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Aesthetic and emotional aspects are present, as both human and divine beings are thought to enjoy that which is whole, clean, and radiant and to shun what is smelly, smeared, and smitten, especially when it threatens human life and order.

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Consequently, purification suggests the removal of dirt, pollution, or contaminating matter and at times partially overlaps with other concepts, such as sanctification and healing. It is necessitated by breaches of cultic prescriptions, or codes of conduct, including behaviors that evoke divine displeasure or wrath. It may also be necessary in a number of situations which do not involve any willful transgression, but rather belong to the course of normal life, such as birth, death, marriage, and disease. In addition, purification is a natural preparation for situations of heightened religious experience, encountering the divine and visiting sanctuaries to perform regular sacrifices.

Sacrifice, Defilement, Purity, Impurity

Some purificatory rituals are self-administered, while others are performed by ritual specialists. Not only persons and objects, but also places, buildings, and in some instances foodstuff and drink can be purified. Since impurity is usually understood as an acquired state that could be entered and exited, purification rituals are repeatable. However, some exceptional impurities for which there are no purification rituals prescribed, are regarded as permanent, and can only be handled by removal or destruction.

Another version of food impurity is found in Deut The Holiness Laws Lev 17—26 frequently use purity language in relation to various types of disapproved behavior and some of the psalms, and some of the prophets do, too, in particular in relation to sexual misconduct and worship of foreign deities e. Ezra and Nehemiah use purity language in relation to foreign influence and non-Israelites. Concepts of purity and impurity also surface in a number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts: narratives like Judith and Tobit, in various apocalyptic texts, and in historical texts about and around the Maccabean revolt.

A considerable number of Qumran texts, and also the earlier known Damascus Document , discuss issues of purity and impurity, in particular 1QS, 4QMMT, and a number of fragmentary texts from Cave 4. The Mishnah and the Tosefta deal with purity and impurity repeatedly, especially in the tractates of the sixth order, Tohoroth , and purity issues are conspicuous in the Sifra to Leviticus and the Sifre to Numbers.

The Oxford Conference on the Synoptic Problem. Currents in Research, Vol. Orphans in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Regev, Eyal Numen, Vol. Google Scholar Citations. Scopus Citations. Check if you have access via personal or institutional login. Log in Register. Export citation Request permission. These conditions affect first and foremost the people suffering from them. However, the priestly thinking about impurity further understands the state of impurity to be transferable from one person to another, or from a person to an object, and vice versa.

Such transference can occur in numerous ways, such as by direct and indirect touch, by spittle, through sexual means, or in the case of corpse impurity, even by simply being under the same roof as the corpse. Corresponding to these primary and secondary states of impurity, the priestly source defines different degrees of severity of impurity by legislating different durations of states of impurity, as well as different procedures of purification. For example, a woman who menstruates is in a status of impurity for seven days, but the one who touches her for the remainder of the day only Lv.


A person who has been affected by corpse impurity remains in a status of impurity for seven days Nm. Purification is effected by various aspects: 1 by time, or by simply waiting a set amount of time free of the physiological condition that caused the status of impurity to begin with; 2 by water, that is, by washing one's clothes if one has touched an impure person or object, or washing the object such a person touched e.

Surprisingly, the biblical text noticeably omits the practice of washing or immersion in all cases of women's impurity, after birthing as well as after menstruating and after suffering from an abnormal genital discharge. Finally, a further and less obvious means of purification is constituted by the ritual of the red heifer which is burned and whose ashes are mixed with fresh "living" water to be sprinkled on the objects and people affected by corpse impurity Nm. These priestly regulations concerning ritual impurity and the process of purification avoid any suggestion that they should be understood as punitive measures.

Contracting a ritual status of impurity does not constitute a transgression in any way, neither of a legal nor a moral kind. On the contrary, in most cases impurity is the result of a natural occurrence in a person's life, such as birth, ejaculation, menstruation, and death. Also, ritual impurity is a temporary status, which can easily be ameliorated. In this context, the legal rhetoric merely suggests that if ritual impurity is contracted, a process of purification specified in the text should be undergone.

