Skip to main content

Purity and Impurity, Ritual


PURITY AND IMPURITY, RITUAL (Heb. וְטָהֳרָה טֻמְאָה, tumah ve-toharah), a symbolic system according to which a pure person or object is qualified for contact with the Temple and related sancta (holy objects and spaces) while an impure person or object is disqualified from such contact. Ritual impurity arises from physical substances and states associated with procreation and death, not in themselves sinful. Ritual impurities are in general permitted (if not unavoidable or obligatory) and in this they can be distinguished from moral impurities, which arise from prohibited acts. Both types of impurity are denoted by Hebrew terms of defilement (forms of tame) but context and associated terms indicate that different kinds of impurity are intended.

Ritual, or permitted, impurity is distinguished by the following features: (1) it is contagious, transferred from one person or object to another in a variety of ways, such as physical contact or sharing space within a covered area; (2) impurity contracted from a source of ritual impurity is impermanent and can be reduced and removed by some combination of ablutions, time, and/or the performance of specified rituals; (3) ritual impurity can defile sancta and must be kept separate from it. More severe forms of ritual impurity can also defile common (non-sacred) objects as well, and thus may require isolation or exclusion.

By contrast, moral impurity arises from the commission of certain heinous sins, specifically idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual transgressions. These sins are said to generate a moral impurity that symbolically defiles a range of sancta including the land of Israel itself and the sanctuary. In addition to originating in sin, moral impurity differs from ritual impurity in that it is not contagious (one does not contract impurity by touching a murderer), and it is not generally removed by rituals of bathing, laundering, and the like. Moral impurity is sometimes removed through a process of atonement. In some cases, a repentant sinner may bring a sacrificial offering to purge the sanctuary of the defilement caused by his sins. In severe cases, however, moral impurity is absolved only with punishment and/or death. The Yom Kippur rite is designed to purge the sanctuary of the defilement caused by unrepentant sins of the community at large.

The concept of ritual – as distinct from moral – purity and impurity is by no means exclusive to the Jewish religion; indeed it was a central and integral feature of most, if not all, ancient religions (see below). It is generally believed that impurity is a concurrent of the belief in evil spirits and a part of the taboo concept. Whatever its origins, the system of ritual purity and impurity as crafted in the priestly writings of the Hebrew Bible represents an attempt to "monotheize" the community's purity practices. In these writings, impurity is generally divorced from any association with evil spirits and functions as a symbol of that which is anathema to the holy.

In the Bible

The main source for the biblical laws of ritual purity and impurity is Leviticus 11–17 and Numbers 19. Other specific purity laws are also found in Leviticus 5:2–3; Numbers 31:19–20, Deuteronomy 14:3–21; 23:10–15; 24:8; 26:14. The ritual purity system limned in the priestly writings of the Hebrew Bible does not reflect a concern with health or hygiene. Only one set of diseases generates ritual impurity and many substances widely considered unhygienic, such as human and animal excrement, are not deemed to be ritually impure. While there is no theoretical definition of purity and impurity in the Bible, its function and symbolism can be readily deduced from the antithetical relationship between impurity and holiness (Lev. 11:43–47). Only God is inherently holy. Things that are non-holy, or common, may acquire holiness by being brought into God's realm (being sanctified or consecrated). The realm of the common is subject to two possible states connoting compatibility and incompatibility with holiness: purity and impurity. Under normal circumstances, common objects are pure and compatible with the holy. However, contact with certain sources of ritual impurity will defile common objects and render them incompatible with the holy. That which is holy is by definition pure and must never come in contact with the impure. If defiled, a sanctum loses both its holiness (becomes common) and its purity (becomes ritually impure). To be fully restored, it must first be purified (making it pure but common) and then resanctified (making it holy once again).

What are the sources of ritual impurity that are incompatible with the holiness of God? The three main sources of impurity are (1) corpses and certain animal carcasses, (2) ẓara'at – skin diseases in humans (a decomposition of the flesh associated with death; see Num. 12:12, Job 18:13) and fungal growths in fabrics and houses, and (3) genital discharges. Many scholars have noted that the physical substances and states labeled impure, and thus deemed to be anathema to God, are associated with death and procreation. The God of the Hebrew Bible does not die and does not have sexual relations. These are characteristic of humans. To be eligible to approach the sanctuary, God's residence among the Israelites, humans must separate from that which makes them least God-like: death and procreation. The ritual purity laws requiring separation from sources of impurity are thus essential to the frequent priestly exhortation to be like God (imitatio dei) and to strive for holiness.

According to Leviticus 10:10, the priests must teach Israel the distinction between pure and impure on the one hand, and holy and common (or profane) on the other, in order to prevent impermissible contacts between the holy and the impure. Maintaining a ritually pure and holy area in the community (the sanctuary compound) is essential if God is to dwell in Israel's midst. During the wilderness period, the entire camp of the Israelites was a kind of holy war camp with the ark in the center; thus, it was subject to stricter purity regulations than the ordinary settled habitation. This accounts for the exclusion of severe impurity bearers from the camp (Num. 5:2–3 and 31:13–44), even though such persons are not excluded from their communities in the laws for ordinary settled habitation (see below).

corpses and carcasses

The most severe source of ritualim purity is the human corpse, which communicates to persons and objects that contact it or enter an enclosed space with it (Num. 19:14ff.) an impurity that lasts seven days and can in turn defile others with a milder one-day impurity. Human bones and graves also convey ritual impurity. Corpse impurity is so severe that some sources exclude the corpse-defiled from the holy camp for the period of impurity (Num. 5:2–3, Num. 31:13–24). Numbers 19, which reflects the situation in settled communities generally, rather than the holy camp, does not. The corpse-defiled are purified by a ritual process that includes sprinkling with a mixture of water and ashes from a ritually burned red heifer on the third and seventh days, bathing, laundering and waiting till sundown. Corpse-defiled objects are purified by fire or immersion in water as appropriate, though defiled earthenware cannot be purified and is simply destroyed.

The carcasses of all large land animals and eight types of smaller land animals (e.g., mice, lizards) convey a one-day ritual impurity. One who touches or carries them becomes impure until nightfall (Lev. 11:24ff.). The purity laws pertaining to animals are complicated by the fact that many defile by ingestion (see *Dietary Laws). The only living beings to contract corpse impurity are humans, both Israelite and non-Israelite (Num. 19:11). Food may also become impure if it has first been in contact with water (which makes it "receptive" to impurity; Lev. 11:34).

scale-disease or "leprosy"

"Leprosy" is a conventional but erroneous rendering of Hebrew ẓara'at. The term covers a set of skin lesions in humans that feature scaling of the skin as well as fungal growths in clothes and residential buildings; these are detailed in Lev. 13–14. Skin lesions of human beings generate a most severe impurity (defiling to both sancta and common objects) and can be subdivided: one type is immediately declared as impure, another as pure (including a case where the symptoms appear over the whole body). A third type requires isolation for a week or a fortnight, and if there is no deterioration the bearer is considered pure. Because the scale-diseased person can defile even common objects and persons, he is either restricted within or excluded from the community (Lev. 13:46; Num. 12:14–15). Scale-disease of clothes and buildings always requires isolation of the afflicted entity for a week or a fortnight and only following this period is it decided whether it is pure or not. The purification ritual for persons is carried out by the priest only after healing is complete (hence, the ritual is not curative). It is more intricate and complicated than for other impure persons, and bears certain similarities to the Azazel (scapegoat) ceremony on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:5–11). Impurity is removed by sprinkling a mix of bird blood and water, and then carried away by a live bird. The person bathes, launders, and shaves, waits a week, and then bathes, launders, and shaves again before offering a special sacrifice at the sanctuary. Houses from which ẓara'at has been removed are purified by sprinkling and dispatch of a live bird; fabrics are purified by washing.

