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Shabbat Parashat Teruma 5776

Ask the Rabbi: Timtum Halev Part I

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Is there timtum halev [approximately, spiritual pollution of the heart] when one ingests non-kosher food in a halachically valid manner, e.g., based on bitul (nullification)? 


Answer: We will divide our view of the sources and analysis to deal with this excellent question into three parts: 1. What causes timtum halev? 2. How severe is exposure to it? 3. How should concern about it affect our decisions?


What causes timtum halev? The classical source that introduces the concept of timtum halev is the gemara (Yoma 39a). It derives from the spelling of “v’nitmeitem bam” (you will become defiled) in the context of eating sheratzim (crawling creatures) (Vayikra 11:43) that it causes not just tumah but also timtum of the heart. (We will not try to describe it exactly – Rashi (ad loc.) says “it seals off and blocks out all wisdom.”) The gemara’s statement is that “sins causes timtum halev.” There are at least three ways to understand this gemara (the approaches are not mutually exclusive but can be complementary):

A. Acts of sin cause timtum halev, irrespective of exposure to a problematic object. The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael 8) and Rav Kook (Mussar Avicha 1:4) have this understanding, which is the simple reading of the gemara (see Beit Halevi, Bereishit 6:5).   

B. The reason that certain foods are forbidden by the Torah is their negative impact on the spirit. While it may be strongest regarding certain specific forbidden foods (e.g., sheratzim), this is generally true, to some degree, of forbidden foods (Ramban, Shemot 22:30).

C. Forbidden foods are not necessarily naturally damaging to the spirit, but after the Torah forbade them, they become so.

There are practical differences between these approaches. The following prohibitions seem to lack a naturally damaging element. Therefore, A applies and B does not (C depends on the case). 1. Forbidden actions that do not include ingesting foods; 2. Foods that are forbidden based on Rabbinic law – Hashem apparently created these foods to not be timtum causing, but the Rabbis forbade them due to various halachic concerns; 3. Foods that are forbidden because they are too holy for the eater (e.g., teruma, certain korbanot); 4. Foods that are forbidden only at certain times (e.g., food on Yom Kippur, chametz on Pesach); 5. Foods that are forbidden for a circumstantial moral reason (e.g., mother and child shechted on the same day, ever min hachay – see Moreh HaNevuchim III:48).

In the other direction, in the following cases, a prohibited food has entered the body, without moral culpability, so that A does not apply and B and C do: 1. The person eating followed halachic rules, which resulted in ingesting the forbidden food (e.g., animal had blemishes we are not required to check for, bitul made it permitted); 2. The eater is not forbidden to eat the food (non-Jew, small child, severely mentally disabled); 3) One needed to eat it to save his life; 4) The substance entered the body in a way other than eating.

We begin a small sampling of the many sources that provide different views of some of these matters before focusing on the most central. Chashukei Chemed (Megilla 13a) cites a machloket whether eating forbidden food based on an unavoidable mistake creates negative spiritual effects (Rav Pe’alim – no; Ramah M’panu – yes; see Pitchei Teshuva, Yoreh Deah 29:1). Besides saying that without fault there is no cause for timtum, it is also possible that Hashem intervenes to rectify the spirit of one who followed halacha (see Derashot Haran 11, who says similarly regarding a case in which Sanhedrin mistakenly permits something that should be forbidden).

The Netziv (Devarim 6:11) says that the reason it is better to shecht an animal on Shabbat for a dangerously sick person than to give him non-kosher meat is that the latter causes timtum. This assumes that timtum exists even without wrongdoing. However, the fact that all the Rishonim give other explanations (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 328) demonstrates the opposite.


We will continue with further analysis next week.

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