views updated May 09 2018


ABLUTIONS are ceremonial washings of the human body or particular parts of it; of objects that come into close contact with the human body, such as cooking utensils or food; and sometimes of such special religious items as statues of deities or saints. Ablutions can be performed through washing with water, through immersion, or through sprinkling. And, instead of pure water, water mixed with salt, cow dung, sand, or urine can be used. Ablutions are symbolic actions meant not to create physical cleanness but to remove ritual uncleanness or pollution. Therefore, they should be interpreted not as forms of magical belief, manifestations of primitive hygiene, or expressions of savage psychology but above all as ritual acts performed to create order and abolish disorder in social reality.

Ablutions and related symbolic behaviors are carried out in societies that are characterized by well-defined and clearly marked distinctions between the phases of human life, ranging from birth through puberty and marriage to death. Ablutions are performed as well in relation to the different social roles of the sexes and to the various roles that a person can play in society. Carried out at transitional stages, ablutions are ritual and symbolic actions designed to avert the dangers inherent in those particular stages, where social forms are fluid. Ablutions mark transitions from one phase to another or from one area of society to another. They therefore belong, at least in part, to the category of rites of passage.

Ablutions that mark the transition from the profane sector of society to the sacred one are well known. The Babylonian high priest performed ablutions in water from the Tigris or the Euphrates before he carried out his daily functions. For ablutions and ritual sprinklings a special building, the bit rimki ("washing house") was constructed next to the priest's house or the temple. There, the life-giving water from apsu (the primeval deep of sweet waters) was used for all kinds of ablutions. Water, the creative element par excellence, was used to create order wherever and whenever this order was threatened, intentionally or not. In traditional Chinese religion, preparation for a sacrificial ceremony occupied three days and involved bathing and wearing of clean raiment. Before the pharaoh in ancient Egypt could participate in any religious ceremony his body had to be purified by a sprinkling with water and natron. The water, called "water of life and good fortune," was brought from the sacred pool that belonged to every Egyptian temple. The priests of Israel were subjected to very strict rules of purity (Lv. 21:22) and were not permitted to eat of the holy offerings unless they had washed their whole body with water (Lv. 22:6). Before entering the temple to perform their duties, priests in Israel had to wash their hands and feet in the "laver of brass that they die not" (Ex. 30:17 ff.). Similar rites are observed in other religions.

Islam, a religion without a true priesthood, requires every believer to wash before the act of prayer (alāt, performed five times a day facing toward Mecca) according to the prescriptions of the Qurʾān: "O believers, when ye come to fulfill the prayer, wash your faces, and your hands as far as the elbows; and rub your heads, and your feet unto the ankles, and if ye be polluted then purify yourselves" (5:9). Sūrah 4:46 allows the use of sand instead of water: "Wash yourselves; but if you be sick, or upon a journey, or one of you come from the privy or have touched a woman, and ye find no water, then take pure earth and rub your faces and hands therewith." This ritual ablution is performed at a tank or a reservoir provided with spouts that is to be found in or near the courtyard of every mosque. The water must be pure; therefore, rainwater is preferred, although water from other sources may be used. The rite is elaborately described in the adīth. Muammad derived this purificatory rite, like other elements of Islam, from Jewish and Christian sources. In the latter religion the use of water for purificatory purposes, in particular by a person entering a church or by a priest before the beginning of mass, is another example of a partial ablution in the transition from profane to sacred territory.

As human beings undergo ablution before contact with the sacred, so the gods sometimes wash before exposure to ordinary people. In the highly elaborate daily ritual of an Egyptian temple, the cult statue was purified with water, natron, and incense every morning. In Indian Jainism the statues representing the gods are bathed every morning, and a man can worship in a temple only after he has taken a bath and doned clean clothes. Even offerings are ritually purified with water before they are presented to the gods. In ancient Egypt this was accomplished by pouring libations over them. The Records of the Ritual and Music of the Holy Temple of Chinese Confucianism, the latest edition of which was published in 1887, gives exact rules for purificatory rites in the Confucian ceremonial. Fifteen days before the sacrificial ceremony, the custodian of the temple and his assistants go to a park in which animals are kept and select unblemished ones. These animals are ceremonially washed with warm water that day and every day thereafter until the time for the sacrifice arrives. In all of the instances mentioned, ablution is not a removal of uncleanness or dirt but a symbolic action performed by man in order to prepare himself for and adapt himself to the crossing of a sociocultural frontier. The transition between two social forms in an ambiguous event, therefore, unclean and in need of purification.