In many narrative texts of the Hebrew Bible, ẓara'at, like death, can be deployed as a divine punishment for sin (Ex. 4:6; Num. 12:10–15; Deut. 28:27, 35; ii Sam. 3:29; ii Kings 5). Nevertheless, the priestly discussion of scale-disease impurity makes no mention of a state of sinfulness, only of ritual impurity preventing contact with sancta. There is slight evidence for a biblical association of scale-disease with death (Num. 12:12, Job 18:13), supporting the claim that biblical impurities arise from substances and conditions associated with procreation and death.

issue from the sexual organs

Emissions of semen, pus, or blood from the genitals of either sex convey ritual impurity. Emissions may be divided into two main classes: normal emissions (discharges of semen from the male and menstrual blood from the female) and abnormal emissions (diseased discharges of non-menstrual blood or pus).

Normal emissions are less severe, conveying impurity only for the period of the discharge itself: one-day for an emitter of semen and (an idealized) seven-days for a menstruant. Semen (the least defiling genital flux) defiles clothing, but since emitters of semen do not convey a secondary impurity, the semen-defiled are restricted only from the sphere of the holy (the sanctuary area and holy items outside the sanctuary such as sacrificial meats). Purification for a semen emitter is achieved by bathing, laundering, and waiting until evening. Sexual intercourse conveys a one-day semen impurity to the female partner as well as the male. This is removed by bathing and waiting until evening. The ritual impurity of a menstruant (niddah) is slightly more severe, defiling both persons and objects for one day. The bed and chair of the menstruant are defiled (probably due to the possibility of actual contact with the flux) and can convey a one-day impurity to persons or things by contact. Objects or furniture on which a menstruant sits or lies can convey impurity by contact. Sexual intercourse with a menstruant conveys an equivalent seven-day impurity to the male partner (Lev. 15:24; but Lev. 18:19 prohibits sex with a menstruant). Purification from menstrual impurity does not require a sacrifice; we may deduce that the menstruant bathes and launders on the seventh day and waits until evening although this is not explicitly stated. Lev. 15, which contains the impurity regulations for genital emissions, normalizes and regularizes menstruation on analogy to the emission of semen. These regulations do not banish the menstruant from her home and they contain none of the rhetoric of disgust for menstruation evidenced in other biblical texts (such as Isaiah 30:22 which suggests a practice of physical expulsion for menstruants; or Ezekiel 7:19–20; 36:17) and in ancient literature generally (see Pliny, The Natural History, Book vii, chapter 13).

Abnormal emissions convey a more severe form of ritual impurity that resembles in its effect the other severe impurities of ẓara'at and corpse contamination. First, the impurity continues for a period of seven days beyond the time of the discharge itself (similar to the week between healing and purification of scale-disease). Second, the purification ritual, like that prescribed for ẓara'at and corpse contamination, requires sacrificial offerings. Third, the zav and zavah (male and female with an abnormal emission) are excluded from the sanctuary camp (Num. 5:2–3). The regulations in Leviticus 15, presumably intended for settled habitation, do not include expulsion from the community. The zav/ah conveys to a bed, chair, or saddle on which he sits or lies a one-day impurity that can defile other persons or things. Touching a zav/ah or being touched by a zav/ah with unwashed hands leads to a one-day impurity. The spittle of a zav also conveys a one-day impurity. Purification from abnormal genital emission, beginning seven days after the condition has healed, involves bathing in "living water" (mayyim ḥayyim; (Lev. 15:13)), laundering, waiting until evening, and bringing a burnt offering and a purification offering (ḥattat) on the eighth day.

Lochial discharge (genital emissions attending and following the birthing process) also convey ritual impurity. For seven days after the birth of a male and fourteen days after the birth of a female, a woman defiles like a menstruant. For an additional 33 or 66 days (for a male or female child respectively), the mother bears a lesser impurity and is restricted only from contact with sancta, not ordinary objects or persons (presumably sexual intercourse is permitted). The new-born child is not considered impure. Purification from post-partum impurity is not detailed and must be deduced from comparable impurities, but likely included bathing and laundering after both the first and second stages. When the purification period is over, the woman brings a burnt-offering sacrifice and a purification (ḥatta't) sacrifice to the sanctuary (Lev. 12:6–8).

Other permitted ritual defilements occur in the context of the cult when those engaged in certain purification rituals absorb or otherwise incur a one-day impurity.

purification from permitted (ritual) impurities regarding persons and objects

Common to all purifications for ritual impurity is the time factor. One must wait until the evening for the lesser degrees of impurity (e.g., Lev. 11:24, 25, 27) and seven days for the greater degrees (e.g., Lev. 12:2). Rituals increase with the severity of the impurity. Thus, ablutions, bathing for persons and washing for objects, are a basic purification rite for all permitted ritual impurities even where not expressly specified. Slightly more severe forms of contact with a source of impurity (carrying rather than mere touching) and impurities lasting longer than one-day also require laundering (Lev. 11:25, 28). Sprinkling, another form of cleansing, is prescribed for the severe impurities (sprinkling with water and blood for the scale-diseased, with water and the ashes of a red heifer for corpse-defilement). The more severe ritual impurities of abnormal genital emissions and scale-disease require a ḥattat (purification offering) to purify the sanctuary, not the offerer, of impurity generated by his or her condition. (The offerer's personal impurity has been removed by the passage of time and by ablutions following the healing of his or her condition.) On occasion, additional sacrifices are prescribed as appeasements that enable the full reintegration of the offerer (e.g., a burnt offering for the zav/ah, Lev. 15:14–15, 29–30). The asham offering required of the scale-diseased person is normally brought for cases of sacrilege and may reflect an ancient idea that scale-disease is a punishment for sacrilege.

Objects defiled by contact with a corpse are passed through fire if they can endure it; if not they are immersed in water (Num. 31:19–24). Earthenware vessels cannot be purified but must be broken, as must even stoves and ovens. Various modes of destruction or disposal are prescribed for other impurities that cannot be removed. For example, corpses must be buried outside the settlement, fabrics infected by ẓara'at are burned and ẓara'at infected building materials are deposited in an impure place outside the camp.

