This week’s parasha is the double portion of Matot-Massei. We read how the Israelites struck back against the Midianites, with a twelve-thousand strong army led by Pinchas that absolutely decimated the enemy. After the battle, Moses instructed that all the warriors must undergo purification (as they had come in contact with corpses), and so too do “all garments, leather items, goat products, and wooden vessels” (Numbers 31:20). Following this, the kohen gadol Elazar proclaimed:
This is the statute that Hashem has commanded Moses: “Only the gold, the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead—whatever is used in fire—you shall pass through fire and then it will be pure; it must also be cleansed with sprinkling water. And whatever is not used in fire you shall pass through water. You shall wash your garments on the seventh day and become pure; afterwards, you may enter the camp.”
This is the source for the mitzvah of tevilat kelim, the immersion in a mikveh of vessels used for food. Metal dishes, cutlery, and the like that were previously owned by a non-Jew must be purified before a Jew can use them. Although the Torah mentions gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead specifically, the prohibition was extended to all metals, as well as glass, since glass can also be melted and reformed like metal. Wood and earthenware do not require immersion.
What is the reason for this mitzvah?
Searching for Answers
What exactly do the non-Jewish vessels need to be purified from? The first thing that comes to mind is that non-kosher food was eaten with those vessels, so they need to be made kosher. However, this is already accomplished when the Torah says to put these vessels “through fire”. As is well known from diligent Passover cleaning, vessels are made kosher through the way they are used, so for instance, vessels used with hot food must be koshered with boiling water, etc. This does not require a mikveh. A mikveh is not for physical purification but for spiritual purification.
Some say that the non-Jewish vessels need to be cleansed of the impurity of idolatry. Perhaps they were used in idolatrous ceremonies, or made by a pagan with idolatrous intentions. This makes sense, except that the halakha states (Yoreh De’ah 120:8) that a Jew is actually allowed to borrow dishes from an idol worshipper and use them without immersing in a mikveh!
Others say the vessels need to be purified from the greatest of tumah: death. Indeed, this is the context of the original Torah verses, where Moses and Elazar command the returning warriors to be purified from their contact with corpses, and to purify all the captured belongings as well. The Torah states that the vessels must be “cleansed with sprinkling water”, referring to the sprinkling done with the waters of parah adumah, the red cow. So, immersion might make sense for vessels captured in warfare, but little sense for new dishes purchased from a store. Regardless, the tumah of death cannot be removed in our days anyway since we have no red cow waters.
Complications & Loopholes
The most common explanation for tevilat kelim today is simply that when non-Jewish dishes become Jewish, they must be spiritually purified, much like a non-Jew who converts to Judaism requires immersion. Ironically, though, some halakhic opinions state that a convert does not need to immerse their old vessels! The bigger problem here is that this type of logic can be applied to anything—why stop at dishes and cutlery? Maybe we should immerse our clothes in a mikveh as well? After all, this is precisely what Moses commanded the returning warriors when he said to purify “all garments, leather items” and so on.
And what about vessels that cannot be immersed? Toasters and hot plates, for example, touch food directly, but obviously cannot be submerged in water because they are electrical. Some state that these should be immersed as much as possible, without getting the electrical components wet. Of course, that’s not overly effective since mikveh requires total immersion. This is why others creatively state that such appliances should be “gifted” to a non-Jew and then “borrowed” back permanently!
Speaking of loopholes, anyone who “sells” their chametz dishes on Passover to a non-Jew would theoretically have to take these dishes to the mikveh again! There is even a problem of drinking a beverage from a metal or glass container. Can of pop? Bottle of Snapple? These are non-Jewish vessels! Some ingenious loopholes were created in such cases, including that one should have in mind while purchasing to only buy the contents inside, not the container! (Others maintain it is forbidden, and the liquid must be poured into a kosher cup first.)
Making Sense of the Torah
One can argue that there is no logic to tevilat kelim because it is a chok, traditionally interpreted as a law inexplicable to human reasoning. Indeed, the Torah introduces this command by stating zot chukat haTorah, a preface that only appears two other times: with the red cow, and with the Pesach offering. (In total, the term “chok” is used twenty times in the Torah.) In reality, there is no need to draw such a conclusion. The entire dilemma can be avoided by properly reading the Torah, in context.
Moses told twelve thousand warriors to purify their belongings following a battle. First of all, this was not a mitzvah directed at the entire nation, but to a contingent of soldiers and their loot. Secondly, the command was to purify all things, not just vessels for food. Elazar haKohen clarified what Moses commanded by stating that metal things should be purified with fire, while things that cannot be put through a flame—like wood and leather—should be purified with water. Today, we do not pass newly acquired vessels through fire, nor do we purify wood or leather in a mikveh. Why do we still immerse metal and glass food vessels?
Perhaps the answer requires an entirely different approach. The Baal Shem Tov taught that “God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual.” In this light, there is certainly beauty, and meaning, in uplifting our newly-purchased physical vessels, and making spiritual what is otherwise something quite mundane.