Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud

By Christine E. Hayes | Go to book overview
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Appendix A
The Impurity of Gentile Lands and Houses: A Refutation of Alon

In this appendix, I argue (pace Alon) that the ritual impurity of Gentile lands and houses is a rabbinic principle that derives from the corpse impurity generated by Gentile corpses and does not constitute evidence of an ancient principle of intrinsic Gentile ritual impurity.

In both the Mishnah and the Tosefta, rules about the status of Gentile lands follow upon rules that pertain to three kinds of bet peras.1 A bet peras is land in which a ploughedover bone, a lost grave, or burial niches may be present; 2 by rabbinic decree such areas are deemed to be impure by reason of the doubt that attaches to them. In m. Ohalot 18:6, the impurity consequences of traveling through a bet peras are juxtaposed to the impurity consequences of traveling through Gentile lands:

A person who walks through a bet peras on stones that cannot be easily moved, or rides on a man or beast of great strength, remains pure; but if on stones that can be easily moved or on a man or beast of little strength, he becomes impure.

A person who travels in the land of Gentiles over mountains or rocks becomes impure, but if by the sea or along the strand, he remains pure. What is meant by “the strand”? This is any place the sea reaches when it is stormy.

The mishnah's smooth transition from bet peras to Gentile lands suggests that the two are analogous: Like the bet peras, Gentile lands are decreed by the rabbis to be impure because of doubt about the possible presence of bones, corpses, and graves. 3 The degree to which and the precise manner in which Gentile lands convey impurity is not specified in this mishnah and commentators have devoted much energy to this question. 4 However, whether the defilement is conveyed through contact, carriage, or overhang and whether the defilement attaches to the soil only or to the soil and the air (see the debates in b. Gittin 8a and b. Nazir 54b-55a), its ultimate source is the (possible) presence of Gentile bones and/or corpses.

Like the Mishnah, the Tosefta takes up its consideration of the impurity of Gentile lands in the context of discussing the bet peras (see t. Ahilot 17:6–7, 18:1–5, 14–17,

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