Defiled sancta are fully restored with a two-step process of purification followed by reconsecration. Purification rituals also elevate persons to positions of increased access to the sacred. Priests undergo ablutions (washing hands and feet) before serving in the sanctuary and special ablutions attend the high priest's performance of the Yom Kippur ritual. Levites are purified by shaving, laundering, and sprinkling with "waters of purification" (me ḥattat; Num. 8:6–7, 15, 21) before assisting the priests and performing sanctuary labors.

prohibited (moral) impurities and their purification

Leviticus 18, 20, and related texts (most belonging to a set of writings known as the Holiness Code) employ impurity terminology in a moral context. (In addition to the term tame, the terms to'evah and ḥanaf are used in reference to moral, and not ritual, impurity.) According to these texts, moral impurity arises from the commission of sin and defiles the sinner himself (with a non-removable degradation) and the sanctuary. Unlike ritual impurity, moral impurity is not conveyed to others; it is not subject to rites of purification (such as ablutions). Moral purity of persons can be achieved only by punishment for heinous sins (such as karet, the divine penalty of "cutting-off"), atonement for lesser sins, or abstention from defiling immoral acts in the first instance. Where ritual impurity defiles persons, some objects, and the outer altar of the sanctuary, severe moral impurity defiles the innermost areas of the sanctuary as well as the land. Land that is repeatedly defiled by sexual transgressions will eventually "vomit out" those who dwell upon it, a reference to exile (see Lev. 18:25, 28).

Three classes of heinous moral transgression are singled out as sources of a moral impurity that defiles the land. These transgressions, which incur severe punishment, include various sexual sins, homicide, and idolatry. According to Leviticus 18 and 20, sexual sins such as incest (18:6–18), adultery (18:20), homosexuality (18:22), bestiality (18:23), and intercourse with a menstruant (18:19, 20:18), result in karet for the offender and defilement of the land (exposing the community to the danger of expulsion). In other texts, victims of sexual violations incur a personal moral defilement (a non-contagious condition of degradation), as in the case of rape (Gen. 34:5, 13, 27) and incest (Ezek. 22:11). So, too, do those who remarry after an intervening union (Deut. 24:1–4).

Illicit (i.e., non-judicial, non-military) homicide, whether intentional or unintentional, also defiles the land (Num. 35:33– 34). The manslayer bears "bloodguilt," a kind of moral impurity, and his life is forfeit. In cases of murder, the personal defilement of the murderer and the defilement of the land are removed only by the death of the murderer. In instances of accidental homicide, the death of the perpetrator at the hands of the victim's blood avenger also removes bloodguilt and impurity from the land. However, the accidental manslayer may take refuge in one of five cities designated for this purpose until the death of the high priest, which serves to remove the impurity of the homicide.

Two idolatrous actions are described as defiling in Leviticus (offering a child to Molech in Leviticus 20:2–5 and consulting the dead in Lev. 19:31). However, numerous biblical texts speak of idolatry, idols, and idolatrous utensils more broadly as defiling the worshipper (e.g., Josh. 22:17, Jer. 2:23, Ezek. 20:7, 18, 26, 31), the sanctuary (Jer. 7:30, Ezek. 5:11), and the land (Jer. 2:7–9; Ezek. 36:17–18). Offenders are subject to stoning and the divine penalty of karet (cutting off). In many passages, idols and their cultic appurtenances must be destroyed or disposed of (for burning see Ex. 32:20, Deut. 7:5, 25, ii Kings 10:26; for burying see Gen. 35:4).

In addition to the three classes of heinous sin, lesser transgressions generate a moral impurity that defiles the sanctuary. The defiling effect of these transgressions is calibrated to the sinner's intentionality (deliberate or inadvertent sin) and the presence or absence of repentance. The sanctuary defilement of inadvertent sins is purged by bringing a ḥattat sacrifice. Repentance reduces deliberate sins to a status equal to that of unintentional sin, allowing the removal of sanctuary defilement by ḥattat also. Brazen, unrepented sins and unintentional sins of which the perpetrator is unaware remain un-remedied. Thus, Leviticus 16 describes an annual ritual process designed to purify the sanctuary from the accumulated defilements accruing to it as a result of these trespasses. On the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur) a ḥattat sacrifice is brought on behalf of the community. The high priest confesses all of the sins of the Israelites over the head of a goat which is then dispatched into the wilderness.

Although ritual impurities are not sinful, failure to purify oneself from a permitted ritual impurity (e.g., corpse-defilement) is sinful and defiles the sanctuary with a moral impurity. If inadvertent, the situation can be rectified by bringing a ḥattat (purification offering) in addition to the normal purification procedures for the ritual impurity. If deliberate and unrepented, the punishment is karet.

The purity requirements for Nazirites and priests are higher than those for ordinary Israelites because of the greater holiness of the former. Thus, while Israelites may become impure from any corpse, priests may not defile themselves by any corpse but that of close kin. The high priest and Nazirite must avoid corpse-defilement altogether. Nazirite contact with a corpse is a sin that defiles the sanctuary. If done inadvertently, a ḥattat must be offered to purify the sanctuary, but if done deliberately the Nazirite is punished with karet.

Both ritual and moral impurity appear in biblical sources as real and potent forces. While their sources and modes of transfer differ, they are deemed to have real (albeit different) effects in the world. There are, however, secondary non-literal applications of terms of impurity that should be understood as mere metaphor. For example, "a pure heart" (Jer. 4:14, Ps. 24:4, 51:12, 73:1) and "pure hands" (Gen. 20:5, II Sam. 22:21, Ps. 18:21, 25) are clearly metaphors for righteousness while "im-pure lips" (Isa. 6:5) is a metaphor for impious speech.


Several scholars have stressed the similarity between the laws of purity and impurity in the Bible and those of the ancient Near East, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the ancient Hittites. According to Herodotus (1,198), it was customary in Babylon to bathe in water after cohabitation and it was forbidden to touch any utensil prior to this. According to an ancient Babylonian text, a man touching a menstruating woman was unclean for six days. The pig was considered unclean, although it was not considered forbidden food. In Egypt it was forbidden for a man to enter the temple after cohabitation unless he first bathed, and the priests bathed twice daily and twice nightly. The king of Egypt purified himself every morning (cf. Ex. 7:15). Among the Hittites a corpse was considered impure and there is evidence of a detailed ritual for the purification of a mother after giving birth. Despite these significant similarities and the ancient, pre-monotheistic roots for many Israelite purity practices, any effort to understand the purpose and meaning of these practices as systematized by the monotheizing priestly writings in Lev. 12–16 must attend to the larger symbolism of impurity and holiness in those writings. Thus, although Babylonian purity rites are accompanied by healing incantations, it cannot be assumed that biblical purification rites as crafted by the priestly writers are designed to heal, since they occur only after the diseased condition (abnormal genital emission, ẓara'at) has already ceased.

In some cultures purity regulations serve as tools of subordination. There is little evidence to suggest that Israelite purity regulations served this function. Ritual impurity is not a permanent or long-lasting stigma applied to certain groups selectively. The biblical system of ritual impurity is impermanent and applies to all Israelites – priests and lay Israelites, men and women.

