Biblical Purification: Was it Immersion?
Parashat Metzora deals with tumah (טומאה, variously translated as “impurity,” “uncleanness” or “defilement”) and toharah (טהרה, “purity” or “cleanness”). The term tumahcovers a variety of impurities, such as that associated with corpses, with the consumption of forbidden animals, and with bodily discharges; toharah can refer to a variety of procedures through which purity is to be restored.
Purification from defilement by a corpse requires sprinkling of the water of purification (Num. 19). Purification following childbirth or leprosy entails the bringing of a sacrifice (Lev. 12:6; Num. 14:32). Purification from other sorts of defilement, such as that caused by contact with the bedding of a person with particular bodily discharges, only requires a day to pass (Lev. 15:5, 16). Even though the biblical legislator prescribed different forms of cleansing for different sorts of defilement, most share the common denominator of washing with water as part of the purification process.
Washing with Water: In what Form?
In biblical usage, the term “rachatz” (רחץ, “wash,”) denotes both everyday washing (Gen. 24:32; 2 Sam. 11:8) and ritual washing (Lev. 14:8-9; 16:24). Biblical law prescribes ritual washing as the final stage in the purification process, but nowhere does it specify how the required washing is to be carried out. Was it by immersing the entire body at one time in an installation constructed specifically for purposes of purification (in the manner known to us from the miqvaot of Second Temple times and later) or in a natural water source, such as a pool or a spring? Another possibility that cannot be excluded from the text itself is pouring water from a vessel onto the body.
The regularity within daily life of defilement associated with menstruation or emission of semen requires us to assume that washing for purification was not a marginal concern in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah; on the contrary, it must have been a routine necessity of daily life. We must therefore re-examine the ways in which the ancient Israelites and Judahites may have carried out purification, taking account of geo-morphological data and archaeological findings. Such an analysis can then serve as a basis for an attempt to reconstruct the way in which purification was actually carried out.
Water Sources and Their Utilization
The water supply available to the residents of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for both every day and cultic use, had three principal sources: springs found near settled areas, wells and waterworks excavated to reach groundwater, and cisterns and reservoirs built to collect surface runoff from rainfall or overflowing streams. Archaeological and hydrological studies conducted have shown that water resources varied from place to place. The mountainous areas are rich in springs, but other areas, such as the Shephelah (foothills) and the Beersheba valley, have very few.
The water supply in the Shephelah came primarily from wells dug down to groundwater and cisterns that collected surface runoff. The area’s high water table could be reached by digging wells to a depth of only some twenty meters. The reality of supplying water by digging wells that reach groundwater is evident in the account of Isaac’s servants digging wells in the region of Gerar (Gen. 26:17:22).
During the course of the First Temple period water systems were built in many cities to provide in-town access to water. The water systems that have been found at the various sites primarily include reservoirs meant to store surface run-off waters; examples include the reservoir at Beth-Shemesh and the pool at Gibeon. Other water systems include excavated tunnels; one example is the Siloam Tunnel in Jerusalem that brought water from the Gihon spring to storage pools.
The identification in surveys and digs of public water systems, wells and cisterns allows us to posit that if there had been any sort of installations allowing for the immersion of the entire body in the First Temple period such installations would be evident in archaeological findings. In light of the lack of installations intended for immersion we can assume that the water source used for washing depended on the hydrology of the region. Where springs were readily available, washing was accomplished by immersing in a spring or by pouring water on the body. Since springs were available they had the option to choose or in a spring or by pouring water on the body. In other areas, however, washing consisted of water being poured on the body from a vessel and did not include immersion.
Purification by Pouring Water on the Body from a Vessel
Biblical law identifies only three instances in which purification is to be accomplished with the use of mayim Chayyim (מים חיים, “running water,” literally “living water”): defilement by a corpse (Num. 19:17), by a non-routine bodily discharge (Lev. 15:11), or by leprosy (Lev. 14:5, 50), see further below. In these instances, part of the purification process requires use of water that flows continuously.
In all other cases of defilement, purification is accomplished by washing in water, without any requirement that it be running water. It is reasonable to assume that the form taken by ritual washing for the purpose of purifying the body was directly derived from the forms of washing that were possible in the various regions of Judah.
The only source that refers to the process of purification as it was actually carried out is the account of Bathsheba’s purification in 2 Sam. 11:2-4. David sees Bathsheba washing herself on her roof since “it was the time of her purification (והיא מתקדשת מטמאתה).” According to this account, which seems in no way tendentious, washing for the purpose of purification was done within the confines of the residential structure; it clearly was not done by immersion in a natural water source such as a spring or a stream outside the town.
Since we know that bathtubs were not used for washing within Judean residences, Bathsheba could not have purified herself by immersing her entire body in a bath-like installation that allowed the entire body to be in the water at one time. Only one other possibility remains, and that is washing by pouring water on the body from a vessel – the sort of washing that could take place anywhere in the house, including on the roof.
