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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Ritual Impurity

The bulk of the biblical purity laws concerns the situations and substances that render one ritually impure, and therefore temporarily unfit to encounter the sacred. Ritual impurity results from direct or indirect contact with any one of a number of natural sources or processes including childbirth (Lev. 12.1–8 ), certain skin diseases (13.1–46; 14.1–32), funguses in clothes (13.47–59) and houses (14.33– 53), genital discharges (15.1–33), the carcasses of certain impure animals (11.1–47), and human corpses (Num. 19.1–22). Paradoxically, ritual impurity also comes about as a by‐product of some sacrificial procedures (Lev. 16.28; Num. 19.7–8 ). The durations of these impurities differ, as do the requisite cleansing processes. In general, however, there are three distinct characteristics of ritual impurity: (1) The sources of ritual impurity are natural and more or less unavoidable. (2) It is not sinful to contract these impurities. (3) These impurities can convey an impermanent contagion to people (priests and Israelites) and to many items within close proximity.

That the sources of ritual impurity are natural is really quite clear. Birth, death, sex, disease, and discharge are part of life. Ritual impurity is also generally unavoidable. While certain defiling substances are relatively avoidable (e.g., touching carcasses), others are inescapable (discharge, disease, and death). Some ritual impurities are not just inevitable, but obligatory. All Israelites (priests included) are obligated to reproduce (Gen. 1.2; 9.7). All Israelites (except the high priest) are required to bury their deceased close relatives (Lev. 21.10–15; cf. 21.1–4 ). Priests are also obligated to perform cultic procedures that result in their defilement (Lev. 16.28; Num. 19.8 ).

It is not a sin to contract these ritual impurities. This idea proceeds logically from the observations drawn above. While priests must limit their contact with corpse impurity (Lev. 21.1–4 ), they are not prohibited from contracting other impurities (22.3–7). To be sure, priests and non‐priests alike are sternly warned against eating sacred food or entering sacred precincts when in a state of ritual impurity (Lev. 7.19–21; 22.3–7), lest they defile holy food or space. Yet the primary concern incumbent upon the priests is not to avoid ritual impurity at all times, but to safeguard the separation between ritual impurity and purity (Lev. 10.10; cf. Ezek. 44.23 ). By extension, Israelites are obliged to remain aware of their ritual status, lest they accidentally come into contact with the sacred while in a state of ritual impurity (Lev. 15.31 ). Because ritual impurity is contagious, the danger here is that defilement if left unchecked will accumulate and defile the Tabernacle or Temple, rendering it impure and unfit for divine habitation. It is for this reason that the refusal to purify oneself would constitute a transgression (Num. 19.20 ). But this does not make being ritually impure sinful in and of itself. As long as Israelites remain aware of their status and avoid contact with the Temple and holy objects while impure—and do what is necessary to ameliorate the situation—there is little chance of danger or transgression.

A few biblical narratives nevertheless view at least one form of ritual defilement as a punishment for moral shortcomings. Miriam was afflicted with a “leprous” or “scale” ailment when she spoke against Moses’ Cushite wife (Num. 12.10); the Judean King Uzziah was similarly afflicted when he sinfully asserted priestly prerogatives (2 Chron. 26.16–21 ). But viewing one particular skin disease as a possiblepunishment for sin is not tantamount to viewing ritual impurity as sinful in and of itself. If it were, the sinner would be defiling even without the manifestation of a defiling affliction. Thus the following claim still stands: It is not sinful to be ritually impure, and ritual impurity does not result directly from sin.

The third characteristic of ritual impurity is that it conveys to persons (priests and Israelites, men and women) an impermanent contagion. This is obviously true of the ritual impurity that Israelites contract from direct or indirect contact with a ritually impure carcass or another ritually impure Israelite. In such a case, the period of defilement can be as brief as less than one day, until the setting of the sun (Lev. 11.24; 15.7; Num. 19.22 ). The same holds for persons who engage in permitted sexual relations (Lev. 15.16–18 ). A man who has sexual contact with a menstruant or a person who comes into contact with a corpse will be ritually impure for a week (Lev. 15.24; Num. 19.11 ). Other defiling conditions can result in even longer periods of defilement; for example, the ritual impurity following childbirth lasts, in its less severe form, either thirty‐three or sixty‐six days (Lev. 12.1–8 ). Finally, irregular genital flows (for both men and women), scale disease, and house funguses last an unspecified amount of time. But even these forms of impurity are conceived of as impermanent—that is why the biblical tradition records purificatory procedures for all of them. There is no form of ritual impurity that does not have purificatory procedures; they may include waiting until sundown, bathing, washing clothes, and performing sacrificial rites. Even when long‐lasting, the status of ritual defilement is an impermanent one.

Clearly, ritual impurity cannot be understood simply as a concern with health or hygiene. There is no direct correspondence between what is unhealthy or unclean and what is impure. Some sources of impurity (such as a pig's carcass) may strike some as dirty in some way. But some things that even ancient Israelites considered to be dirty were not necessarily ritually defiling: Excrement, human and animal, is not impure according to the Priestly system described in the Torah, despite the fact that it was recognized to be dirty and contrary to holiness (Deut. 23.13–15; but cf. Ezek. 4.12–15).

