Purification: Purification in Judaism

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The concept of purity represents one of the cornerstones of Jewish religiosity from its earliest articulation in biblical literature. Indeed, the ideal of attaining purity by purification from the various kinds of impurities enumerated in the Book of Leviticus forms an integral part of the notion of holiness in that book, as well as in later Jewish sources. At the same time, purity is not a uniform concept. On the contrary, the idea of purity is mobilized in numerous thematic, literary, and chronological contexts, ranging from ritual to purely metaphysical or spiritual. It plays a fundamental role in constructions of gender identity in Jewish culture, just as gender is a structural element of the various manifestations of the conceptualization of purity. Not so much a linear development of a uniform idea, from ritual to spiritual, purity is rather a concept which acquires different layers of meanings and can be variously drawn on.

Ritual Impurity and Purification in Biblical and Jewish Law

The primary context in which the idea of purity plays a fundamental role is in the so-called priestly source of the Book of Leviticus and its concern for the ritual life of the sanctuary. Purity (taharah ) and impurity (tum'ah ) are primarily functional concepts and connote the status of a person or an object with respect to the Temple. A person needs to be in a status of ritual purity in order to enter the Temple area. If the person or an object has been affected by a source of impurity they need to undergo a process of ritual purification before they can again enter the Temple or be put to use for work related to the Temple.

Primary sources of impurity are the carcasses of various animals deemed to be impure (Lv. 11:147) and human corpses (Nm. 19:1022). Further, certain physical or physiological conditions will render a person impure, namely childbirth (Lv. 12:18); scale disease, traditionally translated as leprosy, even though this is most likely not the condition described in the text (Lv. 13:1 14:32); and genital discharges (Lv. 15:133). These conditions affect first and foremost the people suffering from them. However, the priestly thinking about impurity further understands the state of impurity to be transferable from one person to another, or from a person to an object, and vice versa. Such transference can occur in numerous ways, such as by direct and indirect touch, by spittle, through sexual means, or in the case of corpse impurity, even by simply being under the same roof as the corpse.

Corresponding to these primary and secondary states of impurity, the priestly source defines different degrees of severity of impurity by legislating different durations of states of impurity, as well as different procedures of purification. For example, a woman who menstruates is in a status of impurity for seven days, but the one who touches her for the remainder of the day only (Lv. 15:19). A man or a woman who have irregular discharges (zav/zavah ) are in a status of impurity as long as their discharge lasts and then have to count out seven days without a discharge before they can undergo purification (Lv. 15:13 and Lv. 15:28), while again the person who touches them remains in a status of impurity for the remainder of the day (Lv. 15:7 and Lv. 15:27). A person who has been affected by corpse impurity remains in a status of impurity for seven days (Nm. 19:11).

Purification is effected by various aspects: (1) by time, or by simply waiting a set amount of time free of the physiological condition that caused the status of impurity to begin with; (2) by water, that is, by washing one's clothes if one has touched an impure person or object, or washing the object such a person touched (e.g., Lv. 15:12); and by bathing (Lv. 15:13, 15:511, Lv. 15:2122); (3) finally, the process of purification is completed by variously prescribed sacrificial offerings (e.g., Lv. 12:67, Lv. 15:14, Lv. 15:29). Surprisingly, the biblical text noticeably omits the practice of washing or immersion in all cases of women's impurity, after birthing as well as after menstruating and after suffering from an abnormal genital discharge. Finally, a further and less obvious means of purification is constituted by the ritual of the red heifer which is burned and whose ashes are mixed with fresh ("living") water to be sprinkled on the objects and people affected by corpse impurity (Nm. 19).

