The Defilement of the Hands as a Principle Determining the Holiness of Scripture

Get it while you can.  Timothy Lim’s essay in the Journal of Theological Studies is only available till February 28.  Here’s the Abstract-

The principle articulated in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5 that ‘all holy scriptures defile the hands’ (Graphic) is one of the most perplexing in rabbinic literature, for how can something that is holy impart uncleanness to the hands? The enigma lies within the principle itself: it is precisely because scriptures are holy that they impart uncleanness; writings that are not holy, such as the books of Homer (m.Yad. 4:6), the Gospels, other heretical books, and the book of Ben Sira (t.Yad. 2:13), do not impart uncleanness. What I should like to propose in this article is an explanation that seeks to clarify the principle of tum’at yadayim by the concept of holiness as a sacred contagion. Holy scriptures, like other holy objects of cultic worship, were considered sources of contamination. But unlike them, holy scriptures do not render objects with which they come into contact holy; rather they make the hands unclean. Holy scriptures were considered a particular kind of sacred contagion. It is suggested that the key to understanding the defilement principle is found in the traditions about the Ark of the Covenant and its lethal power to kill those who are ineligible to touch it.

The entire essay in PDF can be gotten directly here.


3 thoughts on “The Defilement of the Hands as a Principle Determining the Holiness of Scripture

  1. bobcargill 26 Jan 2011 at 2:16 pm

    interesting article. i’ve already altered my understanding of ‘soiling the hands’ in relation to the sos this quarter. this article is solid attempt at explaining the origin of the phenomenon of impurity being transmitted by holy books.

    it could be a case of a necessary opposite reaction bound by the assumption that scriptures are always more pure than even the most ritually purified individual. if we assume that scrolls on which scriptures are written are always more pure than even the most purified individual, then any touching of the scriptures with the hand would presumably defile the scriptures. however, since the scriptures cannot be defiled (as they are über-pure scripture), then the defilement ‘reflects’ or rebounds back onto the person with an equal and opposite reaction, thereby defiling the heretofore ‘pure’ hands.

    this would explain the ark of the covenant’s destruction of uzzah, which dr. lim has perceptively illuminated.


    • Jim 26 Jan 2011 at 2:26 pm

      nice read bob. very insightful.


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