In the Halakhah

A general concern for ritual purity is attested in the Second Temple Period. Ritual purity was important when handling consecrated food or objects and impurity had restrictive consequences, such as disqualification from eating sacrificial food, or participating in the Passover celebration. Purity observance, however, was important for reasons that extended beyond cultic practice and access. For example, groups like the Essenes and Pharisees voluntarily adopted the purity regulations of priests, striving to eat their food in a state of purity, as part of their quest for holiness. Moreover, strong biblical sanctions attended the failure to purify from severe impurities (e.g., Num. 19:13 threatens those who do not purify from corpse impurity with karet or "cutting off"). Finally, the larger Hellenistic milieu was one in which corpse impurity was feared and avoided. In Greek tradition, priests could not attend funerals and were defiled by even looking at a corpse. Houses of the dead contracted impurity and were to be cleansed with sea water. Tombs, bones, and uncovered graves were to be avoided. According to Roman law, corpse impurity traveled along blood lines so that relatives of the dead were defiled even if physically distant. For Jews to observe their own ritual purity laws in such an environment would be rather unremarkable, as evidenced by passages in Philo and Josephus. All of these non-cultic inducements to the observance of purity regulations while the Temple still stood, help explain rabbinic interest in the laws of purity in a post-Temple world.

The tannaim continue the biblical distinction between ritual impurity and moral impurity, recognizing that ritual impurity arises from natural, unavoidable and even obligatory circumstances and not from sin. While the biblical laws of ritual impurity and purity are systematized and extended in rabbinic halakhah (at least ⅓ of the Mishnah deals with the laws of ritual purity in some fashion), moral impurity and the consequences of sin are matters of moral instruction rather than legal formulation; they are treated in aggadic rather than halakhic texts. (The rabbis expand on the list of morally defiling transgressions, as in Mekhilta, ba-Ḥodesh 9: "anyone who is arrogant causes the land to become impure").

The following discussion of rabbinic and later halakhic impurity regulations focuses exclusively on the treatment of ritual impurity.

rabbinic systematization of biblical impurity regulations

Twelve complete tractates in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, scores of mishnayot in other tractates, and many beraitot in the halakhic Midrashim and in the two Talmuds, as well as the studies of amoraim connected with them, are devoted to these halakhot. The rabbinic authors assume that the biblical regulations are not random, but form a system whose principles can be discerned and extrapolated. Through exacting exegesis, comparison of parallel passages and logical inference, they fill the gaps in the biblical material and produce a fully elaborated scheme of ritual purity and impurity. For example, as regards purification, rabbinic authors realize that: (1) the requirement of bathing can be assumed even where not specified (supported by such parallels as Lev. 11:39–40, Lev. 17:15, and Lev. 22:5–6); (2) ablutions or immersion of some kind are a minimal purity requirement for any defiled person or object even when not specified; (3) more intense contact with impurity (carrying and eating rather than merely touching a carcass; lying down or eating rather than merely stepping in a ẓara'at afflicted house) necessitates laundering as well as bathing (compare Lev. 11:39–40 with 17:15; Lev. 14:36,46 with 14:47); (4) since more intense contact with impurity necessitates laundering as well as bathing, the requirement to launder assumes the need to bathe even where not specified (supported by such parallels as Num. 19:19 and Num. 31:24); (5) logic demands that females with genital discharges of any description must bathe even where not specified since (a) bathing is required of those they defile and (b) the bathing requirement indicated in the first case of genital discharge discussed in Leviticus 15 (the zav) extends to all cases, male and female, subsumed there under (see Lev. 15:33); (6) for more severe impurity bearers ablutions remove layers of impurity (supported by Lev. 14:8, Lev. 15:11), a biblical idea that generates the rabbinic category of tevul yom – one who has undergone immersion and is awaiting sunset for complete purification. The tevul yom is no longer defiling in the common sphere (hence he may reenter the camp; cf. Lev. 14:8) and is a threat only to sancta and food that must be eaten in purity,

The Categories of Impurity

Rabbinic systematization may also be seen in the categorization of the biblical impurities. The ritual impurities mentioned in the Torah (corpses, carcasses, genital emissions, and scale-disease) are regarded in rabbinic texts as "fathers of impurity" (avot ha-tumah). Impurity affects persons, vessels, clothing, food, liquid, and, in some cases, beds and chairs. Entities that contract ritual impurity from a father of impurity are called "children" (yeladot) or "offspring of impurity" (toledot ha-tumah) and are impure in the first degree. These offspring of impurity render only foods and liquids impure in the second degree (bk 2b; Yad, Tumat Met 5:7). In the common sphere the chain of impurity ceases in the second degree, but hands, food and liquid which are impure in the second degree still transmit impurity to dedicated or sacred produce. Terumah contracts a third degree impurity but does not transmit impurity further. Sacred produce (kodoshim, dedicated to Temple use) can contract a third degree impurity and transmit an impurity to foods and liquids to the fourth degree (Sot. 5:2; Toh. 2:3–5; Yad, Avot ha-Tumah 11:1–4). The exception to this descending series is that which contracts impurity from a corpse, which (based on an ambiguity in Num. 19:22) is deemed by the rabbis to be a father of impurity which is itself able to defile both persons and objects. In order to differentiate the corpse from the corpse-defiled, the corpse itself is called a "father of fathers" (avi avot) of impurity by Rashi (Pes. 14b, 17a, et al.) and other commentators (R. Samson to Kel. 1:1; Oho. 1:2).

Methods of Contracting Impurity

Corpses and related matter (bones, graves). Rabbinic texts are careful to define and prescribe minimum specifications for corpse matter, graveyards, and bones that convey impurity according to Num. 19:16. They also define the "tent" that conveys the impurity of a corpse reposing within it according to Num. 19:11. The rabbis recognize that the power of a tent in which a corpse reposes to convey impurity lies in its overhang and declare other overhangs capable of conveying impurity (a tree or awning for example). Impurity by overshadowing (Kel. 1:4) is caused whether the corpse or corpse related item (such as a bone) overshadows the person or utensil, these overshadow the corpse, or something a handbreadth wide overshadows both the corpse and the object (Oho. 3:1; Naz. 53b; Maimonides, Yad, Tumat Met 1:10). However, significant limitations of the corpse impurity law are effected by the rabbinic determinations that (1) corpses defile in a vertical direction only and (2) the only items in a corpse-defiled house susceptible to defilement are unsealed vessels, foods, and liquids (interpreting Num. 19:11 in light of Lev 11:32 and Num. 31:20). The latter leniency stands in stark contrast to Qumranic law in which every single item in a corpse-defiled house contracts impurity.

ẓara'at Impurity

The rabbinic material pertaining to the scale-diseased person (meẓora) reveals a desire to reduce the incidence of ẓara'at as far as possible. The rabbinic definition of the disease is narrowed to exclude certain persons (e.g., resident aliens) and places (e.g., Jerusalem in Tosef., Neg. 6:1 and later all of Babylonia in Ket. 77b). Certification of a meẓora is subject to stringent criteria concerning minimal size, time of examination, location of affliction, and so on. Ẓara'at for garments is limited by excluding all naturally colored or dyed fabrics, and houses are susceptible to ẓara'at only if the original stone or wood is affected (Sifra, Neg. 5:3). An extra week is added to the quarantine period for ẓara'at, and doubtful cases must be decided leniently (in opposition to the general rule that doubts in matters of Torah law are decided stringently; cf. Neg 7:14). That the purpose of these rules is to reduce the incidence of ẓara'at impurities is attested by the pronouncement in Tosefta, Nega'im 6:1 that "there never was and never will be a case of a ẓara'at infected house."

