Throughout the Bible reference is made to a system of ritual purity that had both social and theological significance for the Israelites. While its specific origins are not known, it can be related to practices in other ancient Near Eastern cultures in which cultic functionaries followed similar regulations, involving, for example, ritual washing and food restrictions. What appears to be unparalleled about the biblical system, however, is its extension beyond the priesthood to the general population.

In addition to cultic activity, texts describing ritual purity focus on food and individual status related to specific events. With regard to priestly behavior, those participating in sacrifice are required to purify themselves beforehand. This purification is achieved through ritual immersion. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, detailed lists are given of animals that are ritually pure and therefore permitted for consumption, and of those that are ritually impure and therefore prohibited. Leviticus and Numbers also contain regulations concerning the purification of individuals, regardless of cultic status, after childbirth, menstruation, ejaculation, disease, and contact with corpses.

While the regulations concerning ritual purity may be clear, their significance has been variously interpreted. The Hebrew words ṭāhôr and ṭāmēʾ are commonly translated “clean and “unclean” respectively, renderings which imply associations with dirt or hygiene not present in the original. Additional confusion results from the fact that while in our culture the difference between the human and the divine is often identified with the difference between the material and the spiritual, that was not the case in early Israel. Ritual purity and impurity could be considered spiritual states, yet they are inextricably linked to physical processes. In turn, physical acts such as sacrifice and sprinkling are used to alter relationships with the divine.

Following the lead of anthropologists such as Mary Douglas, many contemporary biblical scholars consider the status of being ṭāmēʾ as one of pollution resulting from a disruption of divine order. Thus, animals prohibited for food are those that cross paradigmatic boundaries of sky, earth, and sea. Shellfish, for example, live in the ocean but crawl like land animals. From this perspective, human ritual impurities are connected with disorder since they involve uncontrolled bodily emissions or death.

Another interpretation of biblical notions of ritual purity focuses on impurity as a state of power rather than pollution. Again using anthropological models, this view examines the relationships between human ritual impurity and liminal states, transitions between one status and another or between life and death. In a biblical context, it is argued, these moments are linked to the nature and power of the divine, a power that contains death and destruction as well as life and creation. They are also tied to actions, such as procreation and care for the dead, which are positive and necessary for social order. Thus, rather than being “unclean” or “impure” in a negative sense, the biblical state of ritual impurity is the result of contact with the sacred. This sense of ritual impurity is evident in the later rabbinic definition of canonical (i.e., sacred) texts as those which “render the hands ritually impure.” Biblical rituals of purification may have been the result of a belief that direct contact with divine power could be dangerous if sustained too long. This conception of divinity is supported by passages such as Exodus 33.20, where God warns Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” Another possibility is that ritual purifications served as a consistent reminder that the power of life and death is not human but divine.

A third interpretation addresses the social implications of the ritual purity system. The sociologist Nancy Jay has pointed out the priestly control involved in purifications and its retribution of reproductive powers from the individual women who exhibit them in menstruation and childbirth to the male (imaged) deity represented by male priests. Food prohibitions can also be interpreted functionally as a means of social separation.

While it may be argued that legislative texts concerning ritual purity are descriptive and relational in their uses of the terms ṭāhôr and ṭāmēʾ, other biblical writings imply a more polarized viewpoint. Ezekiel, for example, frequently uses ṭāmēʾ in contexts that clearly indicate a notion of defilement not only of persons but also of places, an impurity that is rooted in apostasy. Texts such as Lamentations 1.9 associate negative concepts of defilement with female sexuality as exemplified by menstruation. These different perspectives may be due to historical change, since the legislative materials are generally dated to earlier periods than the historical and prophetic texts.

With the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the cultic basis of the system of ritual purity was first disrupted and then destroyed. Remnants of the system were preserved in rabbinic practices such as ritual immersion for conversion or following menstruation, handwashing, and the separation of implements as well as categories of food in keeping kosher. While Christianity rejected the system as a whole, it retained ritual immersion in baptism.

See also Social Sciences and the Bible, article on Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible


Drorah O'Donnell Setel