Ancient Near Eastern Purification
Purification by pouring water on the limbs of the body appears in various ritual ceremonies in the Ancient Near East. In Egypt, every temple included a room designated for purification. The room was built outside the temple itself, but it was part of the sacred area. Scenes of purification ceremonies show the person being purified (usually the king) flanked on both sides by two gods pouring water on his head.
The purification ceremony known as bit rimki (“House of Bathing”) was widespread in Mesopotamia from the time of Gudea, the late-third-millennium ruler of Lagash, until the neo-Babylonian period. The ceremony was meant to purify any individual, but it seems generally to have been undergone by the king. The purification was accomplished by passage through seven rooms, in each of which the person being purified was required to wash his hands while declaiming incantations that were also recited by the priest accompanying him. These examples show that even in regions with readily available sources of water in which immersion was possible, purification was often accomplished not by immersion of the entire body, but by pouring water over the body or parts of it.
The Two Stage Purification of the Leper
In Parashat Metzora purification from leprosy included use of living water, but this did not entail the immersion of the impure person in the water (Lev. 14:5-6).
ה וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וְשָׁחַט אֶת הַצִּפּוֹר הָאֶחָת אֶל כְּלִי חֶרֶשׂ עַל מַיִם חַיִּים. ו אֶת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה יִקַּח אֹתָהּ וְאֶת עֵץ הָאֶרֶז וְאֶת שְׁנִי הַתּוֹלַעַת וְאֶת הָאֵזֹב וְטָבַל אוֹתָם וְאֵת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה בְּדַם הַצִּפֹּר הַשְּׁחֻטָה עַל הַמַּיִם הַחַיִּים.
The priest shall order one bird slaughtered into a vessel over living water, and he shell take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson yarn; and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the living water.
This purification involves two separate and independent stages. In the first, the living water is sprinkled from the vessel on the person undergoing purification. The second stage includes laundering of clothes, shaving of the hair, and washing in water (verses 7-8). “Living water” is used for purification but it is placed in a vessel and sprinkled on the person being purified. Only later does he complete the process by washing in water, and that is not necessarily done in running water.
Only in the case of purifying someone who has had an unusual bodily discharge does it say that he shall wash his body in living water, then he shall be pure (Lev. 15:13). Here, the washing itself is to be done with living water. Since both the leper (Num. 19: 17-19) and the person defiled by a corpse are not required, as part of their purification, to immerse their entire bodies at once in living water, presumably even the man who had an unusual discharge does not immerse his entire body either. Rather, he accomplishes the required washing by pouring “living water” – running water – onto his body from a vessel.
Implications: Whence Miqvaot?
The existence of rules governing purification in all ancient Near Eastern cultures makes it likely that the biblical rules on these issues depict practices that actually existed in Israelite society during the time of the First Temple. According to the biblical rule, the purification rite was completed by washing in water, but nowhere is the precise nature of the necessary washing specified. The absence of installations meant for ritual washing, along with the limited availability of springs and cisterns within the borders of the Kingdom of Judah, require us to assume that while immersion in springs was a possible mode of purification, in most instances ritual washing during the time of the First Temple appears to have been accomplished by pouring water from a vessel over the body. That purification could take place within the confines of a private residence, as in the case of Bathsheba.
Only from the period of the Second Temple onwards—the earliest miqvaot we find date from the second century BCE—do we witness a change in the manner of ritual washing, such that purification comes to require immersion of the entire body, all at once, in running water. The change is expressed in the Second Temple period in archaeological findings that include dozens of immersion baths (see, more broadly, Reich 1990). These changes find written expression in the Mishnaic texts that detail the way in which purification is to be carried out (Mishnah Miqvaot).
It seems fair to infer that this process should be linked to the full range of changes that took place in Jewish society during the time of the Second Temple. We see during that time a series of cultural changes grounded in even-increasing strictness regarding the laws of purity and impurity. That increasing stringency manifested itself in many areas of life, including an insistence on full bodily immersion as the exclusive means for achieving purification.
In addition, during the Roman period, washing in a bathhouse became the most common form of washing, and that was the case in Jewish society as well. It is reasonable to assume that, in combination, these factors could have led to a change in how ritual washing was carried out and to the requirement of full-body immersion. First, bathhouses became popular during the Roman period. Until then, baths are rare in this area (as opposed, for example to Mesopotamia or the Mycenaean world.) Second, the requirement to be strict in purity and impurity matters became an “issue” only during the Second Temple period. Although each factor originated distinctly, the confluence of both may explain the origin of the miqvaot and their importance and ubiquity in late Second Temple times.
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March 31, 2014
July 4, 2020
Dr. Hayah Katz is a teaching faculty member in the Dept. of History, Philosophy and Judaic Studies at The Open University of Israel. She published A Land of Corn and Wine … a Land of Olive-Trees and of Honey: The Economy of Judah Kingdom in the First Temple Period [Hebrew]. Katz also writes on the history of Israeli archeology, and published a biography of Professor Ruth Amiran. She is a member of the Tel ‘Eton expedition team as an associate director and responsible for pottery analysis.
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