This book explores the ways in which the early rabbis reshaped biblical laws of ritual purity and impurity and argues that the rabbis’ new purity discourse generated a unique notion of a bodily self. Focusing on the Mishnah, a Palestinian legal codex compiled around the turn of the third century CE, Mira Balberg shows how the rabbis constructed the processes of contracting, conveying, and managing ritual impurity as ways of negotiating the relations between one’s self and one’s body and, more broadly, the relations between one’s self and one’s human and nonhuman environments.
With their heightened emphasis on subjectivity, consciousness, and self-reflection, the rabbis reinvented biblically inherited language and practices in a way that resonated with central cultural concerns and intellectual commitments of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature adds a new dimension to the study of practices of self-making in antiquity by suggesting that not only philosophical exercises but also legal paradigms functioned as sites through which the self was shaped and improved.
Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature
From Sources of Impurity to Circles of Impurity
The collections of laws in Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19, according to which certain creatures, substances, and bodily phenomena constitute sources of ritual impurity, have been daunting to traditional exegetes and modern scholars alike for centuries. The biblical text's silence as to the principles that govern the rendition of particular things as impure (if any such principles exist), as well as the lack of apparent explanation of the very concept of impurity and its import, posed a significant challenge for interpreters who sought to incorporate the laws of impurity into whatever they perceived to be the general theological or ethical arc of the Hebrew Bible. While some asserted, like William Robertson Smith, that "rules like this have nothing in common with the spirit of the Hebrew religion," many others, from the author of The Letter of Aristeas in the second century B.C.E. to the French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva in the late twentieth century, strove to uncover the hidden meanings of the biblical ritual purity code. The main purpose of such readers throughout the generations has been to determine why it is that some particular substances and conditions, rather than others, are identified as sources of impurity, and their premise has been that deciphering the logic according to which certain things are classified as impure is the key to decrypting the biblical concept of impurity at large. Whether they offered symbolic readings of the social imperatives entailed in the purity laws, pragmatic explanations of the laws as promoting public health or economic interests, conjectures on the demonological background of the notion of impurity, or reconstructions of the ancient Israelite cosmology, exegetes and scholars generally shared the view that understanding ritual purity means finding a paradigm or set of paradigms to account for the specific sources of ritual impurity.
In light of this overarching tendency to interpret biblical impurity laws by asking what it is that makes certain things impure, it is perhaps quite surprising to find that in the entire vast corpus of classical rabbinic literature, arguably the corpus most committed to close and scrupulous readings of biblical law in the ancient world, no attempt whatsoever is made to explain why particular substances and conditions are considered to be sources of impurity and others are not, and no suggestions are raised as to the underlying logic-religious, moral, practical, or otherwise-that governs the biblical classification system. In general, the rabbis seem reluctant to ascribe any intelligible meaning to the peculiarities of the biblical impurity code, and in several passages they identify certain aspects of the impurity laws as ordinances that are so bizarre and unfathomable that they are particularly vulnerable to mocking attacks from insiders and outsiders alike. To the extent that they reflect on the nature and purpose of purity laws at all, the rabbis' prominent approach is to explain the biblical laws of impurity as cultivating obedience for obedience's sake, rather than as laws charged with profound meaning that await an inspired exegete to lift the veil off of their obscure surface.
While this could lead one to believe that ritual impurity was a topic of no interest or importance for the rabbis, and that their engagement with it was limited merely to acknowledging its place within the biblical legal system, nothing could be further from the truth. As I venture to show throughout this book, at least as far as the early rabbis (the tannaim) are concerned, impurity was a central and critical category, which fundamentally shaped and informed the rabbis' notions of interactions with one's fellow humans, with one's physical environment, and with oneself. Not only were the rabbis highly invested in the laws of ritual purity, they also dedicated tremendous intellectual efforts to developing these laws in multiple directions and, more importantly, to making them meaningful and powerful in the cultural world of their own intended audience. Yet the rabbis' intricate and elaborate discussions of ritual impurity were not in any way geared toward the question of why some particular substances and conditions and not others constitute sources of impurity. For them, the few sources of impurity mentioned in the Hebrew Bible were a nonnegotiable given, a mundane fact of halakhic life like the number of days in a week. Rather, the questions with which the rabbis were most concerned, and which constitute, so to speak, the beating heart of their impurity discourse, are two: first, how a state of impurity can be correctly diagnosed; and second and more prominently, how impurity, once it originates in the biblically determined sources of impurity, is transmitted further.