At the same time, the actual impurity of a meẓora is elaborated in a relatively stringent manner in rabbinic halakhah. The biblical text offers very little on the conveyance of impurity by a meẓora, and the rabbis fill in this gap by comparative exegesis. Thus the meẓora is said to defile others present in the same house on analogy with the ẓara'at affected house, which defiles its contents. The meẓora's defilement by overhang is analogized to that of a corpse. Since the spittle and shifting (see below) of the less severely defiled zav conveys impurity, the rabbis rule that the spittle and shifting of the more severely defiled scale-diseased person must also convey impurity. Thus a meẓora defiles others by touching, shifting, carrying without contact, spitting, and according to Zav 5:6, breathing. According to Niddah 34, all fluids of a meẓora are impure. Rabbinic sources also define legal minima for the conveyance of impurity. For example, a scale-diseased person must put his head and the greater part of his body into a house in order to defile by overhang; a person must put his head and the greater part of his body into a house afflicted with ẓara'at in order to contract impurity from it; a ẓara'at diseased garment must be the size of an olive or more to defile a house in which it is put (Neg. 13:8); building materials from a house afflicted by ẓara'at must be the size of an olive or more to convey impurity to humans and vessels by contact, carrying, and overhang (Neg. 13:6; Tosef., Neg. 6:11; Yad, Tumat ẓara'at 16:1).

The meẓora is subject to some restrictions. He is not allowed within walled cities, and the Mishnah states that a partition 10 handbreadths high and four cubits wide was made in the synagogue to segregate the meẓora from other congregants, and he was required to enter first and exit last (Neg. 13:12). The Mishnah shows greater stringency in its treatment of the meẓora than the Sifra or the Babylonian Talmud (the latter declaring that there is no ẓara'at in Babylonia at all). Some aggadic traditions express the older view that ẓara'at is a divine punishment for transgression (Lev R. 15:5, 16:1, 17:3).

Genital Emissions

The rabbinic systematization of impure genital emissions is complex and there are differences among the sources. In general, the semen emitter is distinguished from other dischargers in that the former conveys impurity to persons only through sexual intercourse and not by contact. This is because the semen, and not the semen emitter, is an avtumah (the semen emitter being impure in the first degree). The other dischargers are analogized by virtue of their having a flux. While rabbinic texts recognize a hierarchy among the zav, zavah, niddah, and first-stage yoledet, they nevertheless equate their potential to defile to a large degree. A unique feature of discharge impurity is the ability of its bearers to defile by pressure (midras), based on the attention in Lev. 15 to the impurity of items upon which these persons have sat or lain. Because Lev. 15 specifically mentions seats and beds, the rabbis limit midras impurity to items used for sitting or lying (Nid. 49b). However, Lev. 15:10 attributes impurity to "all that is under" (the zav), and not merely beds and seats. The rabbis choose to read this verse as attributing impurity to "all that [the zav] is under" (a grammatically possible reading), generating the concept of "maddaf" (impurity of items located above the zav. Although it is not clear what these items are in tannaitic texts, the Babylonian Talmud limits maddaf to the bed covering of the niddah. Maddaf uncleanness is understood to be of rabbinic origin and is considered a light impurity. Persons with a genital discharge also defile by shifting or being shifted (hesset). Hesset is when an object is supported or carried by one with a flow without direct contact.

While rabbinic halakhah extends the defiling power of bodily discharges by systematic analogizing, there is evidence of a simultaneous desire to limit impurity. Susceptibility to midras impurity by flux-bearers is limited to beds and seats. Earthenware and items that cannot be purified are not considered susceptible to defilement by flux-bearers. In addition, comparison with Qumranic exegesis of the same biblical laws reveals a lenient tendency on the part of the rabbis. At Qumran, all women, not merely menstruants, are excluded from Jerusalem; excrement is also viewed as a defiling discharge, and semen-emitters contract a three-day impurity. Although the reference to "places of impurity" in Mishnah Niddah 7:4 may point to a custom in tannaitic times of isolating menstruants in special places, the practice is not robustly attested in rabbinic halakhah. In general, while sectarian exegetes fill scriptural gaps in a stringent manner, creating a purity system that ultimately requires separation and isolation in a desert community, the rabbis fill scriptural gaps in a less stringent manner, enabling observance to continue in the course of everyday existence.

Things susceptible to impurity are Israelites, utensils, food, and drink. Although biblically, a ger (gentile resident alien) can contract corpse uncleanness (see Num. 19:10b–14), the rabbis understand the term ger to refer to a proselyte, and conclude that only a convert and not a gentile contracts corpse impurity (Naz. 61b; Yad, Tumat Met 1:13). All human corpses convey impurity, but whether a gentile corpse defiles by contact and carrying only (Yev. 61a; Maim. ibid., 1:12) or also by overshadowing (Oho. 18:7) is disputed. All utensils, except those made of stone, unfired clay, or dung, are susceptible to impurity no matter what their shape. Some, however, such as flat wooden or bone utensils, contract impurity by rabbinic law only (Men. 69b; Kel. 11:1; 15:1; Yad, Kelim 1:6, 10). Glass vessels are the subject of a special decree (Shab. 14b, 15a, 16b; Yad, Kelim 1:15). Metal vessels that contact a corpse take on its degree of impurity (based on exegesis of Num. 19:16). Utensils can contract impurity only when they are completed and the sages defined what stage of manufacture marks completion for the different types of vessels. Broken vessels likewise are not susceptible to impurity but some, on being repaired or reassembled, revert by a special rabbinic decree to their original impurity (Shab. 16b).


As in the Bible, impurity is removed by sacrifices, immersions or ablutions, waiting for sunset, and in some cases special cultic acts. An individual with a genital discharge counts seven pure days and then has to bathe in living waters, i.e., a spring (Mik. 1:8). A meẓora whose signs of impurity have disappeared brings two birds that have lived in freedom, and the priest (or in another view, any person) slaughters one over a new earthenware bowl, then takes cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool and binds them together. He then brings the tips of the wings and the tail of the second bird near to them, dips them in the blood and sprinkles it seven times on the back of the hand (and some say also on the forehead) of the meẓora. After sending away the living bird the priest shaves the meẓora. After seven days, during which the meẓora may enter within the wall of Jerusalem but is still regarded as a "father of impurity," the priest shaves him a second time and the meẓora mustthen wash his garments and bathe (Neg. 14:1–2; Yad, Tumat ẓara'at 11:1–2). He who contracts impurity from a corpse is sprinkled on the third and seventh days of his impurity with purification-offering water, and after the sprinkling on the seventh day is obliged to bathe. Bathing alone is sufficient for all others who are impure and can be purified. Wherever bathing is mentioned in connection with those who are impure, except in the case of one with a flux, the bathing takes place in a *mikveh. The purification of the impure is completed at the going down of the sun (Lev. 22:6–7). On the day the impure individual bathes, he is called a tevul yom (immersed that day) and is disqualified from terumah and hallowed things. The bathing of the hands for (the eating of) hallowed things also requires a mikveh. Otherwise those needing to wash their hands must pour a quarter log of water (about a quarter liter) over the hands (see *Ablution).