Surprisingly, this applies even to the man who has sexual relations with a menstruating woman Lv. The actual prohibition of menstrual sex Lv. Here, contrary to Leviticus , the man and the woman are threatened with karet commonly translated as "cutting off from their people", Lv.

This tension between sources of biblical law makes the case of menstrual impurity unique, since here two different discourses overlap, the discourse of ritual impurity and the discourse of regulations of sex. The priestly source, however, generally lacks warnings of transgression in the context of defining the process of contracting a status of impurity. It merely warns people to avoid bringing impurity in touch with the sanctuary: "Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their impurity, so that they do not die in their impurity by impurifying my tabernacle that is in their midst" Lv.

Finally, especially in the context of corpse impurity, the priestly law enjoins people to purify themselves, or else Nm. Hence, the Israelites are enjoined to be aware of their ritual status, rather than being told to avoid impurity altogether, notes Jonathan Klawans in Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. This applies especially to the priests Lv.

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It is the priestly notion of ritual purity that is subsequently encoded in Jewish law since rabbinic law draws predominantly on this concept of purity. The earliest rabbinic legal code of the end of the second century ce, the Mishnah, devotes one of its six orders to "Purities" a euphemism for what should be "Impurities" , subdivided into twelve tractates, in order to further develop the laws of ritual purity. Individual tractates are devoted to the impurity of a corpse, of vessels, of the menstruating woman, of the man with an abnormal genital discharge, and others.

Early rabbinic law aims to systematize the degrees of impurity into originary and derivative sources. Further, the rabbis also specify in the greatest detail what a normative pool of immersion mikveh for purification as an actual built structure should look like. While biblical law merely speaks of "living water" as a means of immersion Lv. Significantly, rabbinic law accepts it as a given that women immerse in the mikveh at the end of their period of impurity e. Theoretically, therefore, rabbinic law remains wedded to the functional aspect of ritual purity with the Temple as the implied point of reference.

However, no such prohibition applies to common food, and it is permitted to eat common food that is impure and to drink impure liquids. However, already at the time of the Mishnah, the Temple in Jerusalem no longer existed. With the destruction of the Temple 70 ce the laws of ritual purity lost their point of reference and, therefore, their context of applicability. This is often cited as the reason for the lack of a talmudic discussion of the mishnaic "Order of Purities," with the notable exception of the tractate dealing with menstrual impurity. Regulations of menstruation remain applicable due to the prohibition of menstrual sex in the Holiness Code , which, according to the rabbis, applies independent of any historical context, whether pertaining to the existence of the Temple or conditions of exile.

Generally, the entire system of purification has been rendered inoperable in the post-Temple era, since sacrifices form an integral part of the purification process. Furthermore, since medieval times all Jews are considered to be in a status of corpse impurity, due to the cessation of the ritual of the red heifer and its function of purification from corpse impurity.

Consequently, the codification of the purity laws in Jewish law by and large remains a theoretical issue. Various scholars have attempted to explain the rationale of the priestly system of ritual purity in biblical and, by implication, later Jewish law. The priestly writers themselves do, of course, not provide any explanations for either the origins or the reasons for any of their purity regulations.

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In describing the "priestly theology" of impurity, the biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, in his work Leviticus 1 — A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary , takes a history-of-religion approach which posits "Israel's victory over pagan beliefs" in almost each one of its rituals of purification Milgrom, , pp. He thinks of this process in terms of a monotheistic reworking of pagan conceptions of demonic impurity.

Accordingly, Milgrom traces the ostensible background of pagan Mesopotamian religion to the priestly writers, in which the deities are dependent on a metadivine realm that spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities. The malevolent metadivine entities were perceived to be the source of human pollution, a threat both to humans and gods, and purification entailed a process of exorcism.

According to Milgrom, in his Leviticus 1 — 16 , the biblical writers partially adopt, with significant changes, this mythical imagination, but they thoroughly eviscerate the pagan demonic force, which finds its expression in their concept of impurity.

God can still be driven out of the sanctuary, but it is now humans who do so by polluting it with their moral and ritual transgressions. And now it is exclusively the sanctuary.