These priestly regulations concerning ritual impurity and the process of purification avoid any suggestion that they should be understood as punitive measures. Contracting a ritual status of impurity does not constitute a transgression in any way, neither of a legal nor a moral kind. On the contrary, in most cases impurity is the result of a natural occurrence in a person's life, such as birth, ejaculation, menstruation, and death. Also, ritual impurity is a temporary status, which can easily be ameliorated. In this context, the legal rhetoric merely suggests that if ritual impurity is contracted, a process of purification specified in the text should be undergone. Surprisingly, this applies even to the man who has sexual relations with a menstruating woman (Lv. 15:24). The actual prohibition of menstrual sex (Lv. 18:19 and 20:18) stems from a different source of biblical law, the Holiness Code, which removes it from the ritual context and places it in the lists of prohibited sexual relations. Here, contrary to Leviticus 15:24, the man and the woman are threatened with karet (commonly translated as "cutting off from their people", Lv. 20:18) in case of transgression. This tension between sources of biblical law makes the case of menstrual impurity unique, since here two different discourses overlap, the discourse of ritual impurity and the discourse of regulations of sex. The priestly source, however, generally lacks warnings of transgression in the context of defining the process of contracting a status of impurity. It merely warns people to avoid bringing impurity in touch with the sanctuary: "Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their impurity, so that they do not die in their impurity by impurifying my tabernacle that is in their midst" (Lv. 15:31; cf. 7:2021 and 22:39). Finally, especially in the context of corpse impurity, the priestly law enjoins people to purify themselves, or else (Nm. 19:13 and 19:20). Hence, the Israelites are enjoined to be aware of their ritual status, rather than being told to avoid impurity altogether, notes Jonathan Klawans in Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism. This applies especially to the priests (Lv. 7:2021; cf. 22:39), with the exception of their prohibition to contract corpse impurity (Lv. 21:13).

It is the priestly notion of ritual purity that is subsequently encoded in Jewish law since rabbinic law draws predominantly on this concept of purity. The earliest rabbinic legal code of the end of the second century ce, the Mishnah, devotes one of its six orders to "Purities" (a euphemism for what should be "Impurities"), subdivided into twelve tractates, in order to further develop the laws of ritual purity. Individual tractates are devoted to the impurity of a corpse, of vessels, of the menstruating woman, of the man with an abnormal genital discharge, and others. Early rabbinic law aims to systematize the degrees of impurity into originary and derivative sources. Further, the rabbis also specify in the greatest detail what a normative pool of immersion (mikveh ) for purification as an actual built structure should look like. While biblical law merely speaks of "living water" as a means of immersion (Lv. 15:13), rabbinic law thus institutionalizes the practice of immersion. Significantly, rabbinic law accepts it as a given that women immerse in the mikveh at the end of their period of impurity (e.g., Mishnah, Mikvaʾot 8:1 and 5).

Theoretically, therefore, rabbinic law remains wedded to the functional aspect of ritual purity with the Temple as the implied point of reference. The great medieval scholar of Jewish law Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204) thus writes: "Whatever is written in the Torah and in traditional teaching about the laws relating to things impure and pure is relevant only to the Temple and its hallowed things and to heave-offering and second tithe, for it warns those impure against entering the Temple or eating anything hallowed, or heave-offering, or tithe. However, no such prohibition applies to common food, and it is permitted to eat common food that is impure and to drink impure liquids." (Mishnah Torah, Mishnah Okhelim 16:8). However, already at the time of the Mishnah, the Temple in Jerusalem no longer existed. With the destruction of the Temple (70 ce) the laws of ritual purity lost their point of reference and, therefore, their context of applicability. This is often cited as the reason for the lack of a talmudic discussion of the mishnaic "Order of Purities," with the notable exception of the tractate dealing with menstrual impurity. Regulations of menstruation remain applicable due to the prohibition of menstrual sex in the Holiness Code, which, according to the rabbis, applies independent of any historical context, whether pertaining to the existence of the Temple or conditions of exile.