The vested interest of the rabbis in the transmission of impurity, that is, in the "travel" of impurity from the source to other objects or persons, led them to offer a lens very different from the biblical one when viewing and depicting the lived world in terms of impurity. Whereas the biblical texts zoom in on the sources of impurity themselves and at most on whatever is in their immediate proximity, the rabbis zoom out and include in their frame a whole array of people and things affected by the biblically determined sources of impurity. Thus, as we approach the rabbinic discourse of impurity and seek to understand its shaping forces and its cultural implications, we too must first adjust our lenses accordingly to include not only the sources of impurity but also the expanding circles that surround them. The purpose of this chapter is to offer such a preliminary adjustment of lenses, which will allow us to grasp the picture of impurity that the rabbis put forth in its fuller scope, and will help set the stage for the rabbinic dramas of engagement with impurity that will be discussed in the chapters to follow.
The point of departure of this chapter is an outline of the biblical impurity system, which is proposed partially in order to make the readers familiar with some key terms and concepts that will recur throughout the book, but also and more importantly in order to serve as the backdrop against which the radically innovative aspects of the rabbinic impurity discourse can be understood in all their magnitude. After outlining the biblical scheme of the workings of impurity, I suggest a brief overview of the central ways in which this biblical scheme was developed and approached in the postbiblical period, by pointing to some of the shared themes and principles, as well as divergences, between rabbinic purity legislation and the purity texts from Qumran. The purpose of this general overview is to help us assess in which ways the Mishnah's legal discourse of purity and impurity is commensurate and correspondent with trends and views that preceded its creators, and in which ways the Mishnah's purity discourse presents a conceptual shift from those trends and a unique reconstruction of notions and practices of purity and impurity. Focusing on the principles and perspectives that are distinctive to the rabbinic purity discourse, I show that the rabbis significantly expanded the realm of impurity, not by adding new sources of impurity but rather by devising new and far-reaching modes and processes of transmission of impurity to secondary and tertiary contractors. Thereby, I argue, the rabbis turned the contraction of impurity from a noticeable event to an ongoing reality.
I then continue to discuss the implications of this substantial expansion of the realm of impurity for the Mishnah's construction of impurity as a factor in one's daily lived experience. Through an examination of various scattered passages in which the rabbis comment on the places and situations in which one might encounter impurity, and on the modes of behavior and action one should undertake in response to potential or actual encounters with impurity, I piece together an account of the ways in which the rabbis conceived impurity to be operating in the lived world and to be defining one's everyday experiences. I argue that the rabbis of the Mishnah create a picture of a world perfuse with impurity, in which almost every quotidian activity or interaction entails a possibility of knowingly or unknowingly contracting impurity, and thus make the engagement with impurity a critical, constant, and determinant component of the everyday life of the mishnaic subject. Grasping the pervasiveness of impurity in the rabbinic picture of the everyday, and thereby the extent to which the mishnaic subject's life consists of a series of actual or potential encounters with impurity, we may begin to see why and how, in the rabbinic discourse, engagement with impurity becomes a defining component of one's sense of self.
Biblical Foundations and Rabbinic Innovations
The Biblical Impurity System: An Outline
Impurity is a complex and multifaceted concept in the Hebrew Bible, and the appellation tame, "impure" or "unclean," is used in the Bible in a variety of contexts and with different underlying meanings. In contrast, in the Mishnah the term impure is used in a rather restricted fashion, referring almost exclusively to the sources of ritual impurity denoted in the Priestly Code of the Pentateuch, and specifically in chapters 11-15 of the book of Leviticus and in chapter 19 of the book of Numbers. In what follows I will suggest a brief outline of the biblical system of ritual impurity as it is presented in these particular Priestly texts, since this is the only dimension of biblical impurity that the rabbis systematically develop.