Where social forms have been attacked, pollution looms, and purification, often in the form of ablution, is requisite. Ablution is consequently often a set element in puberty rites, in which the transition from childhood to full adult life is symbolically performed and marked. On the Fiji Islands, at the close of the ceremonies for entering adulthood all the initiates went to the river and washed off the black paint (the color of death!) with which they had been smeared. Ablution is here the mark of entering a new phase of life, a kind of death-and-renewal ritual. The Bathonga nubility customs for girls required a period of seclusion at the appearance of the menses. Girls undergoing this transition were covered each morning with a cloth and led to a pool in which they were immersed to the neck. Afterward they were imprisoned in a hut, where they received instruction about the behavior and duties of a grown woman. Bathonga boys likewise experienced a period of seclusion during which they received instruction and were smeared with white paint or white clay as a sign that they had abandoned the darkness of childhood. At the end of their period of seclusion, all the paraphernalia of the school were destroyed, and the boys were led to a stream, where they washed off the white, cut their hair, and put on new clothes.

The initiation rite is a symbolic death and revival often expressed through immersion in water. Jewish proselytes, for example, had to undergo immersion before entering their new life as believing Jews. In the same way, Christian baptism is an initiation rite incorporating all the symbolism of death and resurrection to mark the transition from the world to the church, from sin to grace, from the polluted earth to the pure kingdom of God.

Childbirth and death, entrance to and departure from the world of the living, are fundamental transitory phases, and therefore dangerous. In many cultures, the period after childbirth is one of uncleanness for women, in which they may pollute those, particularly men, who come into contact with them. Therefore, they must be ritually purified (i.e., must perform ablutions) before they regain their normal state and can return to their normal tasks. Among the Inuit (Eskimo) a pregnant woman is separated from her husband and must leave her usual dwelling place since she may otherwise pollute the food. Immediately after the birth she must wash from head to foot, and after the first night following the birth she must make herself new clothes. Following this she is readmitted into society. In ancient Egypt the same customs were followed. During and after childbirth, women usually remained secluded in a special house, called the "birthhouse" or "house of purification," where for fourteen days they purified themselves through ablutions and fumigation with incense. When this purification was complete, they could resume their household duties. Judaism still has very strict rules for the purification of women after childbirth, detailed in Leviticus 12:18. The period of uncleanness varies according to whether a boy or a girl is born. After the birth of a boy the period of uncleanness is forty days; after that of a girl this period is doubled. During these days "she [the mother] shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary." At the expiration of the period of uncleanness she has to offer a lamb and a young pigeon or turtledove.

Contact with a corpse also requires purificatory ablutions, in particular for those persons who handle the body, prepare the grave, and take care of the burial. Their activities are situated in the intermediary zone between death and life and are, therefore, especially dangerous and polluting. Among Indian tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America, the duty of disposing of the body is performed by gravediggers (never members of the family) who thus become unclean and, in addition to following special restrictions regarding food and sexual relations, must undergo ablutions. Among the Bathonga the men who dig the graveagain, a task not performed by relativesmust undergo a rite of ablution after the burial and, with their wives, are subjected to steam baths. These men and women use special spoons for five days and are not allowed to eat from the common plate. The purification is extended even to the hut in which a person dies. Among the Thompson Indians the hut in which a death takes place is washed with water.

Often widows and widowers share in the pollution that death causes. Among the various tribes of the Dene and Salish, for example, widows are regarded as particularly unclean. They must retire to the woods for a year, performing purificatory rites, bathing in streams, and taking sweat-baths. Participants in the worship of ancestors are often required to undergo purification rites, since they can be regarded as having had special contact with the dead. In China both husband and wife have to hold vigil, observe fasting regulations, and wash their heads and bodies before bringing a sacrifice to the ancestors. In ancient Egypt, frequent ablutions were part of a ritual performed by the dead or by the gods to secure entrance into a new life. In the "place of purification" (i.e., the embalmer's workshop), the dead body was washed with water and other liquids in order to preserve its integrity in the intermediary state between old and new life. The extensive and complicated purificatory rules of ancient Israel included the prescript that "every soul that eateth that which died of itself, or that which was torn with beasts, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even" (Lv. 17:15).

