On the Origins of Tevilah (Ritual Immersion)
For over two millennia, Jews have been practicing tevilah, immersion of the entire body in water for the purpose of removing ritual impurity (טומאה). Although the Torah includes numerous injunctions to wash with water in order to remove various types of ritual impurity, invariably the verb used to prescribe such purificatory cleansings is the non-specific “rachatz” (רחץ, “wash”; e.g. Lev. 15:5–8, 10–11). But what did this term imply?
The Traditional-Rabbinic Understanding
The traditional rabbinic approach views immersion as a practice mandated by the Torah itself. One early rabbinic source (Sifra, Emor 4:7 [ed. Weiss, 96d]) exegetically derives this interpretation from the adjacent phrases found in Lev. 22:6–7:
כי אם רחץ בשרו, יכול יהיה מרחיץ אבר אבר ת”ל ובא השמש וטהר מה ביאת שמשו כולן כאחת אף במים כולן כאחת.
“Unless he has washed his body in water” (Lev. 22:6). Perhaps he should wash one limb at a time? Scripture teaches: “When the sun sets he shall be clean” (Lev. 22:7). Just as the setting of the sun occurs all at once, so too in water—all at once.
Whether or not this derashah served as the actual basis for ascribing immersion back to the Torah itself, the Tannaitic and Amoraitic rabbis were completely consistent in assuming that whenever the Torah commands its listeners to “wash” (“rachatz”) in order to remove impurity, nothing but full-body immersion is intended.
This simple, straightforward supposition is later taken up by the medieval sages (Rishonim), as exemplified by Maimonides in his opening to the laws of mikva’ot, in which he attributes this understanding to an oral tradition (“מפי השמועה”), presumably one which dates all the way back to Sinai (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mikva’ot 1:2):
כל מקום שנאמר בתורה רחיצת בשר וכבוס בגדים מן הטמאות—אינו אלא טבילת כל הגוף במקוה. וזה שנאמר בזב: “וידיו לא שטף במים” (ויקרא טו: יא), כלומר—שיטבול כל גופו. והוא הדין לשאר הטמאים, שאם טבל כולו חוץ מראש אצבעו הקטנה—עדיין הוא בטומאתו.
Every place that the Torah speaks of washing of flesh and laundering of clothing [to purify] from the impurities—nothing other than immersion of the entire body in a mikveh [is meant]. And that which is said of a man with a discharge: “[…] without having rinsed his hands in water” (Lev. 15:11)—that is to say that he must immerse his entire body. And the same is true for all other impure people, that if one immersed his entire body aside from the tip of his small finger—he remains impure.
וכל הדברים האלה אף על פי שהן מפי השמועה, הרי נאמר: “במים יובא וטמא עד הערב וטהר” (ויקרא: יא, לב)—בניין אב לכל הטמאים שיבואו במים.
And although all of these things are [known only] from tradition (mipi hashmuah, literally, “from an oral transmission”), it is nevertheless said [in the written Torah]: “[…] it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; then shall it be clean” (Lev. 11:32)—a basic principle applying to all that are impure that they should be put into water.
The Critical-Scientific Approach
This idea—namely that full-body immersion is mandated by the Torah itself (“מדאורייתא”)—appears to be unchallenged within the entire corpus of rabbinic literature. The critical scholar, however, makes no a priori assumptions about the antiquity of any given practice but rather attempts to trace the historical evolution of an idea from its earliest inception onwards on the basis of the available evidence—both textual and archaeological—and then tries to explain the possible reasons for such a development.
The Biblical Washing
As noted above, the Torah repeatedly and consistently uses the verb “rachatz” (רחץ, “wash”) whenever enjoining the use of water for cleansing the human body of impurity. This appears in the Deuteronomic, Priestly, and Holiness collections.