Generally speaking, in the Priestly Code impurity is depicted as a phenomenon that stems from several natural sources. These sources are not very many in number, and include the following:
I. Dead creatures. This category includes animal carcasses, dead creeping or crawling creatures such as rodents or insects, and human corpses.
II. Impure substances. The only bodily substance that is explicitly mentioned as impure in and of itself is semen, which renders both women and men who come into contact with it impure. In addition, it is mentioned that the ashes of the red cow, which are used for purification from corpse impurity, are a source of impurity.
III. Men and women who are in a physical state that renders them impure. This category includes women after childbirth, men and women with scale disease, men with abnormal genital discharges, and women with genital bleeding, whether normal (that is, menstrual) or abnormal. Such men and women remain in a state of impurity either until a designated number of days has passed (in the case of a parturient and a menstruating woman) or until their pathological physical condition has changed and an additional period of seven days has passed (in the case of persons with abnormal discharges and scale diseases). After the specified time has passed, these persons complete their purification process through various rites, which most commonly include washing in water and bringing sacrifices to the sanctuary (in the case of persons with scale disease, the purification rite is more elaborate).
IV. Afflicted objects. Garments and houses that are considered to be afflicted with a particular form of mildew (tzara'at) are seen as comparable to human beings afflicted with scale disease.
If we leave the questions of what, exactly, "impurity" is and what renders these particular things "impure" aside, one practical facet of impurity is made abundantly clear in the biblical text: all these sources of impurity have an effect on their surroundings. These sources of impurity transform the ritual status of persons and objects that touch them, and sometimes also of spaces into which they enter or in which they reside, in such a way that these objects, persons, and spaces themselves become impure. It is thus important to distinguish between the aforementioned sources of impurity and the animals that are listed as forbidden for consumption, which are also referred to as "impure": unlike the former, the latter are not said to have any effect on the one who eats them or touches them (while they are still alive). Eating a rabbit, for instance, is a breach of a divine decree, and therefore a transgression, but it does not bring about ritual impurity; in contrast, carrying an animal carcass is by no means a transgression, but it does render one ritually impure.
The Priestly Code presents different sets of effects in respect to each of the impurity sources mentioned above:
I. Dead Creatures:
- Animal carcasses render anyone who touches them or carries them impure for one day, as well as his or her garments. Purification is attained through washing in water.
- Dead creeping or crawling insects render anyone who touches them impure for one day, as well as any object, food, or liquid into or onto which they fall. Purification (which is possible for persons and objects but not for foods and liquids) is attained through washing in water.
- Human corpses render anyone and anything that touches them impure for seven days, as well as anyone and anything that shares the same confined space with them. Purification is attained through a multiphased ritual that includes washing in water and sprinkling with a mixture of water and the ashes of a red cow.
II. Impure substances:
- Semen renders persons and objects that have physical contact with it (including both men and women after intercourse) impure for one day, and purification is attained by washing in water.
- Persons who collect and handle the ashes of the red cow and the water into which it is mixed are impure for one day, as are their garments, and their purification is attained by washing in water.
III. Men and women who are in a physical state that renders them impure:
- Men and women with abnormal genital discharges and menstruating women render anything they sit, lie, or ride on impure, as well as anyone they touch, anything that touches them, and anyone that touches what they sat, rode, or lied on. All of those are made impure for one day and are purified by washing in water. Menstruating women also render men who have intercourse with them impure, and impurity contracted through this form of contact persists for seven days.
- The effects of parturient women and of persons with scale disease on their surroundings are not explicitly mentioned in the Priestly text. However, it is mentioned that parturient women are barred from the sanctuary and from the sancta, and that a person with scale disease is removed from the camp of Israel altogether. This indicates that persons in these bodily conditions were taken to have some sort of deleterious effect on their surroundings.
IV. Afflicted objects.
Anyone who enters a house afflicted with mildew is rendered impure for one day, as are the objects in this house. The effect of afflicted garments on those who come into contact with them is not mentioned.
