Chukat: Leaving a Cemetery

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Netilat Yadayim
03 Jul 2008

There is an ancient custom that on leaving a cemetery after a funeral we do three things: take a handful of dirt, and pluck some foliage, and wash the hands. (SA YD 376:4.)

The Tur relates this custom to the water and dust which are part of the ordeal of the sota: “It is said that this custom reminds us of the formation of man, as it is said in an aggadah ‘And the Kohen takes holy water in a clay vessel and from the dust’ why water and dirt? Because her formation was from water and her end is dust, therefore she is tried with water and dirt: if she is pure, she remains as she was formed; if not, she returns to dust.’ [See Yerushalmi Sota 2:2.] Likewise, the water and the dirt are a symbol of formation and death, and the foliage a symbol of the resurrection, as it is said (Tehillim 72:16) ‘And they shall sprout of the town like the foliage of the earth.'” (Tur YD 376.)

The Ramban, on the other hand, relates this custom to the process of purifying someone from defilement, as we learn in our parsha: “I heard a tradition from one of my teachers that this hints at the purification from defilement, as if to say that this defilement is not purified without these three things: water, and the ashes of the red heifer, and hyssop.” (Torat HaAdam p. 156, cited in Beit Yosef YD 376.)

The comparison of these two explanations is suggestive. For one thing, the Tur in effect presents us with a symbolic explanation of the elements of the purification process: conception, death, and resurrection.

According to this explanation, the need for hyssop in the purifying waters seems to hint that the possibility for purification from contact with the dead is in itself dependent on the fact that death is itself is not permanent, and that the departed are destined to return to life. As we experience this sprinkling, we recall that we were conceived in purity, then defiled by contact with death; but just as the dead are destined to rise, so we too are able to purify ourselves of the defilement which they bring.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.