Purity of Priests: Contamination through Marriage
Introduction: The Holiness of Priests
A major concern of the Priestly Sources (P and H) is safeguarding the holiness of everything closely associated with God, including the priests (כהנים) who serve God in the Tabernacle.
One of the ways of safeguarding holiness is to avoid pollution (טמאה), including pollution from contact with the dead. A priest is prohibited from any contact with the dead, except for immediate family members: his mother, father, son, daughter, brother, or unmarried sister (Lev 21:1–4). To dissociate priests from death even further, the text prohibits them from shaving or mutilating their bodies, both mourning practices (v. 5).
Protecting the High Priest’s Purity
The high priest (הכהן הגדול מאחיו)—who alone may enter the holy of holies—is restricted even further. He can have no contact with the dead, even immediate family members (v. 11), and must refrain even from milder signs of mourning, such as tearing his clothing or disheveling his hair (v. 10). He is also forbidden from ever leaving the sacred precincts (מקדש), presumably to avoid any possible contact with pollution (v. 12).
Holiness in Marriage
Immediately following the laws restricting contact with the dead (vv. 1-4) are the laws about maintaining the priest’s (and his family’s) holiness with respect to marriage (vv. 6-9). This is followed by laws for the high priest, in the same order: first the limitations on his mourning prerogatives (vv. 10-12) and next the limitations on whom he may marry (vv. 13-15).
Leviticus 21:7 lists the types of women whom a priest is forbidden to marry:
ויקרא כא: ז אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה לֹא יִקָּחוּ וְאִשָּׁה גְּרוּשָׁה מֵאִישָׁהּ לֹא יִקָּחוּ כִּי־קָדֹשׁ הוּא לֵאלֹהָיו׃
Lev 21:7 They shall not marry a woman who is a prostitute or a profane woman, and they shall not take a wife divorced from her husband, for he [the priest] is holy unto his God.
Three categories of women are prohibited:
- Prostitute (זֹנָה)
- Profane woman (חֲלָלָה, likely meaning a woman who had sex outside of marriage; see appendix)
- Divorcée (אִשָּׁה גְּרוּשָׁה מֵאִישָׁהּ)
As with the other laws in this chapter, the regulations on the high priest are stricter:
ויקרא כא:יג וְהוּא אִשָּׁה בִבְתוּלֶיהָ יִקָּח׃
Leviticus 21:13 He shall marry a woman in her virginity.
יד אַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה וַחֲלָלָה זֹנָה אֶת־אֵלֶּה לֹא יִקָּח כִּי אִם־בְּתוּלָה מֵעַמָּיו יִקַּח אִשָּׁה׃
14 He shall not marry a widow, a divorcée, a profane woman, or a prostitute. He shall marry only a virgin of his own people.
The order in which the prohibited categories are listed here is the reverse of that in the law for ordinary priests (above); more significantly, the list includes an additional prohibition of marrying a widow. The sequence is:
- Widow (אַלְמָנָה)
- Divorcée (גְרוּשָׁה)
- Profane woman (חֲלָלָה)
- Prostitute (זֹנָה)
In prohibiting even a widow, the text requires that the high priest marry a virgin. Moreover, the text requires that this virgin be “of his own people” (מֵעַמָּיו), a vague term that can refer to a group as small as a family or as large as a nation.
The Women Prohibited to Priests in Ezekiel
Ezekiel 44 also lists laws about whom priests may marry. This legislation is part of the final section of Ezekiel (chs. 40-48), which lays out a prophetic vision of the rebuilt temple and is likely based on some version of the legislation in Leviticus. Unlike the Torah, Ezekiel 44 makes no mention of a high priest, and the marital restrictions on priests are somewhere between those that Leviticus 21 prescribes for ordinary priests and those that it prescribes for the high priest:
יחזקאל מד:כב וְאַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה לֹא־יִקְחוּ לָהֶם לְנָשִׁים כִּי אִם־בְּתוּלֹת מִזֶּרַע בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר תִּהְיֶה אַלְמָנָה מִכֹּהֵן יִקָּחוּ׃
Ezek 44:22 They shall not marry a widow or a divorcée; they shall marry only virgins of the seed of the house of Israel. But they may marry the widow of a priest.
This text explicitly prohibits any priest from marrying a widow or a divorcée. The prostitute and profane woman are not mentioned explicitly, but the text clarifies that priests are required to marry virgins who are Israelites (likely an interpretation of עַמָּיו, “his own people” [Leviticus 21:14]). The one stark difference between Ezekiel’s law concerning all priests and that of Leviticus concerning the high priest is that according to Ezekiel, a priest may marry the widow of another priest.