Nothing suggests that any of these sources had in mind bodily immersion as the specific method whereby such “washing” was to be performed. Quite the contrary—the verb “rachatz” appears elsewhere in contexts which clearly preclude immersion, namely the priests washing their hands and feet from the basin (e.g. Exod. 30:19; 40:31) and the (fully clothed) elders washing their hands over the eglah arufah (the broken-necked calf; Deut. 21:6). Sincerachatz clearly means something other than immersion in at least some instances, there is no reason to assume that it must refer to immersion whenever it is used to describe purificatory washings.
The Torah’s Use of Ṭaval in Other Cases
Biblical Hebrew uses the root “ṭaval” (טבל) for immersion. Indeed, we find this verb elsewhere in the Deuteronomistic and Priestly sources when the intention is to immerse (into water or other liquids):
ויקרא יד:נא וְלָקַח אֶת עֵץ הָאֶרֶז וְאֶת הָאֵזֹב וְאֵת שְׁנִי הַתּוֹלַעַת וְאֵת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה וְטָבַל אֹתָם בְּדַם הַצִּפֹּר הַשְּׁחוּטָה וּבַמַּיִם הַחַיִּים וְהִזָּה אֶל הַבַּיִת שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים.
Lev 14:51 He shall take the cedar wood, the hyssop, the crimson stuff, and the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle on the house seven times.
- Parts of the body
ויקרא ד:ו וְטָבַל הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־אֶצְבָּעוֹ בַּדָּם
Lev 4:6 The priest shall dip his finger in the blood…
- The entire person
מלכים ב ה:יד וַיֵּרֶד וַיִּטְבֹּל בַּיַּרְדֵּן שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים.
2 Kings 5:14 So he (Naaman) went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan. 
Bathsheba Washing on the Roof
Finally, when we are told of Bathsheba purifying herself by “washing” on the roof (2 Sam. 11:2, 4; “רחצת מעל הגג”), we can almost certainly preclude full-body immersion since it is unlikely that roofs of ancient dwellings could have supported any sort of water installation large enough to accommodate the complete immersion of an adult. As Dr. Hayah Katz has suggested in “Biblical Purification: Was it Immersion?” (TheTorah.com 2014) which shows the total absence of ritual baths in the First Temple period), it is likely that the biblical authors had a far simpler form of washing in mind—probably involving pouring water over the body from a utensil.
The Late Second Temple Period Sources
Apocrypha (Ben Sira and Judith)
Only a limited number of sources predating the first century C.E. refer to purificatory immersions. The very earliest of these—probably dating to the second century B.C.E.—are The Wisdom of Ben Sira (34:30), which refers to immersion after touching a corpse, and the Book of Judith, in which we find the heroine immersing herself in a spring in the valley of Bethulia (12:7). Neither of these sources, however, imply that full body immersion was the common practice used for ridding the body of a wide variety of ritual impurities.
Only one Qumran text  specifies immersion as the method to be used for purification (4QToharot A [4Q274] 2i 4–6):
[כ]ול נוגע בשכבת הזרע מאדם עד כול כלי יטבול והנושא אותו֗ [יטב]ו֯ל והבגד אשר תהיה עליו והכלי אשר ישאנה יטבול [במי]ם֯.
[What]ever comes in contact with semen, whether a person or any vessel, shall be immersed; and whoever bears it [shall immers]e; and the garment upon which it (the semen) is, as well as the vessel which bears it, is to be immersed [in wat]er.
It is difficult to know if the author of this text believed that immersion was the required method of purification for all impurities or if semen impurity is especially singled out, perhaps due to the fact that the Levitical injunction to wash for semen impurity is anomalous in specifying that the whole body is to be washed: ורחץ במים את כל בשרו (Lev. 15:16). Other Qumran texts simply fall back on the Pentateuchal verb “rachatz.”
It seems clear that by the first century C.E., immersion had become a prevalent—if not exclusive—method whereby ritual purificatory cleansing in water was performed. Josephus, for instance, in paraphrasing the Pentateuchal requirement that a man who engages in sexual intercourse or experiences a nocturnal emission of semen must “wash” (Lev. 15:16–18; 22:4–6; Deut. 23:12), writes that such a man achieves purification: “by submerging himself in cold water” (AJ 3:263).