As a rule, in the biblical scheme impurity can only be contracted from one of the sources mentioned above. That is to say, a person or object can only become impure as a result of direct contact with one of the sources of impurity, but not as a result of contact with one who has touched one of the sources. For example, if Jill is menstruating and Jack touches her, Jack becomes impure; but Jack has no effect on whoever touches him. However, there are three notable exceptions to this rule: (1) objects on which a person with genital discharge sat, lied, or rode convey impurity in the same manner as this person himself or herself; (2) a man who had intercourse with a menstruating woman renders the litter he lies on impure; (3) persons or objects that had contact with a corpse convey impurity to whatever and whomever they touch. These exceptional three function as primary sources of impurity even though they contracted their impurity from another source. The power to convey impurity to others is manifested in the duration of the time of impurity: whereas whatever has the ability to convey impurity to others is impure for at least seven days, whatever contracted impurity but has no power to convey it further is impure for one day only. The question why specific sources of impurity convey impurity in some ways and others in other ways need not concern us here. What I would like to stress, however, is that ritual impurity is conceived and described in the Hebrew Bible as a conduit through which one thing transforms another.
This basic view of impurity as the deleterious effect of one of the sources mentioned above on a thing or a person that had contact with it remained at the foundation of the ritual system of purity and impurity as this system continued to develop in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Nevertheless, as extant rulings and accounts regarding purity from the postbiblical period clearly show, the Priestly purity code underwent considerable development and broadening by different interpretive communities during the first centuries before and after the turn of the common era, in the course of which early Jewish legislators not only sought to make this code more comprehensive and cohesive, but also put forth new notions regarding the ways in which impurity is transmitted and regarding its impact on its surroundings. Since this study ventures to examine how the rabbis transformed the notions of purity and impurity, and attempts to retrace the principles and views behind the Mishnah's unique approach to this halakhic area, it is called for at this point to consider, albeit briefly, in which ways the Mishnah corresponds with earlier postbiblical modes of discourse on purity and impurity, and in which ways it presents something new and inimitable.
Approaches to the Biblical Purity Code in the Qumran Scrolls and in Rabbinic Traditions
Up until the discovery and publication of the Qumran Scrolls throughout the second half of the twentieth century, scholars were for the most part in the dark when attempting to identify and reconstruct the principles of purity and impurity, and the practices that these principles generated, that were at play among the Jewish societies of the Second Temple period. Aside from occasional references to matters of purity and impurity in apocryphal books, in the writings of Josephus and Philo, and in the New Testament, the main source through which scholars tried to reconstruct the "purity world" of this period was the rabbinic corpus, the earliest components of which were compiled over a century after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Since it is highly debatable to what extent practices and ideas described or referenced in rabbinic texts can be projected onto earlier periods, it is quite difficult to determine with certainty which of the elements of the rabbinic purity legislation are unique to the circles of the rabbis (or the protorabbis), and which of these elements reflect more widely accepted views and modes of conduct regarding purity and impurity that prevailed in different Jewish circles in the Second Temple period. However, the vast body of writings found in Qumran, in which the topic of purity and impurity is remarkably prevalent, allowed scholars over the last several decades to reconstruct a much fuller picture of the perceptions and practices of purity and impurity in early Jewish communities around the turn of the Common Era. Thanks to the extensive and thorough work done to recover and explain the purity legislation of the Qumran Scrolls, we are in a much better position to examine the rabbinic interpretive and legislative approaches to purity against the cultural and hermeneutic background in which these approaches emerged.
In what follows, I consider, very generally and very briefly, the central correspondences and divergences between the purity discourse in the Mishnah and the purity discourse in Qumran. My purpose, to be sure, is not to compare the details of specific purity laws as they are presented in Qumranic or rabbinic writings: such systematic comparison is well beyond the scope and interest of this study, and can be found in several different studies dedicated mainly or exclusively to this purpose. Rather, my purpose is to point out how the topic of purity and impurity is approached in these two corpora and through what perspectives it is being considered: what kind of interpretive and legislative moves vis-à-vis the biblical purity code are at play in these corpora; what, if anything, is added by them to the biblical scheme; and most importantly, what the focal points on which the discourse of purity and impurity is centered are. As I will argue, while Qumranic and rabbinic texts often display similar or even identical legislative moves, the lens through which the world of impurity is presented and discussed in these two corpora is fundamentally different.
