What do the words abomination and unclean mean?

September 24th, 2015 Posted by Ask the Rabbi No Comment yet


In Scripture some things are called an abomination while others are unclean. What is the difference?

∼ Regina


Dear Regina,

What a difference a word can make! If you’ve been reading Thought Tools for a while or have listened to any of our audio CDs, you are aware of the snare of translations. We cannot guarantee that the English Bible you are reading is consistently using the words ‘unclean’ or ‘abomination’ for the corresponding Hebrew words, but we can comment on the two words we think the translation is most likely referring to.

unclean – טמא – TaMaY

abomination – תואבה – ToEyVaH

Unclean is one of the worst translation mistakes in Scripture. In a 2011 Thought Tool, we had this to say about the Hebrew word TaMaY:

“TaMaY is a complex concept meaning that we become subconsciously overwhelmed by a debilitating and disturbing sense of hopelessness, gloom, personal inadequacy and even death.”

As you can see, it has no relationship to cleanliness or hygiene. For example, in the most extreme example, contact with a dead body makes one TaMaY. That doesn’t mean that we should not lovingly wash a corpse and respectfully bury it. Taking care of the dead is an obligation. However, we must be aware of how contact with death affects us and make sure to counteract the effects with life-enhancing activity.

A ToEyVaH (abomination) on the other hand, is something that we should avoid. There is no need for or positive side of encountering it.

Hope this gives you a first step into a complex and deep subject,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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