Rebirth and Renewal
The Bible tells us that contact with a dead body renders one tameh, impure. In English, the word “impure” has negative connotations, but in Hebrew it merely connotes a certain state of being. The result of being impure in Judaism is for the most part associated with practices in and guidelines surrounding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and its precursor the Mishkan, the tabernacle that traveled with the Jewish people in the desert during their biblically recorded journey from Egypt to Israel.
Being human is a strange thing. Humans are endowed with higher knowledge, the ability to be self-reflective and knowledgeable, a sense of a larger divine harmony, and a unique ability to love. Yet we die after a short and fragile life, seemingly no different from any animal. This conflict between life and death is the source of perhaps the greatest human anxiety and existential conflict.
The mitzvah of burying the dead is so important that if a corpse has no one to burry it, even a Kohen Gadol, the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, was commanded to do such a burial even though he was usually never allowed to become tameh by being in the same room or coming in contact with a dead human body.
Though the Bible does not give reasons for the laws and spiritual concepts of purity and impurity, many commentators point to the fact that all sources of impurity in Judaism are connected with death in some way. There is nothing embarrassing or bad about death in Judaism; in fact, the physical body is seen as a holy temple that holds the soul.
In the story of Adam and Eve, the Bible relates that the human body is made from dirt and then the soul, an actual part of God, is put inside us to animate us. The soul, Judaism believes, is in many ways our true self. When the soul departs from the body and returns to its maker the body returns to dust. This body, Judaism tells us, is a holy thing and deserves respect because it houses us and our true self, our divine soul.
Cleansing the Body
It is a great mitzvah, a holy act of kindness, to take care of the body and prepare it for burial. In Judaism, the body is so important and respected that it is ritually washed before it is put in white shrouds and buried with a little bit of dirt from the Land of Israel placed under the deceased's head.
Though burying the dead is such a holy act, whenever one comes in contact with a source of death or something related to it — for instance, if you have gone to war or been to a funeral — you must go through a purification process before retuning fully to regular life, especially before entering the ancient Holy Temple, the source of Judaism's spiritual life.
Female menstruation and male ejaculation are also considered sources of impurity in Judaism, though less so than a dead body. Both menstruation and ejaculation are perhaps sources of impurity because in both instances the possibility of new life, of forming a new child, did not come to fruition. As a result, neither a man who has ejaculated nor a woman who has menstruated could go into the Holy Temple without first immersing in a body of rain water, an ocean, or a spring-fed river. A body of rainwater that is used for this purification process is called a mikvah.