Generally, the entire system of purification has been rendered inoperable in the post-Temple era, since sacrifices form an integral part of the purification process. Furthermore, since medieval times all Jews are considered to be in a status of corpse impurity, due to the cessation of the ritual of the red heifer and its function of purification from corpse impurity. Consequently, the codification of the purity laws in Jewish law by and large remains a theoretical issue.

Various scholars have attempted to explain the rationale of the priestly system of ritual purity in biblical and, by implication, later Jewish law. The priestly writers themselves do, of course, not provide any explanations for either the origins or the reasons for any of their purity regulations. In describing the "priestly theology" of impurity, the biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, in his work Leviticus 116: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, takes a history-of-religion approach which posits "Israel's victory over pagan beliefs" in almost each one of its rituals of purification (Milgrom, 1991, pp. 4251). He thinks of this process in terms of a monotheistic reworking of pagan conceptions of demonic impurity. Accordingly, Milgrom traces the ostensible background of pagan (Mesopotamian) religion to the priestly writers, in which the deities are dependent on a metadivine realm that spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities. The malevolent metadivine entities were perceived to be the source of human pollution, a threat both to humans and gods, and purification entailed a process of exorcism.

According to Milgrom, in his Leviticus 116, the biblical writers partially adopt, with significant changes, this mythical imagination, but they thoroughly eviscerate the pagan demonic force, which finds its expression in their concept of impurity. God can still be driven out of the sanctuary, but it is now humans who do so by polluting it with their moral and ritual transgressions. And now it is exclusively the sanctuary. Hence, in the priestly writings "impurity" has become harmless, since it retained potency only with regard to the sancta, not to other people (Milgrom, 1991, p. 43). This process of reducing the power of impurity takes places in various stages within the priestly materials of the Bible and reaches its completion in the rabbinic stage which limits its "malefic effects to actual contact with sancta," while it is no longer sinful to remain otherwise impure (Milgrom, 1991, p. 317). The biblical and rabbinic ages are to be considered a single historical continuum as far as the religious concept of impurity is concerned. Other biblical scholars, however, argue that monotheism could not have effected such a radical break with ancient Near Eastern culture. In contrast to Milgrom, Baruch Levine argues that biblical writers perceived impurity as the "actualized form of evil forces operative in the human environment" (Levine, 1974, p. 78).

As an anthropologist, Mary Douglas takes a different approach altogether to make sense of the biblical notion of ritual purity. In her now famous early work on Leviticus, Purity and Danger (1966), she eschews the question of conceptual origins of the biblical notion and instead focuses on the ritual legislation as it presents itself. Accordingly, she argued first of all for the systemic nature of any given culture's conceptions of impurity, and especially in the biblical case. Secondly, she demands that such systems of impurity have to be understood symbolically. It is prominently body symbolism she regards as central to any understanding of systems of impurity, since the body symbolizes society and attitudes to bodily boundaries correspond to attitudes to societal boundaries. Hence, closed societies such as that which supposedly produces the biblical priestly writings will, for instance, articulate more anxiety about bodily fluids. Finally, beliefs of impurity have to be interrogated as to their function as tools of social control. They therefore have a primarily oppressive function and serve to marginalize certain groups of people, prominently women. In her more recent work, however, Douglas revises her earlier approach somewhat, even though she still adheres to the fundamental tenets of her approach of structural symbolism. However, rather than regarding the system of impurities as static, she now focuses more on the opportunity of purification provided by the priestly writers to everybody, not just the priests: "In so far as the Levitical rules for purity apply universally they are useless for internal disciplining. They maintain absolutely not social demarcation the book insists over and over again that the poor and the stranger are to be included in the requirements of the laws; no one is excluded from the benefits of purification" (Douglas, 199394, pp. 112113). This emphasis undermines her earlier assessment of the oppressive social function of the system, even though she still recognizes the exclusive powers of the priests within the system.