Among the Amba in East Africa the funeral almost always occurs on the same day a person dies and is usually not performed by close relatives of the dead. The first ceremony after death is the most important mortuary rite. At dawn on the morning of the fourth day after the death all the men and women of the residential group take a bath and, after bathing, shave their heads. Following that, a long mortuary ceremony starts. Ablution and shaving are necessary to undo the dangers and the pollution that are inherent in the sphere between life and death.

Marriage is another rite of passage and, therefore, ablution rites often belong to its preliminaries. In Attica, in Classical Greece, the bride was purified by ablution with water from the sacred spring in preparation for the marriage ceremony. In the Southern Celebes the bridegroom bathes in holy water, whereas the bride is fumigated. In all Muslim countries purifying the bride with water and painting her with henna are the most important preliminaries to the wedding rite. The bath usually takes place a day or two before the bride's departure for the groom's house.

Extensive ablutions remain an essential part of the highly ritualistic life of the Mandaeans, a Gnostic sect that dates back to antiquity and whose present adherents live in Baghdad and in some regions in southern Iraq. Ablution undoes the pollution that is considered to manifest itself in various marginal situations in Mandaean social life. As all powers that are part of a given social system express it, so powers of pollution are inherent in the structure of ideas. To understand the function of ablutions in such societies a definition of pollution is requisite. It is a punishment or "a symbolic breaking of that which should be joined or joining of that which should be separate" (Douglas, 1966, p. 113). Concepts of pollution and ablution rites occur, therefore, only in cultures in which social and cosmic lines of structure are clearly defined and strictly maintained.

The Mandaeans are bearers of such a culture, which they, as a minority group, try by all means to keep intact. Since the human body functions as a symbol of society, the boundaries of the physical body symbolize those of the body social. Especially among minorities, rituals give expression to a deep anxiety about the body's refuse; this symbolizes a care to protect the unity of the group and its well-defined confines. The same phenomenon can be detected in the many purificatory rules of the ancient Israelites, also a religious minority. The Mandaeans follow an elaborate system of ablutions, in particular for birth, marriage, sexual contact, and death, that is, aspects of human life in which the orifices of the body are clearly important or bodily boundaries are transgressed. Birth, death, marriage, and coition pollute those involved, who are then segregated from their fellows until they have been purified through ablution, in this case, by immersion in living water. When the time of her giving birth approaches, a woman washes herself and prepares a place apart from the household. As soon as the child has come into the world, the midwife washes it, and the mother has to immerse herself three times in the river. The woman remains segregated for a time, and even pots and plates used by her receive ritual ablution. Mother and child have to undergo several ablutions and immersions before they can reenter normal life. If during these rites, which take place in the open air and in the often cold water of the river, the child soils or wets the clothing of the serving priest, the priest continues the ceremony as though nothing has happened. However, he must afterward go through a complete ablution at the hands of another priest. It often happens that during this rigorous ordeal the newborn baby dies. The ceremony is then continued with a dummy of dough in the place of the child in order to ensure the safe journey of the dead baby's soul to the world of light. The officiating priest, however, becomes defiled through contact with the dead and must undergo triple immersion and be provided with new clothes and new priestly paraphernalia before he is allowed to resume his duties. This illustrates the polluting power of the dead. A dying man is not permitted to die in his lay clothes. As death approaches, water is brought from the river, the sick man's clothes are removed, and he is doused three times from head to foot. Then he is lifted, placed on clean bedding facing the North Star, and clothed in new ceremonial dress. In this way the dying man is given his place in the cosmic order and crosses the border between life and death. Needless to say, the actual funeral is accompanied by the elaborate ablution of attendants and cult objects.