One possible understanding of the laws in Leviticus and Ezekiel is that they are intended to protect the purity of the priestly lineage. A non-virgin might have conceived a child before marrying the priest, and the child might then be mistaken for a priest. But this rationale does not justify a blanket prohibition on divorcées. A priest could simply be required to wait several months after the divorce before marrying the woman to ensure that she was not pregnant. Furthermore, it does not explain the distinction between a divorcée and a widow: if a divorcée could be suspected of pregnancy, a widow might be suspected as well.
Protection of Priestly Status
Another line of reasoning relates to priestly status. Out of respect for the prestige of the priesthood, it was necessary for the priest to marry a woman of higher status or “quality.” A woman who had sex outside marriage would be considered morally debased. And although this might not necessarily apply to a divorcée, the fact of her rejection by another man raises the suspicion that there is something wrong with her, morally or otherwise. Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom, 1288-1344), for example, writes:
אשה גרושה מאישה לא יקחו –כבר יורה היותה גרושה שנמצא בה דבר גנות, ואין ראוי שיקח הכהן לאשה מי שלא היתה הגונה לישראל.
“They shall not take a wife divorced from her husband” — The fact that she was divorced shows that something negative about her was discovered, and it is not appropriate for a priest to marry a woman who did not befit an ordinary Israelite.
A widow was not problematic in this way, and therefore was permitted to ordinary priests. But the high priest was required to marry a virgin, who was considered an inherently higher-quality bride than a non-virgin.
Conceptualizing the Marital Bond as a Cord
Sarah Shectman argues that these laws have to do with the nature of the marital bond, which she suggests conceptualizing as a cord binding husband and wife. In ancient Israel, a woman’s status was determined by her primary male bond; unmarried women are connected to their fathers and married woman to their husbands. When a woman was widowed, the cord dissolved, though it left enough of a mark to render the woman unfit for marriage to the high priest. When she was divorced, the cord was cut, but it remained present because her prior husband was still alive, leaving her primary male bond hanging.
But it is not entirely clear why this ambiguity in the woman’s marital status would be of particular concern specifically for priests.
The key to understanding these rules, I believe, lies in a more precise understanding of priestly status. A priest was not simply prestigious, but holy, and, as noted at the start of this essay, holiness is specifically safeguarded by avoidance of pollution. In keeping with this, I believe that these laws reflect a notion, common throughout the Bible, that a man who has sex with a woman marks her permanently, leaving her, so to speak, with something of his “essence.”
When sex takes place outside marriage, it may be regarded as contaminating, or polluting, the woman. The root טמא, “pollute,” is frequently used to describe the effect of adultery on a woman, which involves the introduction of a foreign and improper essence. There is also one case in which it is used to describe what we would call “premarital sex.” When Shechem lies with the unmarried Dinah, the text says (Gen 34:5):
וְיַעֲקֹב שָׁמַע כִּי טִמֵּא אֶת דִּינָה בִתּוֹ…
Jacob heard that he had polluted his daughter Dinah…
Since avoiding pollution was necessary for protecting the holy, a prostitute or any woman who had sex outside marriage would be unfit for a priest. But even within a licit marriage, sex could transfer some of the essence of a woman’s past partner to her current partner.
Something of this idea can be gleaned from the law of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5–6. If a married man dies childless, his wife is to have sex with his brother to produce an heir to bear his name. Her ability to produce a “son” for her dead husband suggests that she retains some of his essence even as she cohabits with his brother.
Normally, the transfer of “essence” within or from a licit marriage seems to have been unproblematic. Nonetheless, for a man to have contact with any essence other than his own was somewhat contaminating. In the case of a priest, contact with the essence of any other man had the potential to degrade his holiness. For an ordinary priest, this could occur when marrying a divorcée (not a widow), since perceptions of contamination are based not on any physical property, but on psychological ideas about a thing or person and its history. Because the husband of a divorcée might still be alive, her sexual connection with him would be felt more keenly than in the case of a widow, whose husband was deceased. But for the high priest, even a widow was forbidden. He had to marry a woman unmarked by any past partners at all.
The Widow of a Priest
This understanding of the laws accords with Ezekiel 44:22, which permits marriage to the widow of a priest but not of a non-priest. Although contact with any man’s essence is considered problematic in the case of a divorcée, the widow of a priest is permitted, because the essence with which she is marked is that of a holy man.