The priest who was to burn the red heifer and the high priest who was to serve on the Day of Atonement were separated from their households seven days beforehand and sprinkled with the purification-offering water (Par. 3:1). The duty of every Israelite to purify himself for the festival (Sifra, Shemini 4; rh 16b) is also because of the pilgrimage to the Temple (Yad, Tumat Okhelim 16:10). Immersions are sometimes required even of the ritually pure to mark the transition to a sacred context: "None may enter the Temple court for the service, even though he is pure, until he has immersed himself" (Yoma 3:3; tj, Yoma 40b). Certain sects habitually immersed themselves even though they were not impure. According to Josephus (Wars, 2, 129), the Essenes used to immerse their bodies in cold water before their communal meals at noon and in the evening. The immersion of the "morning bathers," too, was unconnected with seminal impurity, but was a regular daily immersion. The Pharisees opposed this custom, and responded to the complaint of the morning bathers that "they mention the Divine Name in the morning without immersion," to the effect that, "I complain against you morning bathers who mention the Divine Name out of a body in which impurity resides."


All foods set apart for human consumption can contract impurity, once they are detached from the ground and have been made susceptible through being moistened, to the satisfaction of their owners, by one of the following seven liquids: water, dew, oil, wine, milk, blood, honey (Uk. 3:1; Makhsh. 1:1; 6:4). These liquids themselves also contract impurity (Yad, Tumat Okhelim 1:4 and commentaries), in an even stricter degree than foodstuffs (Par. 8:7; Toh. 2:6, Yad, Avot ha-Tumah 10:10). Liquids are the most potent conveyers of impurity. If defiled by an item, even in the third degree, they contract and convey a first degree impurity.

Fathers of Impurity on the Authority of the Scribes

In addition to the Pentateuchal sources of ritual impurity, the rabbinic sages ascribed irregular forms of ritual impurity to the bet ha-peras ("burial area," see below), to gentile countries, to idols and related items, and to gentiles. These impurities bear the signs of rabbinic innovation, including controversy over the details, sporadic enforcement, resolution of doubtful cases on the side of leniency, conceptual irregularity, and the use of analogical formulations ("x conveys impurity like a menstruant or like a corpse").

Burial Area

A burial area (bet ha-peras) is defined as land in which a ploughed-over bone, a lost grave, or burial niches (kukhim) may be present. By rabbinic decree, such areas are deemed to be impure by reason of the doubt that attaches to them. These fields have special laws for building, sowing, planting, and impurity removal (Oho. 17:1, 18:1–5; Tosef., Oho. 17:1–2).

Gentile Countries

Gentile lands are decreed by the rabbis to be ritually impure (the decree is attributed in later sources to Yose b. Yoezer and Yose b. Yohanan; see b. Shab. 14b; Tosef., Par. 3:5). In the Mishnah and Tosefta, the juxtaposition of the impurity of gentile lands with the impurity of the bet ha-peras indicates that gentile lands were likewise deemed impure because of doubt about the possible presence of bones, corpses, and graves (Tosef., Ahilot 17:6–7, 18:1–5, 14–17, Tosef., Kel. 7:1). In the Hebrew Bible, land is defiled morally, by sinful deeds such as idolatry, but not ritually. The few biblical verses that refer to gentile lands as impure (Amos 7:17 and Josh. 22:18) should be understood as references to moral impurity (stemming from the idolatry that occurs there). Thus, the rabbinic decree of ritual impurity is a true innovation. The degree to which and the precise manner in which gentile lands convey ritual impurity is not explicit in the halakhic sources (see Maimonides, Yad, Tumat Met 2:16; Rashi, Shah. 14b S.V. Alha-Areẓ). The conjecture that the purpose of this decree was to discourage emigration from Ereẓ Israel following the persecutions and exterminations in the time of Antiochus has no basis in the sources. The decree did not prevent emigration: not only do we find scholars in Alexandria (Joshua b. Perahya and Judah b. Tabai), but the Mishnah also assumes that people could be in foreign countries legitimately. Frequent contact with various countries and the existence of Jewish settlements outside the land of Israel made the observance of this decree a burden and in consequence it was lightened in various ways (Tosef., Oho. 18:2; Yad, Tumat Met 11:6). The paths taken by the pilgrims from Babylon on their festival pilgrimages, even in gentile lands, were declared pure (Tosef., Oho. 18:3; Yad, Tumat Met 11:12; see Maim. comm. to Oho. 18:7). Gentile towns within the land of Israel (Tosef., ibid., 18:4; Yad. ibid.) were also declared free from impurity. Similarly, gentile dwellings are declared to be impure, pending inspection, because of doubt about the possible presence of a buried fetus (Ohal. 18:7–8; see the Temple Scroll, 11 qt 48:11–12, for the sectarian belief that gentiles bury their dead indiscriminately and even in the middle of their houses).


In the Bible, idols and idolatry are strictly prohibited. While idols are strongly associated with moral impurity capable of defiling persons, land, and sanctuary, they are not among the biblical sources of ritual impurity. However, by the rabbinic period, idols and associated items are deemed to be ritually impure and to convey ritual impurity to sacred and profane places, objects, and persons. Rabbinic sources explicitly assert that the ritual impurity of idols and related items is rabbinic rather than from the Torah, as seen by the lack of consensus on the nature and degree of the impurity, the leniency governing the construction of these laws (Shab. 9:1, 11d and b. Shab. 83b), and the use of analogies to express this impurity. Drawing on biblical metaphors, R. Akiva asserts that, like a menstruant, the idol defiles by carriage. The sages, on the other hand, assert that an idol defiles only by physical contact, like a dead creeping thing (Shab 9:1). Elsewhere, the idol is said to defile by overhang like a meẓora (Tosef., Zav 5:5). The law that one passing under an asherah (idolatrous tree) becomes impure (Av. Zar. 3:8) is explained in conformity with this view, i.e., the likely presence of an idolatrous offering beneath it (Av. Zar. 48b).


According to the biblical purity system, all humans are subject to moral impurity arising from certain heinous sins, but only those under the covenant (Israelites and gentiles who join the covenant community) are subject to ritual impurity from the physical states and substances detailed in Lev. 12–15. Rabbinic texts are consistent and unanimous in asserting that biblical law excludes gentiles from the ritual purity system of Lev. 12–15 (Sifra, Zavim 1:1; Sifra, Tazria 1:1). Gentiles neither contract nor communicate ritual impurity through genital emissions (Mik. 8:3–4, Zav. 2:1, 2:3, Nid. 4:3, Ed. 5:1, cf. Tosef., Nid. 5:5, Nid. 7:3); nor are they, their houses or their garments susceptible to scale-disease impurity (Neg. 1:1, 3:1, 7:1, 11:1, 12:1). The consensus of rabbinic texts is that gentiles are also not susceptible to corpse impurity. Nor do gentiles bear an intrinsic ritual impurity, as some scholars have argued, as evidenced by the fact that they may separate terumah (Ter. 3:9) and make sacrificial offerings and donations to the sanctuary (Sifra, Emor 7:2, Shek. 7:6, Zev. 4:5, Men. 5:3, 5:6, 6:1 and 9:8). Many rabbinic passages assume commensality of Jews and gentiles without concern for ritual impurity (Ber. 7:1, Av. Zar. 5:5) and others assume other interactions (Shab. 1:9) and even collaboration in the production of wine (a liquid that is very susceptible to defilement; Av. Zar. 4:9–12). The exclusion of gentiles from the Temple rampart is not due to an alleged intrinsic ritual impurity but to a hierarchical gradation of holiness in the sanctuary precincts that determines different degrees of access even for the pure (ranging from pure gentiles who have the least access to pure Israelite women, followed by pure Israelite men, Levites, priests, and finally the high priest who has the most intimate access).