At marriage, the bride and bridegroom must undergo two immersions in water in the ceremonial cult hut, or mandi; they are then given new ceremonial dresses. The wedding ceremony has a clear cosmic symbolism that relates the social order to the cosmic one. Immersions and ablutions are an element of daily Mandaean practice that gives protection and the promise of everlasting life, since water is the life-fluid par excellence. Immersions and ablutions are also purificatory, undoing the pollution in marginal situations. The Mandaeans perform three kinds of ceremonial ablutions. The first is enacted by each Mandaean individually and daily just before sunrise, in other words, at the border between dark and light. The second ablution is a triple immersion in the river, done by a woman after menstruation and after childbirth, after touching a dead body, after coition, after nocturnal pollution, or after contact with a defiled person, since impurity is contagious. The third ablution, called masbuta ("baptism"), is performed by a priest and should take place every Sunday after major defilements. Not only the human body and its orifices but also vegetables and food need ablution and are, therefore, three times immersed in the river before being eaten. Pots and pans must at certain times be baptized, too. The ritual cleaning of food by immersion was also practiced in the Christian community of Elcasaite baptists in which Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, grew up. This ablution was a main point of controversy between Mani and other members of the sect, however, since Mani wished to emphasize not ritual cleaning but purity through asceticism. Food, in particular, enters the body by being eaten, and, therefore, ritual cleanness of food is especially important among minority groups, for whom the external borders of the social system are under constant pressure. The Israelites, the Mandaeans, and the Hindus provide examples of such purity and ablution systems. Hindu society consists of a range of castes, or cultural subunits, between which strict borderlines are maintained through purity rules, since each caste is like a minority group in relation to the whole. The higher the caste, the purer it must be. The body social is, therefore, like a human body: the high castes do the mental work; the lowest castes cut hair, carry away waste matter, and bury corpses. But the object of these purity rules is not one of hygiene but to keep the social system clean. Because belonging to a certain caste and, consequently, to a certain place in the hierarchy of purity is biologically determined, sexual purity, in particular of women, is strictly guarded. After sexual contact a woman has to perform ablutions. The most effective ritual purification is a bath in the Ganges (though the Ganges is one of the dirtiest rivers in the world!) or in another tīrtha ("ford"). In this context ablutions and immersions are clearly not hygienic activities, rather, they are ritual manipulations of the human body that symbolize social cleanness, which maintains the various social boundary lines.

See Also

Baptism; Birth; Death; Purification; Rites of Passage; Water.


For a basic understanding of ritual washings and their socioreligious meanings, see Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York, 1966) and her Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (New York, 1970). Much material can be found under the entry "Purification" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1918), although interpretations offered there should be treated with caution. For ancient Greece, see Louis Moulinier's Le pur et l'impur dans la pensée des Grecs d'Homère à Aristote, a special issue of Études et commentaires, no. 11 (Paris, 1952). The Mandaean rituals have been described by Ethel S. Drower in The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends and Folklore (1937; reprint, Leiden, 1962). For Muslim practices, see A. J. Wensinck's "Die Entstehung der muslimischen Reinheitsgesetzgebung," Der Islam 5 (1914): 6280, and the entry "Ablution" in the Dictionary of Islam, 2d ed. (London, 1896). For India, see M. N. Srinivas's Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (Oxford, 1952) and Nur Yalman's "On the Purity of Women in the Castes of Ceylon and Malabar," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 93 (JanuaryJune 1963): 2558.

New Sources

For ablutions in general see Bernhard Maier, "Reinheit. I: Religionsgeschichtlich," in Theologische Realenziklopädie, vol. 28 (1997), pp. 473477, with bibliography. See also, as far as the Greco-Roman world is concerned: René Ginouvés, Balaneutike. Recherches sur le bain dans l'antiquité grecque (Paris, 1962); Eva Keuls, The Water Carriers in Hades. A Study of Catharsis through Toil in Classical Antiquity (Amsterdam, 1974); Robert Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Egypt, Greece and Rome (Oxford, 1983); R. A. Wild, Water in the Cultic Worship of Isis and Sarapis (Leiden, 1981); Georges Roux, "L'eau et la divination dans le sanctuaire de Delphes," in L'homme et l'eau en Méditerranée et au Proche Orient, I: Séminaire de recherche 19791980, pp. 155159 (Lyon, 1981); Susan Cole-Guettel, "The Uses of Water in Greek Sanctuaries," in Early Greek Cult Practice. Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 2629 June 1986, edited by Robin Hägg, Nanno Marinatos, and Gullög C. Nordquist, pp. 161165 (Stockholm, 1988); Alan Peatfield, "Water, Fertility, and Purification in Minoan Religion," in Klados: Essays in Honour of J. N. Coldstream, edited by Christine E. Morris, pp. 217227 (London, 1995).