In his Leviticus 116, Milgrom equally determines the rationale of the ritual complexes of Leviticus 116 by treating them as aspects of a symbolic system that is governed by a comprehensive theory. He argues that death is the common denominator in the three major sources of impurity: scale disease, where the wasting of the body symbolizes the death process; genital discharges, which represent the life force and their loss the opposite; and corpse impurity. Since impurity and holiness are antonyms in the priestly system, impurity is to be equated with death and holiness with life. The symbolic system enjoins the Israelites to separate impurity from God and his sanctuary as the quintessential source of holiness. Thus, according to Milgrom, it serves as a reminder of the divine imperative to reject death and choose life.

Impurity of Transgressive Behavior

However, aside from the concept of ritual purity, biblical law elsewhere and prophetic literaturemost prominently Ezekiel draw on the concept of purity in ways that extend beyond the functional, ritual context. In a number of prophetic and poetic passages, it has a clearly metaphoric function (e.g., Ps. 51, Lam. 1:8, Is. 1:1517). But elsewhere certain human transgressive behavior is labeled as "impurity" (tumʾah ). Such behavior includes the sexual transgressions listed in the Holiness Code (Lv. 18:2430), idolatry (Lv. 19:31, 20:13), and murder (Nm. 35:3334). The reference point for these "impurities" is not merely the Temple. Rather, such acts impose impurity upon the perpetrator (Lv. 18:24), the land of Israel (Lv. 18:25, Ez. 36:17), and the sanctuary (Lv. 20:3, Ez. 5:11). However, neither the land nor the sanctuary is rendered impure by direct or indirect contact. Rather, their impurity is the cumulative, spiritual consequence of the behavior deemed to be reprehensible. In these legal contexts and in the prophetic reproach, the rhetoric is clearly punitive: the individual perpetrator(s) will be "cut off" from their people (Lv. 18:29), while the cumulative, collective consequence of such acts is the expulsion of the people from the land of Israel: "Do not render yourselves impure with any of these things (sexual transgressions), for with all these the nations were rendered impure which I cast out before you, and the land was rendered impure. Therefore I do punish its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out her inhabitants" (Lv. 18:2425). Finally, none of these texts provide any overt process of purification. Only Ezekiel envisions the future ingathering of the exiles in the terms of a divine purification of the people (Ezek. 36:24) that will allow them to re-inhabit the land.

The tension between the conception of impurity in the priestly source and the Holiness Code and Ezekiel has caused considerable debate, particularly in biblical scholarship on the ritual purity system, since any analysis of the nature of the ritual purity system depends on the way the relationship between the ritual purity system and those other uses of purity terminology are defined. At the same time, it has provided a fertile ground for the adaptation of the language and conceptualization of purity and purification in post-biblical Jewish literature and later Jewish religiosity. For the sake of conceptual clarity we will briefly review the former, before describing the latter.

Jacob Neusner's approach in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism can be found on one end of the scale in that he considers the two to have a metaphorical relationship. Purity and impurity are primarily "cultic matters," but can serve as metaphors for moral religious behavior, even though in some post-biblical Jewish formations (Qumran, rabbis) transgressive behavior may serve as a source for actual pollution. Milgrom, however, recognizes the defiling force of sinful behavior and develops a specific description of the process by which various types of transgressions render the sanctuary impure. To Milgrom, in Leviticus 116, the defiling force on transgression is concentrated on the sanctuary, and the reference point for purification remains to be the sanctuary ("Israel's Sanctuary"). His lasting contribution is to have recognized that what has commonly been translated as a "sin-offering" (hattaʾt ) should actually be translated and understood as a "purification-offering," whose main function is to purify the Temple from the cumulative effects of people's transgressive behavior (Milgrom, 1991, pp. 253261). While individuals have to bring purification-offerings during the course of the year for inadvertent transgressions (Lv. 4), the climax of this process of purification is the ritual of the Day of Atonement (also known as Purgation Day), when the entire sacred area or all that is most sacred is purged with the blood of the purification offering.

