote irked me.  Not because the poster thinks that newspapers or magazines are unclean.  Nor is it because they want to keep their houses "pure."  Nor is it because the poster is using "tumah" in an incorrect manner to refer to something that should be avoided hashkafically rather than the correct, halachic definition of tumah.  The reason why this post irks me is because the poster doesn't know how to use the words tumah or tamei.

To be fair, it's not the poster's fault.  I know lots of people who do the same thing and, no doubt s/he simply picked it up from his/her environment.  And, again, to be fair, there are lots of worse things that one can do than mix up the terms tumah and tamei.  But still, every time I hear it it grates on my nerves.

It's really fairly simple.  Tumah is the "contamination" (yes, it's a horrible translation, but it's the best one I can think of off the top of my head) that is caused by various sources such as a dead body, certain bodily emissions, some dead animals, etc.  The rules regarding which items transmit tumah and which items can become tamei are complicated and beyond the scope of this post.  The point, however, is this:  tumah is a noun.  Tamei is an adjective.  An item or a person can become tamei.  Things that are tamei can transmit tumah.  They cannot, however, become tumahTumah cannot be touched or felt -- it's strictly a spiritual, halachic construct.  Saying that something is "tumah" is akin to saying that a light bulb is light (in the photonic, not massive, sense) or that a loudspeaker is noise. 

Yeah, I know it's a nit-picky issue, but it's a long-standing pet peeve of mine.

The Wolf

17 comments:

Mike S. said...

There are several other words and phrases that get similarly misused. Tzniut and Tzanua is a similar pair. So are Kodesh and Kadosh. (Hint: Ir Hakodesh does not mean "holy city")

For that matter as a ba'al keriah you might appriciate my pet peeve: The 4th Chumash is not Bamidbar with a patach; it is Bemidbar with a sh'va na.

Garnel Ironheart said...

While I appreciate a good nitpick as much as the next guy, in this case there is one aspect you're missing.
You are, of course, 100% correct on your definition of tumah and tamei in the spiritual sense. However, to add to the confusion the Torah itself sometimes uses those words in different context. Specifically, it describes the non-kosher animals we cannot eat as "tamei yiheye lachem" even through it's talking about food, not spiritual stuff.
In my job I often find people using terms incorrectly. Sore throat, bad sore throat, strept. No, strept is a bacterial type of sore throat, not just any bad sore throat. Headache, bad headache, migraine. No, migraine is a specific type of headache, not just any bad one. But that doesn't stop people from coming in and telling me that they have strept throat or a migraine not ebecause they do but because what they do have is severe for them.
It's the same thing with tumah and tamei. People have just appropriate the terms and use them in the sense of "negative" even though, as you noted, that's not what they mean.

The Hedyot said...

Yeah, I know how you feel. My own pet peeve is people who seem to care more about irrelevant details of grammar than substantive issues that actually affect people's lives.

BrooklynWolf said...

My own pet peeve is people who seem to care more about irrelevant details of grammar than substantive issues that actually affect people's lives.

Ooooh. Touche! :)

Nonetheless, does every post have to be about some earth-shattering issue that affects the lives of people? Am I not allowed to comment on what is, admittedly, a minor pet peeve of mine?

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

Specifically, it describes the non-kosher animals we cannot eat as "tamei yiheye lachem" even through it's talking about food, not spiritual stuff.

True, but nonetheless, it is also talking about spiritual stuff as the carcasses of non-kosher animals can (IIRC), under certain circumstances, transmit tumah.

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

For that matter as a ba'al keriah you might appriciate my pet peeve: The 4th Chumash is not Bamidbar with a patach; it is Bemidbar with a sh'va na.

Yep... that one's been on my radar (or should I say RADAR?) for a while now. :)

The Wolf

The Hedyot said...

> does every post have to be about some earth-shattering issue that affects the lives of people?

Not at all. But you did specifically state that the grammar bothers you, and the other stuff doesn't.

But stop taking me so seriously. I know you were just trying to make a point, and aren't really as warped as you make yourself sound sometimes.

name said...

You are still missing the basic answer.

In chassidishe circles with Polish or Hungarian backround The word tamei is pernounced tumah

squeak said...

I don't understand Garnel's point. If anything, the useage of 'tamei yiheye[sic]' (this is a misquote, but that's irrelevant) demonstrates Wolf's point nicely. When the possuk says "tamei hu" or "temeia he" it implies that the animal is a source of tumah, not tumah itself.

This distinction is further demonstrated by the classification of tumah status: Av HaTumah, Rishon L'Tumah, etc. The object/animal/person has a status of tamei due to the tumah it has 'absorbed'.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Fine, fine, "t'meyim hem lachem" (Vayikra 11:4) if you must!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I always just assumed they meant it the way it sounded, "such-and-such is Impurity!" on some kind of hyperbolic metaphysical level.

Modeh B'Miktsas said...

Garnel, there are a number of "tamei yih'yeh"s in parshas k'doshim. It wasn't necessarily a misquote.

Squeak, they say too-my

Anonymous said...

MIKE S.:

"The 4th Chumash is not Bamidbar with a patach; it is Bemidbar with a sh'va na"

bamidbar is the absolute state. bemidbar is the construct state. it is not incorrect to use the absolute state when simply referring to it as bamidbar or sefer bamidbar. in fact (or at least imho), it would sound silly to use the construct state unless we qualify it specfically by calleing it bemidbar sinai or sefer bemidbar sinai.

however, those who accept the colloquial use of the absolute state of bamidbar rather than than bemidbar should at least be consistent and realize that the patah on the second bet at the end should become a kamatz gadol (if they distinguish between these two vowels).

my personal pet peeve isn't people who use the absolute state or even those who use the absolute state but then aren't consistent in following through with the vowel change on the second bet, but rather who those mispronounce it milel (ba-MID-bar) rather than milra (ba-mid-BAR)

Lion of Zion said...

(i'm the anon above)

and of course as long as we are peeving pedantically :) we could complain about the widespread disregard for the dagesh in the mem of bamidbar when used in the absolute form

shabbat shalom

Anonymous said...

" Modeh B'Miktsas said...
Garnel, there are a number of "tamei yih'yeh"s in parshas k'doshim"

Not in reference to kosher/unkosher animals.

JRS said...

I, too, hate sloppy usage. I think in this case, it MAY have begun as if to say that the object (TV! Secular Books! the Internet!) is impurity itself, the way a person might be called 'evil personified'. Of course, most people---typically oblivious to such nuances---ran with it and call everything 'tumah' rather than 'tamei'...

Similar, but worse & more trendy, is the idiotic "it's not tznius" which I think started off the same way: "Wearing that miniskirt is not tznius, i.e, it's not [fulfilling the concept of] modesty..."
But it's still stupid; this is what adjectives are for, you morons.

My personal [least-]favorite is "I could care less about speaking right!" If you could care less, than why don't you speak better? You mean you could NOT care less.

RAM said...

We ought to be able to distinguish between a quality and an object having that quality, even as we spend every waking moment on really weighty stuff---like blogging here, of course.