Nevertheless, some rabbinic sources hold that gentiles bear a ritual impurity by rabbinic decree. "Israelites defile by zav and not gentiles, but the rabbis decreed concerning them that they defile like zavim" (Sifra, Zav 1:1). Later sources suggest that this decree dates to the early first century c.e. All sources agree that the ritual impurity of gentiles is not biblical but rabbinic. Doubtful cases are decided leniently, observance appears to have been sporadic, and the impurity itself is irregular. Specifically, the gentile does not defile like a zav in every respect. Scattered traditions assume the gentile can convey impurity by carriage, hesset, or madras, but in most instances this statutory impurity is understood to mean that the spittle and urine of a gentile convey impurity (Zav. 5:7, Mak. 6:6, Shek. 8:1, Toh. 5:8, Tosef., Toh. 5:4, Mak. 2:3, Toh. 5:2, and Tosef., Mik. 6:7). Some scholars believe that the rabbinic decree of statutory impurity for gentiles was a political decree intended to segregate the Jews from Romans and neighboring peoples during the time of the war. However, the mild impurity contracted from the spittle or urine of a gentile would not have been a major inconvenience and would not have prevented interaction between Jews and Romans (as evidenced by many laws regulating everyday transactions with gentiles). The rabbinic position seems lenient when compared with the sectarian rule of bathing after any contact with an alien.

Impurity of Hands

The idea that hands should be washed before contacting sacred items is probably quite ancient. Rabbinic tradition attributes a decree concerning the impurity of hands to Shammai and Hillel (early first century c.e.) (tj Shab. 1:7, 3d; Shab. 14b). Despite the Babylonian Talmud's assertion that Hillel and Shammai were merely extending to terumah an older Solomonic regulation requiring hand washing before contact with holy things (in view of the fact that "hands are fidgety" and may be presumed to contact impure things; Shab. 15a), the nature and extent of this decree is not clear. Tannaitic sources do refer to hand washing before eating terumah (Sifrei Num. 116; Bik. 2:1). However, in Second Temple times, some Jews strove not only to maintain the purity of priestly food, but also to eat their own ordinary food in a state of purity. Josephus (Wars 2:129) relates that the Essenes were wont to bathe before their meal. In non-sectarian circles hand washing was more common. New Testament sources attest to the Pharisaic practice of washing hands before consuming ordinary food (Mark 7; Luke 11:38; washing the hands before a meal is referred to in Matthew 15:2 as a "tradition of the elders."). In some tannaitic traditions, the impurity of hands is assumed even for ordinary meals (Ḥag. 2:5, cf. tj Ḥag. 78b, Ḥag. 18b). That Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel are said to have debated the timing of the hand washing rite at ordinary meals, suggests the ritual was accepted practice in the first century c.e. (Ber. 8:2; but cf. Tosef., ibid. 6 (5):3, and S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah, ad loc.). However, other tannaitic sources indicate that only the pious considered hands to be impure, even for ordinary food. Thus, one who eats ordinary food in purity is called a ḥaber, and one who does not is called an am ha-areẓ (Tosef., Av. Zar. 3 (6):10; Tosef., Dem. 2:2–3; Tosef., Dem. 2:20–22). By eating ordinary food in the same state of purity required for priests who were eating sacred food, Pharisees and ḥaverim aspired to a higher level of holiness. Pouring water over the hands before a meal may reflect the influence of a similar ancient Greek custom (Yad 1:2 and Tosef., Yad 1:12).

In a number of cases, the sages decreed a statutory ritual impurity upon the hands as a protective measure. For example, it was decreed that all sacred writings and tefillin with straps render hands impure (Yad, Avot ha-Tumah., 3:3–5: and see Kel. 15:6). The desire to discourage (mis)handling and storage near food are cited as reasons. Of the sacred writings, "their importance is the cause of their impurity, that they not be made into covers for animals" (Tosef., Yad 2:19 and cf. Shab. 14a). To prevent the loss of sacred meats, it was said that hands do not render impure in the Temple (Pes. 19a–b, Rashi; Yad, Avot ha-Tumah 8:6).

the consequences of impurity

The most immediate and direct consequences of ritual impurity attach to the realm of the sacred. According to rabbinic sources, priests in Second Temple times were especially strict about the purity of the Temple. If a dead reptile was found in the Temple "a priest may remove it with his girdle even on the Sabbath" (Er. 10:15). "If a priest served [at the altar] in a state of impurity, his fellow priests did not bring him to the bet din, but the young priests took him outside the Temple court and split open his brain with clubs" (Sanh. 9:6; cf. Tosef., Kel. 1:6). In Jerusalem itself, precautions were taken to guard the hallowed things and the priests from impurity. No burials were permitted there, and corpses were not allowed to be kept in the city overnight. In conformity with this view, the biblical requirement to send severe impurity bearers out of the camp was understood as meaning the area of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (Kel. 1:8–9; Sifre Num.1). The meẓora was sent out of walled cities only (Kel. 1:7) but "they may go throughout the land" (Sifrei Zuta to 5:2). Impure persons were expected to take care not to impart impurity to the people of Jerusalem and lenient rulings made it possible for pilgrims to maintain purity during pilgrimage festivals (e.g., Shek. 8:1: "any spittle found in Jerusalem may be deemed free from impurity excepting what is found in the upper market" frequented by gentiles). The verse (Lev. 11:8): "of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch; they are impure for you," directed to all Israel, is explained as referring only to the time of the festivals (Sifra, Shemini 4, 9; rh 16b), "since they must be ready to enter the Temple and eat of the hallowed things" (Yad, Tumat Okhelim 16:10).

Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that impurity was deemed to have consequences outside the Temple context, though to what extent is unclear. Certainly, the ḥaver was obliged to undertake "to eat [even] common food in purity" (Tosef., Dem. 2:2). This halakhah might be regarded as merely the custom of individuals who were strict with themselves, something like the report of Johanan b. Gudgada that "he always ate [even common food] in accordance with the purity of hallowed things" (Ḥag. 2:7; cf. Tosef., Ḥag. 3:2–3). On the other hand, some sources teach the halakhot of common food purity with no differentiation between ḥaverim and others (Ḥul. 2:5; Tosef., Ber. 6:2–4; et al.). The prohibition against causing impurity to common food in the land of Israel is also taught as incumbent upon all people (Tosef., Maksh. 3:7). In addition to their impact on the eating of common food, certain impurities had an effect in regard to prayer (Ber. 3:4–6; Ter. 1:6). The prohibition against praying where there is corpse impurity is inferred from the baraita, "If he were busy with a dead body in a grave and the time of reading the Shema arrives, he removes himself to a pure place, puts on tefillin, reads the Shema and says his prayers" (tj, Bet. 2:3, 4c). The practice of bathing after sexual intercourse and before Torah study mentioned in some rabbinic sources has been mistakenly interpreted as a ritual purity requirement. However, there is no blanket prohibition against studying Torah in a state of ritual impurity. Tosef., Ber. 2:13 states explicitly that severe impurity bearers are not prohibited from Torah study: "males and females who have an abnormal genital discharge, menstruants, and women after childbirth are permitted to read the Torah, and to study Mishnah and Midrash, halakhot and aggadot, but men who have had an emission of semen may not" (Tosef., Ber. 2:13). The prohibition of the semen emitter and the Palestinian practice of immersion after sex and before Torah study is linked to a perceived incompatibility between sexuality and holy activity (tj, Ber. 3:4, 6c; Ber. 22a states that the requirement of immersion is to ensure that scholars do not frequent their wives like roosters). Some sages in the land of Israel were so meticulously careful to comply with bathing before their learning, that Ḥanina, who came from Babylon, ridiculed them with the title "morning bathers" (tj, ibid.). In the Babylonian Talmud the practice of immersion after sex and before Torah study was abolished. During the geonic era it was considered a point of difference between Ereẓ Israel and Babylon (M. Margalioth, Ha-Ḥillukim she-Bein Anshei Mizrahu-Venei Ereẓ Yisrael, pp. 78 and 108ff.). The view attributed to R. Judah ben Bathyra, that "the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity," (b. Ber 21b) was eventually normative in this respect. As regards menstruants, however, more restrictive views prevailed and in a later period some local customs included prohibitions against menstruants praying or entering the synagogue or being present as blessings are recited (see the late source Baraita de-Messekhta Niddah, ed. Horowitz pp. 3 and 17; and see *Baraita de-Niddah; *Niddah). Such extensions of the laws of impurity and purity liken prayers to Temple sacrifices, and extend the sanctity of the priesthood to all Israel.

Despite such extensions, some maintain that the laws of impurity and purity have no relevant consequences of any substance except for priests and the affairs of the Temple and its hallowed things. This view has been summarized in the words of Maimonides (Yad, Tumat Okhelim 16:8–9): "What-ever 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…. Similarly, it is permissible to touch things that are impure and to incur impurity from them, for Scripture warns none but the sons of Aaron and the Nazirite against incurring impurity from a corpse, thereby implying that for all others it is permissible, and that even for priests and Nazirites it is permissible to incur impurity from other impure things, but not from a corpse."

reasons for purity and impurity

There is not a great deal of discussion of the reasons for purity and impurity in rabbinic literature. It is certain that the rabbis did not regard the impurities as infectious diseases or the laws of purification as quasi-hygienic principles. In a late narrative Johanan b. Zakkai is described as denying any efficacy to impurity and rites of purification: "By your lives! The corpse does not cause impurity, nor do the waters purify, but it is a decree of the Supreme King of Kings" (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 40a–b). Ritual purity is a religious ideal. It is said of the patriarch Abraham that he ate common food in purity (bm 87a). In describing the ideal era of the time of King Hezekiah, Isaac Nappaha says, "Search was made … from Gabbat to Antipris and no boy or girl, man or woman, was found who was not well versed in the laws of impurity and purity" (Sanh. 94b). In Avodah Zarah 20b, purity is listed as one of the grades on the path to holiness.

Impurity and Purity at the Present Time.

The cessation of most of the laws of impurity and purity in the contemporary era is the consequence of a prolonged process, which is only in part connected with the destruction of the Temple. Already in rabbinic times, the laws of ẓara'at in houses was weakening and even in the laws concerning the meẓora a clear trend to limit and lighten their impact is noticeable (Neg. 3:1–2; 5:1; "Any condition of doubt in leprous signs is deemed pure," in opposition to the rule: "Doubts in Torah law are decided stringently"; cf. 7:4). The law that when a meẓora enters the synagogue "they must make for him a partition ten handbreadths high and four cubits wide; he must enter first and come out last" (Neg. 13:12 and cf. Tosef., Neg. 8:2) is not directed especially to the era of the Temple. The laws of scale-disease were not in force in Babylon in the geonic era, as can be inferred from the summary of an unknown gaon: "Nowa-days if a disciple or scholar is meẓora, he is not thrust forth from the synagogue or bet midrash, for there is not now the law that thy camp shall be holy" (Sha'arei Teshuvah, no. 176 and S. Assaf (ed.), Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (1942), 123). Although immersion after sex and before learning was abolished in the Babylonian Talmud, the geonim in Babylon, under the influence of Muslims who were accustomed to bathe before every prayer, were also strict "because of cleanliness and in order to sanctify the Name before gentiles" (Sha'arei Teshuvah, no. 298). It became "the common custom in Shinar and Spain that none from whom semen issues prays before washing his whole body in water" (Yad, Tefillah 4:6). The custom was not followed in Christian Europe "and all Jews among the uncircumcised are not accustomed to wash" (Teshuvot ha-Ramban (Leipzig, 1859), no. 140; see Tur, OḤ 88 and 613). Some were strict, however, even in those countries, and required bathing at least for the reader and the priest reciting the priestly blessing (Resp., Maharam of Rothenberg (Berlin, 1841), 137). The ḥasidim reintroduced the duty of bathing for one from whom semen issues (see *Ablution). For various reasons, including the biblical prohibition against intercourse with a menstruant, halakhic prohibitions and practices designed to preserve men from contracting ritual impurity from their menstruating and post-partum wives, have continued in traditional Judaism (see *Niddah). This is the only element of the biblical ritual purity system that retains serious contemporary relevance.

Purification from corpse impurity was possible as long as purification-offering water prepared from the ashes of a red heifer was available. Mishnah Parah 3:5 claims that some red heifers were burnt in Second Temple times. Some of the ashes of the red heifer were distributed to each of the priestly courses (mishmarot – Par. 3:11) and Israelites were sprinkled with it (Tosef., ibid., 3:14). In Galilee there may have been purification-offering water even in the time of the amoraim (Nid. 6b; see also tj Ber. 6, 10a). With the cessation of purification-offering water, all Israel are assumed to have incurred corpse impurity. Priests are forbidden to contract corpse impurity even today (Sh. Ar., yd 369), but even so they are not pure, since they cannot guard against impurity from a metal utensil overshadowed by a corpse (see comm. Samson of Sens to Ḥul. 4:8). These facts have consequences also in the lawsof terumah and ḥallah (ibid.; Sh. Ar., yd 322:4), and are the reason for the prohibition against entering the Temple area even nowadays (Yere'im ha-Shalem, no. 297; Magen Avraham to Sh. Ar., OḤ 561:2).


H. Harrington, The Impurity System of Qumran and the Rabbis (1993); C. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities (2002); J. Klawans, "Notions of Gentile Impurity in Ancient Judaism," in: AJS Review, 20:2 (1995), 285–312; idem, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (2000); J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, Anchor Bible Series (1991); idem, Leviticus 17–22, Anchor Bible Series (2000). D. Wright, The Disposal of Impurity (1987).

[Christine Hayes (2nd ed.)]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Purity and Impurity, Ritual." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . 19 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Purity and Impurity, Ritual." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . (August 19, 2018).

"Purity and Impurity, Ritual." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Retrieved August 19, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.