The New Testament
The Gospel according to Mark (late 1st cent. C.E.), describes common Jewish ritual purification practices:
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews […] when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they immerse; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the immersion of cups, pitchers and bronze utensils” (Mark 7:3–4).
The Gospel according to Luke (ca. late 1st cent. to early 2nd cent. C.E.) tells of a Pharisee who invited Jesus to dine with him, but who subsequently was surprised to see that Jesus did not immerse before sitting down to eat” (Luke 11:38). In The Epistle to the Hebrews (ca. late 1st cent. C.E.), the cult of the Tabernacle is described as one which deals “only with food and drink and various immersions” (Hebrews 9:10).
From Washing to Immersion
The literary sources thus suggest a development over time from a simple, unspecified injunction to “wash” (D, P and H), to a far more particular practice of immersion by the first century C.E. at the very latest. But when did the practice of immersion first arise, why did this development occur and through what mechanism?
The Archaeological Evidence
From a purely practical perspective, full-body immersion is no simple affair. While ordinary washing can be performed virtually anywhere and requires nothing more than a jug or other small utensil capable of holding the requisite amount of water, immersion necessitates a large amount of water held in a space large enough for an entire human body. In a land with few water resources as is the southern Levant, access to natural bodies of water large enough to permit full-body immersion would have been limited.
The solution to this problem came with the introduction of the mikveh—the stepped pool. By dating the first appearance of this type of installation in the archaeological record, we may learn when immersion supplanted the earlier biblical norm of washing.
Mikva’ot: Hasmonean Period and After
Here we stand on rather firm ground; of the approximately 1,000 archaeological mikva’ot known today, not a single example predates the Hasmonean period (ca. 140–63 B.C.E.). The earliest installations—at Jericho, the Upper City of Jerusalem, and at Qumran—date to no earlier than the end of the second century B.C.E. and may possibly date to only the beginning of the next century. The archaeological data thus complement the textual evidence in suggesting that immersion emerged as the method of ritual purification rather late in the Second Temple period, probably no earlier than the late second century B.C.E. But why did this development occur at this point in time?
The Hellenistic Hip-Bath: Rethinking Body Cleansing
A possible explanation may be sought in the introduction of the hip-bath into Judea from the Greek-speaking regions of the Mediterranean, a development which occurred around this time. These bathtubs were large enough to allow the bather to sit inside on a fixed, step-like seat. Bathers would pour warm water over their bodies, after which they would have found themselves sitting in water up to their hips. Numerous such baths have been found at sites throughout the country.
Assimilation of Hellenistic bathing practices affected not only the way people actually bathed, but also how they thought about the very notion of cleansing the body. With the advent of the hip-bath, to “wash” oneself now meant to perform partial-body immersion. This conceptual development likely led to a profoundly new manner for understanding the biblical verb “rachatz.”
The Ritualization of the Biblical “Rachatz”
Tentatively, I would like to suggest that the path from partial-body immersion in a hip-bathtub to full-body immersion in a stepped pool might be charted through a process of “ritualization.” Religious-studies scholar Catherine Bell (1952–2008) has provided a useful characterization of “ritualization” as a way of acting that intentionally distinguishes itself from its non-ritualized counterpart:
Viewed as practice, ritualization involves the very drawing, in and through the activity itself, of a privileged distinction between ways of acting, specifically between those acts being performed and those being contrasted, mimed, or implicated somehow. That is, intrinsic to ritualization are strategies for differentiating itself—to various degrees and in various ways—from other ways of acting within any particular culture.
As an example, Bell cited the Christian Eucharist as a ritualized form of eating intentionally distinguished from a regular meal by fixing the amount of food eaten (insufficient for physical nourishment), its distinctive periodicity, and the character of the group which participates in it (only certain people may receive communion).