Genealogical vs. Sexual Contamination
In addition to restricting potential wives for priests on the basis of past sexual relationships, the laws for the high priest in Leviticus and for all priests in Ezekiel include genealogical restrictions: the wife must be of the high priest’s kin (Leviticus 21:14) or of the “seed of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:22). This suggests that women can be categorized in two ways: through the “vertical” dimension of their parentage and through the “horizontal” dimension of their past sexual relationships. However, the limits on past sexual partners are stricter: the high priest may marry a woman with any parents within his kin group, but she must not have had any previous sexual partners at all; and Ezekiel’s priests may marry women of any Israelite family, but their past sexual partners can only be priests.
Conclusion: Purity and Holiness
Understanding these laws in terms of sexual contamination shows how closely they are tied to the central theme of both Leviticus 21 and Ezekiel 44:20–27: the holiness of priests. Although the laws reflect concerns about genealogy and the mixing of priestly and non-priestly “seed,” they are not about protecting the priestly lineage in the strict sense. Neither are they simply about status, in the sense of ensuring that the priest have higher-quality “goods.” Rather, they reflect a concern with safeguarding the holy from pollution, ensuring that the priests remained fit to serve God, the source of all holiness.
The “Profane” Woman
Scholars have debated the meaning of חֲלָלָה, here translated “profane.” Some modern translations suggest that this is not an independent category at all; JPS, for example, translates Leviticus 21:7 “They shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry” (אִשָּׁה זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה לֹא יִקָּחוּ). This assumes that the phrase זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה is a hendiadys, the expression of a single concept by means of two words connected with “and.” This seems to accord with verse 14, which has the phrase וַחֲלָלָה זֹנָה, without the conjunctive ו (“and”) between the two words.
However, as Jacob Milgrom points out, it is hard to explain why the sequence of זֹנָה וַחֲלָלָה would have been inverted in these verses, along with the other terms, if they were not considered separate items in the list. Moreover, the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and the Samaritan Pentateuch all include a conjunction before זֹנָה in v. 14, suggesting that a ו may have been lost from the Hebrew text, perhaps due to the similarity of ו and ז.
This leaves us with the question of what type of woman would have been considered “profane.” The sequence of the categories of prohibited women helps narrow down the range of possibilities. The list for the high priest begins with the least problematic type of partner, a widow (who is prohibited to him but not to other priests), and ends with the most problematic, a prostitute. The list for ordinary priests is in the reverse order, beginning with the most problematic, a prostitute, and ending with the least problematic, a divorcée. The “profane” woman must be more problematic than a divorcée but less than a prostitute.
Participant in or Product of a Forbidden Union
In rabbinic halakhah, a חללה is a woman forbidden to a priest (such as a divorcée) who has sex with a priest, or a female born from a union between a priest and a woman forbidden to him.
From a critical perspective, this explanation is untenable. Since this very passage articulates which women are forbidden to a priest, a term it uses cannot assume that knowledge.
Some scholars have suggested that the “profane” woman is a cultic prostitute. However, most contemporary scholars reject the idea that cultic prostitution existed in the ancient Near East, and in any case, it is not clear why a cultic prostitute would be less problematic than an ordinary prostitute.
A “Pierced” Woman
Others derive the term חֲלָלָה from the root חלל meaning “to pierce” (a homonym of the root חלל meaning “to be profane”). According to this interpretation, the term refers to a “penetrated” woman, either any non-virgin or a woman who has been raped. But only the high priest is required to marry a virgin, and there is no evidence in the Bible that a woman who was raped had a different status from a woman who had sex willingly. (Coercion could affect a woman’s culpability under the law, but it was exculpatory, not negative.)
Probable Meaning: A Woman Who Has Sex Outside Marriage
It makes the most sense to interpret חֲלָלָה in light of the use of the root חלל in Leviticus 21:9, which deals with the daughter of a priest who “fornicates”:
ויקרא כא:ט וּבַת אִישׁ כֹּהֵן כִּי תֵחֵל לִזְנוֹת אֶת־אָבִיהָ הִיא מְחַלֶּלֶת בָּאֵשׁ תִּשָּׂרֵף׃
Leviticus 21:9 When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through fornication, it is her father whom she profanes; she shall be put to the fire.
Unlike the noun זֹנָה, which refers to a professional prostitute, the verb לִזְנוֹת means “to fornicate” and can refer to any sex outside marriage. Most likely, the “profane” woman is any woman who has had sex outside marriage. She is less problematic than a prostitute, who does so habitually, but more problematic than a divorcée, who has only had sex within the context of a previous marriage.
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Dr. Eve Levavi Feinstein holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible” (Oxford University Press), explores the Bible’s use of purity and contamination language to describe sexual relationships. She has also written articles for Jewish Ideas Daily and Vetus Testamentum.
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