Ablutions in connection with baptismal ceremonies in Gnostic communities are investigated by Eric Segelberg, Masbuta: Studies in the Ritual of the Mandean Baptism (Uppsala, 1958), and Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, The Mandeans (Oxford, 2002), pp. 5986.

For the various purificatory rituals in Islamism, besides the general introduction by Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London, 2001), see G. H. Bousquet, "Ghusl" (general ablution of the whole body, prescribed after any sexual intercourse, before the daily prayers and for the corpses) in Encyclopédie de l'Islam, vol. 2, coll. 11301131 (Leiden, 1965); E. Chaumont, "Wudū," (minor or "simple" ablution of face, feet, and hands, obligatory before a ritual act, such as prayer or handling the Qur˒ān) in Encyclopédie de l'Islam, vol. 11, coll. 237238 (Leiden, 2004); A. J. Wensinck and A. K. Reinhart, "Tayammum" (ablution with sand) in Encyclopédie de l'Islam, vol. 10, coll. 428429 (Leiden, 2002); G. H. Bousquet, "La purité rituelle en Islam," Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 138 (1950): 5371; A. K. Reinhart "Impurity/No Danger," History of Religions 30 (1990): 124. For the ablutions prescribed to the shaihd (Islamic martyr) before the suicide attack see the document published by David Cook, "Suicide Attacks or Martyrdom Operations in Contemporary Jihad Literature," Nova Religio. The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religion 6, no. 1 (2002): 744.

Ablution practice in Hinduism is investigated by Diana Eck, Banaras: City of Light (New York, 1982).

Han J. W. Drijvers (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 29 2018


ABLUTION (Heb. טְבִילָה; "immersion"), act of washing performed to correct a condition of ritual impurity and restore the impure to a state of ritual purity. The ritually impure (or unclean) person is prohibited from performing certain functions and participating in certain rites. Ablution, following a withdrawal period and, in some cases, other special rituals, renders him again "clean" and permitted to perform those acts which his impurity had prevented. Ablution must not be confused with washing for the sake of cleanliness. This is evident from the requirement that the body be entirely clean before ablution (Maim., Yad, Mikva'ot 11:16), but there may nevertheless be some symbolic connection. The ablutions, as well as the impurities which they were deemed to remove, were decreed by biblical law, and understood by the rabbis in religious and not in hygienic or magical terms. This is shown by R. Johanan b. Zakkai's retort to his disciples who had questioned an explanation he gave to a non-Jew about ritual purity: "'The dead do not contaminate and the water does not purify.' It is a command (gezeirah) of God and we have no right to question it" (Num. R. 19:4).

Ablution is common to most ancient religions. Shintoists, Buddhists, and Hindus all recognize ablution as part of their ritual practice and there is ample evidence concerning its role in ancient Egypt and Greece (Herodotus, 2:37; Hesiod, Opera et Dies, 722). Most ancient peoples held doctrines about ritual impurity and ablution was the most common method of purification. In varying forms ablution is important to Christianity and Islam as well; this is hardly surprising since they are both post-Judaic religions. In Jewish history there have been several sects that have laid great stress on the importance of ablution. The *Essenes (Jos., Wars, 2:129, 149, 150) and the *Qumran community (Zadokite Document, 10:10 ff.; 11:18 ff. and other dss texts) both insisted on frequent ablutions as did the Hemerobaptists mentioned by the Church Fathers. The tovelei shaḥarit ("morning bathers") mentioned in Tosefta Yadayim 2:20 perhaps may be identified with the latter but more likely were an extreme group within the general Pharisaic tradition (Ber. 22a; Rashi, ad loc.).

In the Jewish tradition there are three types of ablution according to the type of impurity involved: complete immersion, immersion of hands and feet, and immersion of hands only.

