When comparing and contrasting different types of tum’ah the Gemara discusses three sources of tum’ah that derive from a corpse –
- Melo tarvaad rakav – a full ladle of dust from a corpse,
- Etzem ke-se’ora – a bone the size of a barley grain,
- Golel ve-dofek – a grave cover and a grave wall.
The commentaries disagree about how to define the terms golel ve-dofek. Many commentaries, including Rashi, explain that the golel is the cover to a casket, while the dofek are the walls of the casket, upon which the golel rests. This appears to be the position of the Rambam, as well, who explains (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Oholot 2:4) that the walls of the casket are called the dofek because they press down – doḥakim – on the dead body. Rabbeinu Tam argues that our Gemara clearly relates to these things as being above ground, “in the open field,” so they cannot possibly be part of the casket. He suggests that these terms relate to the tombstone that is aboveground, with the golel as the large stone placed above the grave (apparently horizontally), while the dofek refers to the stones upon which the golel lies – pressing down on them.
These explanations clearly relate to the burial practices that were common in the Medieval period. During Mishnaic times, burial traditions in Israel often included interring the corpse in a burial cave that served as a temporary grave where it would decompose. At a later date, the bones would be removed and transferred to a family burial cave. This cave was sealed by means of a “rolling stone” – a golel – which was held in place with another stone – a dofek. In some cases, wax or clay with the impression of the owner’s seal was placed between the stone and the wall so that it could be easily determined if the tomb had been opened. To enable people to descend into the large tomb, the dofek was pried loose and the golel was rolled away.