Early in the twenty-first century, Klawans has taken issue with these prevailing theories in biblical and rabbinic scholarship. He insists on a categorical distinction between "ritual" and "moral" impurity which each have their distinct defiling forces. These two categories can be correlated to the different approaches the priestly source and the Holiness Code (and related texts) take in biblical law. Contra Neusner, moral impurity is not merely a metaphorical concept, and contra Milgrom, he focuses on those transgressive behaviors deemed to cause impurity to the land and not merely the sanctuary. Klawans emphatically rejects the idea that the concept of the defilement of the land (Lv. 18:2430) is only metaphorical. Rather, the performance of sexual transgressions defiles the sinner and the land upon which the sins are committed. This defilement is understood to be moral, and what is conveyed is a permanent degradation of status. In Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, Klawans views moral and ritual impurity as two analogous, but distinct, perceptions of contagion, each of which brings about effects of legal and social consequence.

It should be added that Christine E. Hayes builds on Klawans and introduces one additional category of impurity in the biblical and post-biblical literature in her work Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Taking a similar history-of-idea approach, she traces the notion of genealogical purity in biblical and post-biblical literature. The innovative moment with regard to this category lies with Ezra and Nehemiah who extend the requirement of genealogical purity to all Israelites, beyond the priestly groups as in the Pentateuch and Ezekiel. A terminological shift occurs in these books according to which priestly exogamy is no longer described as profanation but as defilement (Neh. 13:2830; Ezr. 2:6162/Neh. 7:62; cf. Lv. 21:15). In this genealogical context, the term "pure" comes to mean unalloyed or free of admixture, notes Hayes, and Nehemiah accomplishes purification by separating the Israelites from the foreign wives. She notes that while moral impurity defiles the land, the sanctuary, and the sinner, it is not said to impair ones seed in any way, as in the case of exogamy. Hayes argues therefore that these differences should caution against adopting the view that Ezra's concern for the holy seed of Israel as simply an extension of the concept of moral impurity. Both Klawans and Hayes argue that different views of their respective categories of impurity are at the root of Jewish sectarianism during the period of the Second Temple.

Post-Biblical Judaism

Various Jewish groups during the last two centuries bce and first century ce draw on the conceptualization of purity for boundary making purposes, among them prominently the sectarians who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the one hand, these sectarians make use of ritual purity laws to differentiate themselves from other Jews, by adding more laws and interpreting some laws differently as for instance in the scroll Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-torah (4 QMMT). But furthermore, they also conflate the differences between what were different types of discourse in biblical law. In the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls moral transgressions are considered to have a polluting force and the technical ritual language in the priestly source of biblical law is applied to moral transgressions. Even more significantly, repentance and atonement require actual ritual purification, as reflected for instance in the Rule of the Community. One can also speak of a literalization of what in biblical literature appeared to operate as a metaphor, when prophetic and poetic passages draw on the terminology of purity and purification to illustrate their notion of atonement.