Complete Immersion

In the first type of ablution the person or article to be purified must undergo total immersion in either mayim ḥayyim ("live water"), i.e., a spring, river, or sea, or a *mikveh, which is a body of water of at least 40 se'ahs (approx. 120 gallons) that has been brought together by natural means, not drawn. The person or article must be clean with nothing adhering (ḥaẓiẓah) to him or it, and must enter the water in such a manner that the water comes into contact with the entire area of the surface. According to law one such immersion is sufficient, but three have become customary. Total immersion is required for most cases of ritual impurity decreed in the Torah (see *Purity and Impurity, Ritual). Immersions were required especially of the priests since they had to be in a state of purity in order to participate in the Temple service or eat of the "holy" things. The high priest immersed himself five times during the service of the Day of Atonement. Other individuals had to be ritually pure even to enter the Temple. However, it became customary among the Pharisees to maintain a state of purity at all times, a fact from which their Hebrew name Perushim ("separated ones") may have developed (L. Finkelstein,The Pharisees (19623), 76 ff.; R.T. Herford, The Pharisees (1924), 31 ff.).

Total immersion also came to form part of the ceremony of *conversion to Judaism, although there is a difference of opinion concerning whether it is required for males in addition to circumcision, or in lieu of it (Yev. 46a). Since the destruction of the Temple, or shortly thereafter, the laws of impurity have been in abeyance. The reason is that the ashes of the *red heifer, which are indispensible for the purification ritual, are no longer available. Thus, everybody is now considered ritually impure. The only immersions still prescribed are those of the *niddah and the proselyte, because these do not require the ashes of the red heifer and because the removal of the impurity concerned is necessary also for other than purely sacral purposes (entry into the Temple area, eating of "holy" things). The niddah is thereby permitted to have sexual relations and the proselyte is endowed with the full status of the Jew.

In addition to the cases mentioned in the Bible, the rabbis ordained that after any seminal discharge, whether or not resulting from copulation, total immersion is required in order to be ritually pure again for prayer or study of the Torah. Since this was a rabbinical institution, immersion in drawn water or even pouring nine kav (approx. 4½ gallons) of water over the body was considered sufficient. The ordinance was attributed to Ezra (bk 82a, b) but it did not find universal acceptance and was later officially abolished (Ber. 21b–22a; Maim., Yad, Keri'at Shema 4:8). Nevertheless, the pious still observe this ordinance. The observant also immerse themselves before the major festivals, particularly the Day of Atonement, and there are ḥasidic sects whose adherents immerse themselves on the eve of the Sabbath as well. The Reform movement, on the other hand, has entirely abolished the practice of ritual ablution. There was a custom in some communities to immerse the body after death in the mikveh as a final purification ritual. This practice was strongly discouraged by many rabbis, however, on the grounds that it discouraged women from attending the mikveh, when their attendance was required by biblical law. The most widespread custom is to wash the deceased with nine kav of water.

The immersion of the niddah and the proselyte require *kavvanah ("intention") and the recitation of a benediction. The proselyte recites the benediction after the immersion because until then he cannot affirm the part which says "… God of our fathers … who has commanded us." Since ablution at its due time is a mitzvah it may be performed on the Sabbath, but not, nowadays, on the Ninth of Av or the Day of Atonement. Except for the niddah and the woman after childbirth whose immersion should take place after nightfall, all immersions take place during the day.

Vessels to be used for the preparation and consumption of food that are made of metal or glass (there is a difference of opinion concerning china and porcelain) and that are purchased from a non-Jew must be immersed in a mikveh before use. This immersion is to remove the "impurity of the Gentiles" (a conception which was introduced, perhaps, to discourage assimilation), and is different from the process of ritual cleansing by which used vessels are cleansed to remove non-kosher food which might have penetrated their walls. This immersion is also accompanied by a benediction.

Washing the Hands and Feet

This second type of ablution was a requirement for the priests before participating in the Temple service (Ex. 30:17 ff.).

Washing the Hands

This is by far the most widespread form of ablution. The method of washing is either by immersion up to the wrist or by pouring ¼ log (approx. ½ pint) of water over both hands from a receptacle with a wide mouth, the lip of which must be undamaged. The water should be poured over the whole hand up to the wrist, but is effective as long as the fingers are washed up to the second joint. The hands must be clean and without anything adhering to them; rings must be removed so that the water can reach the entire surface area. The water should not be hot or discolored and it is customary to perform the act by pouring water over each hand three times (Sh. Ar., oḤ 159, 1960, 161). The handwashing ritual is commonly known as netilat yadayim, a term whose source is not entirely clear. It has been suggested that netilah means "taking" and thus the expression would be "taking water to the hands," but the rabbinic interpretation is "lifting of the hands" and is associated with Psalms 134:2.