According to this suggestion, purificatory washing might similarly have been deliberately differentiated from conventional bathing by fixing its form as full-body immersion rather than partial-body immersion, and by localizing its performance in a stepped pool rather than in a hip-bath.
The Origins of Tevilah in Light of Early Rabbinic Halakhah
A number of regulations that relate to the use of “drawn water” (מים שאובין) in ritual purification practices suggest that tevilah evolved out of, and in response to, Hellenistic bathing culture:
The Invalidation of Drawn Water (מים שאובים) for Mikveh
For the rabbis, a mikveh might be made invalid for immersion if it contained “drawn water,” defined as water collected in an artificial utensil through human agency (see: m. Mikvaot, Chap. 2–7). No explanation is given for why “drawn water” invalidates a pool. Even more surprising is a ruling in the Mishnah that bathing in “drawn water” is not only invalid for effecting purification, but actually defiles the person who was earlier completely pure!Again, the Mishnah gives no explanation for this most enigmatic of rulings.
It seems quite likely that the rabbinic ordinations against “drawn water” are actually a further expansion and elaboration upon the process of ritualization that—as proposed above—generated the practice of full-body immersion in the first place. “Drawn water” epitomized the type of water used in Hellenistic bathing culture, featuring as it did the affusion of warm water poured from a utensil over the bather sitting in a hip-bath.
By invalidating a pool into which “drawn water” had fallen, and by defiling a person upon whose body “drawn water” had been poured, full-body immersion was clearly differentiated from conventional bathing practices. If, as I have suggested, the emergence of immersion can be explained through the process of ritualization, the rabbinic regulations against “drawn water” might best be characterized as a subsequent kind of “hyper-ritualization.”
Personal Postscript: Traditional vs. Critical Scholarship
I can imagine that at this point some readers might think that this historical reconstruction is unnecessary at best and overly conjectural at worst. Should we really abandon the traditional ascription of tevilah all the way back to Sinai—a belief accepted unanimously by rabbinic authorities throughout the ages—in favor of a hypothetical historical reconstruction proposed by modern scholarship?
Herein, I believe, lies the crucial difference between traditional and critical modes of thinking about the past. Tradition provides believers with a sense of certainty while critical scholarship thrives on doubt. For the traditionally-minded, the Torah as interpreted through the rabbis affords authoritative knowledge about the past. For the critically-minded, certainty is always elusive—and yet we still strive to avail ourselves of all relevant data in order to do the best we can to carefully reconstruct a plausible history.
I recognize that for many, personal fidelity to halakhic observance has very little to do with questions of origins. Adherence to halakhah can provide a meaningful framework for framing one’s Jewish life and existence, regardless of how and when the laws themselves came to be.
For many observant Jews, however, an accurate understanding of the origins of Jewish law is crucial. Those for whom commitment to halakhah is contingent upon traditional views about origins may find themselves forced either to reject the critical-historical approach altogether—or else to reject the authoritative force traditionally assigned to halakhah.
For some, however, the two approaches outlined in this essay can be mutually compatible; traditional rabbinic attributions of halakhot to Sinaitic revelation may be embraced from a religious if not factual standpoint, while at the same time the conclusions of critical scholarship may be accepted from an historical perspective.
However one chooses to deal with this challenge, I urge that great care be taken never to conflate and confuse the two distinct approaches surveyed here.
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April 19, 2017
September 20, 2020
Dr. Yonatan Adler is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Ariel University. He studied at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, where he received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and subsequently earned his PhD in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University. Adler has written extensively on the topic of archaeological evidence relating to the observance of halakhah, covering topics such as ancient mikva’ot, ancient tefillin found in the Judean Desert, and chalkstone vessels (used by Jews who observed the purity laws). He currently directs archaeological excavations at ‘Einot Amitai, a chalkstone vessel workshop in Galilee. He also heads the “Origins of Halakhic Judaism Project” at the Institute of Archaeology at Ariel University.
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