Mishnah Kelim 11:8

Ritual purity and impurity of weapons and battle attire
3d CE
Syria Palaestina
Literary genre: 
Legal text
Title of work: 
Kelim 11:8

Tannaitic literature includes passages that address the ritual purity of weaponry and battle attire. These texts assume that at least some Jews possess such objects and, therefore, their status needed regulation (for more, see Mishnah Shabbat 6:1-2 and 3-4). The Torah specifies various sources of ritual impurity, including a corpse, menstrual fluid, semen, other types of sexual discharge, and certain animals (see Leviticus 11:29-35). Ritual impurity was a central concern for Jews during the Second Temple period and afterward, although scholars debate whether Jews continued to observe these commandments after the destruction of the Temple and, especially, following the Bar Kokhba revolt (for a recent treatment of this topic, see Miller, At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds). According to rabbinic halakhah, various objects may become impure while others are insusceptible to impurity; for example, vessels and tools are impervious to impurity while they are in the process of being created or if they break and can no longer be used. In what follows, we will consider two tannaitic rulings on the susceptibility of weapons and military garb for ritual impurity. These sources indicate that war-related gear was perceived as an integral part of a Jewish household, that was especially associated with men.

As in Mishnah Shabbat 6:1-2 and 6:3-4, this mishnah distinguishes between women’s jewelry or ornaments (Section B) and men’s weaponry and battle attire (Section A). This differentiation reflects the association of weapons with men, presenting them, as Rabbi Eliezer makes explicit in Mishnah Shabbat 6:4, as male “ornaments” or “jewelry” (on the analogy between women’s ornamentation and men’s weapons, see also Kraemer, “Adornment and Gender”; Rozen-Zvi and Yinon, “Male Jewels/Female Jewels”; Sifre Zuta on Deuteronomy 22:5, Kahana edition, p. 332-337). The opening of this mishnah (Section A) is of particular interest for this project. This passage states that helmets are susceptible to ritual impurity but cheek-guards are subject to this status only if their cavities can hold water. Medieval commentators have explained that this pertains exclusively to the use of cheek-guards as vessels for drinking water; only in that case may they become impure. Our mishnah then rules that all weapons may become impure, referring to them as “instruments of war” (kley milḥamah). Next, our text details that the kidon, meaning a spear or a javelin, and the niqon, understood as an iron ram – following Josephus (J.W. V.299; see Krauss, Persia and Rome, p. 217) – as well as greaves and breastplates are all vulnerable to impurity. As instruments of war, these items were all designated to come in contact with corpses and, thus, may enter a state of impurity (although, as Section B shows, the sources of impurity are not limited to violent circumstances). The inclusion of these objects in this discussion of Jewish men’s possessions, just like jewelry for Jewish women, indicates that, in tannaitic texts, weapons and battle garb were essential aspects of Jewish life. Indeed, several other tannaitic sources address the purity of such items, whether for military purposes, other violent confrontations or in games; for example, Mishnah Kelim 13:1 addresses various instruments with blades, including swords; Mishnah Kelim 16:8 mentions their sheaths; and, Mishnah Kelim 24:1 discusses shields. Let us now turn to another related text, Tosefta Kelim Bava Metzi‘a 3:1:

A)    הכידון והניגון והפגש והקסדא והמגפים שנחלקו הרי אלו טהורין

B)     שריון שנחלק (לאור) לארכו טהור לרחבו אם משמש מעין מלאכתו ראשונה טמא ואם לאו טהור

C)     ואימתי טהרתו משבלה ואינו משמש מעין מלאכתו

D)    בלה ומשתייר בו רחבו מלמעלה טמא רחבו מלמטה טהור

E)     ספת הימנו ועשה חוליה לתכשיט טמאה

A)    The spear and the iron ram, the slingshot (perhaps catapult), the helmet and metal leggings that have been split (lit. divided): behold, they are pure.

B)    A breastplate that was split (lit. divided): [If] lengthwise, [it] is pure. [If] widthwise: if its use reflects (lit. it is used for the like of) its original purpose (lit. work), it is impure; if not, it is pure.

C)    [Until] when is its purity [still in affect]? [Until] it becomes worn out or it is no longer used for anything like its original purpose (lit. work).

D)    If it became worn out but its upper widthwise (portion) remains, it is impure; if its lower width [remains], it is ritually pure.

E)     [If one] cut [a chip out] of it and made [it into] a segment (bead) for [a piece of] jewelry, [that segment] is ritually impure.     

This tosefta clarifies when an object related to warfare is no longer susceptible to impurity. According to Section A, if one of these implements is broken into two parts, it can no longer be subject to ritual contamination. The remaining sections focus on the breastplate. Section B details that the ritual status of a severed breastplate is determined by whether it has been divided lengthwise (pure) or widthwise (impure), and whether it can still fulfill its initially intended purpose (if yes, impure; if not, pure). In Section C, if a breastplate has become worn out and can no longer serve its original function, it cannot become ritually impure. Section D differentiates between two additional possibilities: if the upper portion were preserved at full width, it can still become impure; but, if the lower half remained intact, it cannot (probably because it can no longer fulfill its intended purpose). Section E discusses a scenario where small pieces of the breastplate are reused to form a bead or another component of jewelry. These parts have a new use; thus, they may again be subject to ritual contamination.

It is noteworthy that tannaitic texts include regulations on the purity status of weapons and protective gear for battle as well as discussions on the permissibility of carrying or wearing them in the public domain on Shabbat (when they are not needed for combat). Taken together, these passages seem to suggest that these items constitute a normative feature of Jewish life which characterized men, much as ornaments and jewels were associated with women. This material raises questions regarding the role of violence and power in Jewish masculinity.   

Bibliographical references: 

“Adornment and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism”

Kraemer, Davidarticle-in-a-bookEnvisioning Judaism, Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, Volume I Ra’anan S. Boustan, (et al.)217-234“Adornment and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism” Tübingen Mohr Siebeck2013
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