Washing the hands is a rabbinic ordinance to correct the condition of tumat yadayim, the impurity of the hands, which notion itself is of rabbinic origin. Among the biblical laws of purity washing the hands is mentioned only once (Lev. 15:11). According to one tradition "impurity of the hands" (and washing them as a means of purification) was instituted by King Solomon, while another has it that the disciples of Hillel and Shammai were responsible for it (Shab. 14a–b). It seems that the custom spread from the priests, who washed their hands before eating consecrated food, to the pious among the laity and finally became universal. The detailed regulations concerning "impurity of the hands" constitute one of the 18 ordinances adopted in accord with the opinion of the school of Shammai against the school of Hillel, and it met at first with considerable opposition. In order to establish the practice the rabbis warned of dire consequences for those who disregarded it, even going so far as to predict premature death (Shab. 62b; Sot. 4b). R. Akiva, who personally disapproved of the ordinance, nevertheless used the limited water allowed him in prison for this ablution rather than for drinking (Er. 21b). In the New Testament there are several references which suggest that Jesus and his disciples demonstrated their opposition to rabbinic authority by disregarding this ordinance (Mark 7:1; Matt 15:1; Luke 11:37).

The washing of the hands most observed today is that required before eating bread, although according to rabbinic sources washing after the meal before grace is considered at least of equal importance. The reason given for this latter washing is to remove any salt adhering to the fingers which could cause serious injury to the eyes (Er. 17b). It is possible that these washings derive from contemporary Roman table manners, and there is also mention of washing between courses (mayim emẓa'iyyim, Ḥul. 105a).

In modern times, priests have their hands washed by the Levites before they perform the ceremony of the Priestly Blessing during public prayer services. The laver thus has become the heraldic symbol for the Levites and often appears on their tombstones. Washing the hands is required on many other occasions, some of which are motivated by hygienic considerations and others by superstitious beliefs. A list of occasions for washing the hands was compiled by Samson b. Zadok in the 13th century: they include immediately on rising from sleep (in order to drive the evil spirits away), before prayer, after leaving the toilet, after touching one's shoes or parts of the body usually covered, and after leaving a cemetery (Tashbaẓ 276; Sh. Ar., oḤ 4:18).

The fact that ablution was so widespread in ancient religions and cultures makes it likely that the Jewish practice was influenced by contemporaneous cults. It is, however, difficult to ascertain the extent of this influence and it is possible that the rabbis were reacting against contemporary practices rather than imitating them. It is clear that, to the rabbis, the main purpose of any ablution was to become "holy" and the system they created was meant to keep the Jew conscious of this obligation. "'(God is the hope [Hebrew "mikveh"] of Israel)' (Jer. 17:13); just as the mikveh cleanses the impure so will God cleanse Israel" (Yom. 85b).

[Raphael Posner]

Women and Ablution

Immersion for women following menstruation and childbirth is a rabbinic, not a biblical, requirement. The halakhic regulations appear particularly in tb Niddah, which discusses the practical consequences for male ritual purity of women's menstrual and non-menstrual discharges. On the eighth "white day," following the cessation of menstrual flow, the wife must immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) before marital relations can resume. Jewish girls were traditionally taught to comply strictly and promptly with the regulations connected with the niddah (the menstruating woman). Ablution, which took place only after the body and hair had been thoroughly cleansed, had to be complete. Halakhah demanded a single immersion but three became customary. Post-menstrual and post-partum women usually visited the mikveh at night, often accompanied by other women.

