Shaya Cohen -


The Earth as a Litmus Test?

Vessels made of earth, kli cheres, absorb what goes into them. When the contents are not good (as with a sin offering), then we are commanded to destroy the contaminated vessel:

An earthen vessel (kli cheres) in which [the sin offering] was boiled shall be broken

The idea seems to be that once it has been touched by sin, the vessel cannot be saved: it must be destroyed. Sin causes damage that does not merely buff out.

The Torah tells us about this property of the earth at the very beginning. The first named sin in the Torah is that of Cain, who loses control of his jealousy and rage. And in so doing, he seems to contaminate the earth itself, in a verse that screams out the importance of symbolism in the text:

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

Indeed, when we echo the murder of Abel at Cain’s hand, in the ritual of a person contaminated with a spiritual ailment, we symbolically re-enact the blood contaminating the earth:

The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel.

(after which the other bird is marked by the blood (as Cain was marked) and set free for a period of seven (as was Cain). The Torah is reminding us of the link between the earthen vessel and the earth – and how both are affected by what comes into contact with them.

When we sin and/or murder, the earth is spiritually lowered. By contrast, when we kill an animal for food or a sacrifice, we are commanded to pour it onto the ground, suggesting that blood spilled for a good reason can spiritually benefit the earth just as surely as the blood of murdered Abel harmed it.

Exposure to the dead also ruins things that we create from the earth:

And anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be impure: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin, or a sack—any such article that can be put to use shall be dipped in water, and it shall remain impure until evening; then it shall be pure. And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be impure and [the vessel] itself you shall break.

See the contrast? The spiritual scar of death can be erased, with water and time, from most things. But not for something made from the earth. If we combine death with an earthen vessel, the vessel cannot be saved or re-used.

Similarly, the Torah talks about a person who has had an unspiritual seminal emission, a zav, which is linked to selfish and unproductive use of our creative energies. In that case, an earthen vessel touched by the (Lev 15:12) must similarly be broken.

Interestingly, the Torah gives three core categories that disqualify one from being spiritually able to elevate (tahor): death, sexual selfishness, and harming others (displayed via tzaraas, a condition which is mistranslated into English as “leprosy.”). (Numbers 5).

Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption [tzaraas, from harming others] or a discharge [zav, from selfishness] and anyone defiled by a corpse [death].

Each of these three categories is linked to an earthen vessel which, if contaminated, must be destroyed.

The earth also seems to offer a kind of spiritual “earth neutral”, similar to the electrical equivalent. We know this because in the ritual of the woman who is suspected by her husband of not being faithful, the ritual involves linking to the earth as part of the method of judging her actions:

The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before G-d. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water.

This is using the earth as a measuring instrument for sin, like the blood of murdered Abel calling out to G-d. The difference between the person and the earth tells us whether the person is higher or lower that the earth itself: if she has been unfaithful, she is lower than the earth, and suffers for it.

The overall conclusion is that our actions create a spiritual rebound on the physical world. The ground seems to be a spiritual sponge of whatever is put into it – and indeed can be used as a baseline to judge whether a person can spiritually elevate, or is to be destroyed.

P.S. The verse kli cheres has another layer of related meaning: in the Torah a cheres is connected not only to the earth (and things made from the earth), but to silence, consideration, and evaluation – like the earth receiving blood, and judging it. Here are those verses:

The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering (cheres) whether G-d had made his errand successful or not.

Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent (cheres) until they came home.

G-d will battle for you; you hold your peace (cheres)!”

You shall not insult the deaf/dumb (cheres), or place a stumbling block before the blind.

…and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and stays silent (cheres), all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. (4 similar verses)

This is consistent with the understanding of the earth as a silent judge: only G-d can hear the sound of the earth’s judgement, as He does with the blood of Abel.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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