Early Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, by and large adheres to the conceptualization of purity reflected in the priestly source of the Bible. To be sure, it does champion the concept of the cumulative polluting effect of moral transgressions on the land and the punitive theological consequences. But this appears as a trope mostly in homiletic contexts and in the context of biblical interpretation, while it does play no role in the context of legal discussions. However, the legal development and talmudic discussions of purity laws atrophy, and the codification of the laws of ritual impurity as reflected in later legal codes (e.g., Mishneh Torah ) remains a theoretical issue in post-Temple times, with the one notable exception of the discussion of menstrual impurity (niddah ). As mentioned above, this is the only subject of the mishnaic "Order of Purities" to receive a talmudic discussion. The ongoing interest of the rabbinic scholars in the subject is warranted by the continuous applicability of at least some of its aspects, prominently the unconditional prohibition of menstrual sex in the Holiness Code. It is this prohibition that perpetuates the interest in the legal discussions of menstrual impurity. At the same time, even in this context most of the impurity rules have become irrelevant and therefore inapplicable in the absence of the Temple, according to Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert in Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender. The focus of the practice is no longer the possible transference of a status of ritual impurity to other people by the menstruating woman. Nor does the synagogue legally function as a Temple substitute to prevent women from going there or from touching sancta, a practice that has nonetheless been customary in various Jewish communities over the centuries. Still, observant married women to this day still immerse monthly in the mikveh, while men no longer do, other than for spiritual purposes in some pious circles, such as spiritual purification before the Sabbath or a holiday. In fact, in the contemporary popular didactic literature instructing young couples on the abstention from menstrual sex, the set of practices is often called "the laws of family purity" (taharat ha-mishpahah ). This term is technically a misnomer in that the actual practice is no longer concerned with ritual purification (taharah ), nor is it concerned with the family as a whole, rather than the married couple itself. It entered Jewish legal discourse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before it was popularized in the market of handbooks for married couples. One of its main functions is rooted in its polemical force, vis a vis liberal, non-observant Jews, which is captured by Kalman Kahana, the author of one of the most popular of these handbooks, Daughter of Israel : "Daughter of Israel! The time has arrived to throw off alien garments, to cast away the product of strange cultures. With head erect, and with pride, remember! You are a daughter of Israel, the sacred people. Remember your forefathers, who sacrificed their lives for the sanctity of the Jewish nation. You too, bear faithful fruit, and carry forth the illustrious tradition of Jewish purity," (Kahana, 1977, p. 35).

As far as the context of the legal and ritual discourse in Judaism is concerned, one could speak of a channeling of the concerns about impurity into the discussions of the menstruating women. Time and again, Jewish legal literature reflects disputes over incorrect immersion practices by women. This process has been accompanied over the centuries by extra-normative literature in which the so-called Baraita de-Niddah assumes an early and prominent role. Presumably a post-talmudic text from approximately the seventh century ce, but posing as an early talmudic text, it lists a number of extremist strictures concerning the menstruating woman, including her exclusion from the synagogue or any house filled with books (1:2, p. 3; cf.2:2, p.10; Koren, 1999, p. 18), as well as prohibiting her to light the Sabbath candles (2:5, p. 17) and threatening her offspring with leprosy into the hundredth generation should she have sex with her husband. Here, the menstruating woman is all but demonized, and the fact that she can undergo purification is almost irrelevant in light of her threatening impurity. In spite of its extremism, this text has a vital afterlife, in that it is quoted in biblical commentaries by prominent medieval scholars (Moses Nahmanides on Gn. 31:35, Lv. 12:4, and 18:19, cf. Cohen, "Menstruants and the Sacred," p. 295 n. 30) and may even have influenced legal discussions in some parts of the Jewish world. This discourse of demonizing menstrual impurity continues throughout the medieval period, especially in the literature of Jewish mysticism where the concept of impurity takes on a metaphysical force of mythic proportion. In the Zohar, the canonical text of Jewish mysticism from the thirteenth century ce, it is menstruation that is the most prominent type of impurity. At the same time, the mystery of the laws of menstrual impurity are so deep that it cannot be disclosed to the unworthy (Zohar 3:79a). These texts, even though they represent extra-normative voices in Judaism, are enormously influential and add layers of meaning to the prevalent legal definitions. Thus, they still inform the Jewish imagination at least to a certain degree.

If one treats the ongoing discourse of menstrual impurity as a left-over of the priestly purity system, one can speak also of a progressive feminization of ritual impurity in recent history of Jewish culture. Ultimately, these discussions and their concomitant ritualization of women's bodies inform women's self-understanding in Judaism considerably. It is because of this that contemporary Jewish feminist literatures focuses prominently on critiquing, readapting, and reshaping the discussions of menstrual impurity.

See Also

Israelite Religion; Miqveh; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity.


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