In the first half of the 20th century, female ritual ablution declined significantly in North America, even among nominally traditional families, despite Orthodox exhortations in sermons and written tracts on the spiritual and medical benefits of taharat ha-mishpaḥah (family purity regulations), as these laws came to be called. Factors militating against ritual immersion included disaffection of Americanized children of immigrants with their parents' Old World ways, the success of liberal forms of organized Judaism that did not advocate such ablutions, and the deterrent effect of ill-maintained and unhygienic mikva'ot. Many Jewish feminist writers of the late 20th century also condemned taharat ha-mishpaḥah regulations as archaic expressions of male anxiety about the biological processes of the female body that reinforced the predominant construction in rabbinic Judaism of women as other and lesser than men.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence in the numbers of Orthodox Jews and a new sympathy among non-Orthodox denominations for various previously discarded practices of traditional Judaism. In this era, positive new interpretations of ritual ablution developed, accompanied by construction of attractive modern mikva'ot. Orthodox advocates of taharat ha-mishpaḥah regulations praised the ways in which they enhanced the sanctity of marriage and human sexuality and extolled the feeling of personal renewal and rebirth that followed each immersion.

At the beginning of the 21st century, ritual ablution became a symbolic expression of a new spiritual beginning for both women and men in all branches of North American Jewish practice beyond the domain of taharat ha-mishpaḥah. In addition to conversion to Judaism, rituals developed incorporating mikveh immersion as part of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah (coming of age); before Jewish holidays; prior to marriage; in cases of miscarriage, infertility, and illness; and following divorce, sexual assault, or other life-altering events. An indication of the probable long-term impact of this trend was the increased construction of mikva'ot by non-Orthodox communities.

[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]


Eisenstein, Dinim, 147–8; N. Lamm, A Hedge of Roses: Jewish Insights into Marriage … (1966). add. bibliography: R. Adler, "'In Your Blood, Live': Re-Visions of a Theology of Purity," in: D. Orenstein and J.R. Litman (eds.), Lifecycles 2 (1997), 197–206; J.R. Baskin, "Women and Ritual Immersion in Medieval Ashkenaz," in: L. Fine (ed.), Judaism in Practice (2001), 131–42; Fonrobert, C. Menstrual Purity (2000); R. Slonim (ed.), Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (1996); R.R. Wasserfall (ed.), Women and Water (1999).


views updated May 29 2018

Ablutions. Ritual cleansings to remove impurity and to mark transitions from profane to sacred states, etc. They are often, therefore, associated with rites of passage. In Judaism, ablution is ritual washing intended to restore or maintain a state of ritual purity is rooted in Torah. A complete list of when it is required was compiled by Samson b. Zadok (13th cent. CE): see Joseph Caro's Shulḥan Arukh. OH 4. 18.

In Christianity, in addition to the general sense in which baptism might be regarded as ‘an ablution’, the word has a technical sense. The ablutions are the washing of the fingers and of the communion vessels after the communion.

In Islam, ritual purity (ṭahāra) is required before carrying out religious duties, especially ṣalāt (worship). Ablution is of two kinds: ghusl and wuḍūʾ (regulations being given in the Qurʾān, 5. 7), with a third kind substituting for the others where necessary:1. Ghusl, major ablution: complete washing of the body in pure water, after declaring the niyya (intention) to do so. It is obligatory after sexual relations whereby a state of janāba (major ritual impurity) is incurred. It is recommended before the prayer of Friday and the two main feasts (ʿid al-aḍḥā and ʿīd al-fiṭr), and before touching the Qurʾān. For the dead, ghusl must be carried out before burial.2. Wuḍūʾ, minor ablution, is required to remove ḥadath, minor ritual impurity which is incurred in everyday life. Wuḍūʾ should usually be carried out before each of the five times of daily prayer.3. Where water is not available, clean sand may be used, rubbed upon the body; this method, tayammum, can be substituted for wuḍūʾ and, occasionally, for ghusl.

For ablution among Hindus, see TARPAṆA, ŚODHANA. Since Sikhs concentrate on inner cleanliness (‘True ablution consists in the constant adoration of God’, Ādi Granth 358), ritual ablutions are much diminished.


views updated May 29 2018

ab·lu·tion / əˈbloōshən/ • n. (usu. ablutions) the act of washing oneself (often used for humorously formal effect): the women performed their ablutions. ∎  a ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers.DERIVATIVES: ab·lu·tion·ar·y adj.


views updated Jun 08 2018

ablution XIV. — (O)F. ablution or ecclL. ablūtiō, -ōn-, f. L. abluere, f. AB- + luere wash; see -TION.