The idea that ancient Israelites viewed what is unhealthy as impure finds only scant support in Lev. chs 13–14 , which discuss the ritual impurity that results from various obscure skin diseases and other funguses. Other biblical texts suggest that ancient Israelites knew about all sorts of diseases. If the concern with purity were the concern with health, we would expect all known diseases to be defiling. Yet only one kind of illness is defiling, and it defiles even when it affects a house or clothing, without affecting people. The concern in Lev. chs 13–14 is not with the spreading of the disease so much as with the spreading of impurity. All who come into contact with what is deemed “leprous” are impure, and are so for a day, whether or not they show signs of the disease.

It is also commonly believed that the dietary prohibitions extend from rules concerning health. (This view can be traced back, in part, to the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides.) This is nowhere explicit in biblical texts. Furthermore, while this is arguably true of certain defiling foods (e.g., pork), there is no known health risk associated with the majority of defiling land animals and birds. On the other hand, there are many known health risks associated with the consumption of various plants, but not even poisonous plants are viewed as defiling. There is, in the end, no direct association between health and purity, or between disease and defilement.

It can also be clearly seen now that ritual impurity is not a system put into place in order for priests to subordinate Israelites or for men to subordinate women. The subordination of classes—where it exists—needs to be supported by permanent or at least long‐lasting social stigmas that are selective in such a way as to support the intended socialagenda. Ritual impurity, however, is impermanent and applies to all Israelites—men and women, priests and laypersons. The system is therefore not well suited to reinforce any specific social hierarchies.

Traditional Judaism—in both the medieval and modern periods—has been primarily interested in the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. For a variety of reasons, this remains the only aspect of the biblical ritual impurity system that was maintained for very long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. But the Bible knows of no such selective focus. In Leviticus, genital flows from both men and women are sources of ritual defilement. “Leprous” impurities affect men and women equally, and the corpses of men and women equally constitute the most severe form of ritual defilement.

Even in the case of defilements pertaining to women, it is difficult to understand the rules as intending to subordinate them or exclude them. One must bear in mind that women would only experience menstrual impurity after puberty, before menopause, and when not pregnant or lactating. For most ancient Israelite women, periodic ritual defilement was probably not a monthly affair. Moreover, the procedures of ritual purification require women to come into the sanctuary and to actively participate in sacrificial procedures (Lev. 12.6–8 ). If the rules were meant to exclude women, one should wonder why rituals of purification serve to bring women into the sanctuary.

If ritual impurity is not directly related to sin, health, or hygiene, or the desire to subordinate laypersons or women, what then is its basis?

The common denominators of the varied sources of ritual defilement are death and sex. Concerns with death‐avoidance explain the defilements associated with corpses, carcasses, and the loss of reproductive genital fluids. Death‐avoidance can also explain the concern with the skin disease, which is explicitly described as decomposition of the flesh (Num. 12.12). Yet death‐avoidance on its own does not explain why sex and birth defile. The only substances that flow from the body and defile are sexual/genital in nature. (Even blood flowing from the veins of a dying person is not ritually defiling.) The dual concerns with death and sex provide the basis for understanding all of the ritual purity rules.

The ritual purity system of ancient Israel serves to force a separation between the experience of encountering God's sanctity and matters pertaining to death and sex. Because God is eternal, God does not die. Because God has no consort, God does not have sex. Therefore, by separating from sex and death—by following the ritual purity regulations—ancient Israelites separated themselves from what made them least God‐like. Only a heightened God‐like state—the state of ritual purity—made one temporarily eligible to approach the sanctuary, God's holy residence among the Israelites (Exod. 24.8 ). Following the ritual purity laws is yet another way of behaving in accordance with the theological underpinning of the Holiness Collection: imitatio Dei (Lev. 11.44–45; 19.2; 20.7, 26 ).

Ritual impurity is for these reasons diametrically opposed to holiness. And as noted, ritual purity—the established absence of any ritual defilement—is the prerequisite for encountering God's holy presence, as manifest in the tabernacle or the Temple. But this formula is not reversible: The lack of holiness does not necessarily constitute ritual impurity. There are in fact four possible states. At either end of the spectrum are the dia‐ metrically opposed statuses of ritual impurity and holiness. In between the extremes are two intermediary—and in many cases, overlapping—positions. Working in from one end, in the absence of impurity one can be considered to be pure (tahor). Working in from the other end, in the absence of holiness one can be considered to be “common” (πol) (Lev. 10.10 ). It has been emphasized that the prohibitions related to ritual impurity primarily involve the dangers associated with bring‐ ing what is impure into contact with what is holy. It remains permitted for pure andimpure persons and things to commingle in non‐holy, “common” space. For instance, when Israelites consumed food that was permitted but not sacrificial (and thus not holy), ritually pure and impure persons were permitted to consume such food together (Deut. 12.15 ).

It is difficult to know how widely these regulations were followed in ancient Israel. They are reflected in detail only in Priestly literature, and in related texts such as Ezekiel. Priestly material is particularly concerned with these issues, since priests were responsible for the ritual purity of the Temple. References to ritual impurity can nonetheless be identified in a variety of other texts (e.g., Deut. 23.11–12; 2 Sam. 11.4; Isa. 52.11 ). Ritual purity should not therefore be understood as an issue of concern only to priests.

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