The most notable similarity between the purity legislation in Qumran and in rabbinic literature lies in the interpretive method that clearly forms the infrastructure of both corpora, a method that Jacob Milgrom aptly titled "homogenization," that is, a systematic attempt to deduce the workings of one source of impurity from the workings of another source of impurity. To take a simple example, the Priestly text never mentions explicitly in which way a woman who experiences a genital discharge is to purify herself after this discharge is over; it does mention, however, regarding other cases of bodily impurity, that the person in question must wash in water in order to be purified. Guided by a working assumption of overall congruity within the biblical system, both rabbinic texts and Qumranic texts take for granted that the prescribed form of purification for all sources of impurity, without exception, is immersion in water. Similarly, both rabbinic and Qumranic texts indicate that the impurity of a person with scale disease, whose mode of transmission of impurity is not specified in the Priestly Code, is transmitted in the same ways as the impurity of persons with genital discharges. It is difficult to determine whether these "homogenizing" readings are rooted in a common interpretive tradition or emerged independently in both corpora as a result of the application of a similar method, but such readings certainly stand out as part of the shared discourse of impurity in early Judaism.
To be sure, the process of homogenization is not always applied to the same biblical texts and does not always yield identical results across the two corpora, and there are multiple differences in various details between Qumran laws and rabbinic laws. For example, whereas the rabbis establish congruity between the impurity of a person with scale disease and a corpse, and thus determine that an afflicted person renders the house into which he or she enters impure in the same way that a corpse renders the space in which it is housed impure, no such ruling regarding a person with scale disease can be found in Qumran. On the other end, several Qumranic texts enhance the impurity of a man who has had a seminal emission and make it both longer and transferrable, like the impurity brought about by other genital discharges, whereas the rabbis regard this form of impurity as very minor and essentially without impact on its surroundings. To take one last example, several Qumranic texts seem to suggest, at least according to some scholars, that the mixture of purifying water (mei hattat), which according to the Priestly Code is used only in the case of corpse impurity, is to be used for other impurities as well, an idea that has no trace in rabbinic literature. These few examples suffice to illustrate, I believe, that the enterprise of systematizing the biblical laws of purity and impurity so as to fill lacunae and to establish greater coherence among these laws was a common enterprise in early Judaism, even if it was applied by different interpretive communities in different ways and in different cases.
Neither the Qumranic nor the rabbinic purity legislation modifies or alters the Priestly list of impurity sources in any significant way, and both essentially remain bound by the biblical scheme that includes only dead creatures, persons with genital discharges or scale disease, certain impure substances, and afflicted houses or garments as sources of impurity. The one source of impurity that both of these corpora do effectively add to the list of sources of impurity is outsiders, which in the rabbinic corpus pertains to non-Jews, and in the corpus of Qumran apparently includes both non-Jews and persons who are not members of the community. This addition to the biblical list of sources of impurity in both corpora speaks to the prevalence of the notion of outsiders as contaminating in the Second Temple period, and reflects the shared cultural heritage of both the creators of the Qumranic texts and the early rabbis. However, it should be noted that the rabbis, as I will discuss at length in the fifth chapter, make a point of distinguishing the impurity of Gentiles, which they consider to be only statutory, from the biblical forms of impurity and introduce the impurity of Gentiles through analogy to one of the existing forms of ritual purity (namely, the impurity of genital discharges). In other words, the rabbis are careful to indicate that Gentiles can be considered sources of ritual impurity only insofar as they are subsumed under one of the established Priestly categories of impurity. In contrast, the use of the terms pure and impure in Qumranic texts is much more liberal than it is in rabbinic texts, and the Qumranic authors (much like other authors in the Second Temple period) are not hesitant to use the language of purity and impurity even when referring to matters beyond the Priestly Code of ritual impurity. The frequent use of themes of purity and impurity in discussions of sin and moral atrocity in Qumran led several scholars to the conclusion that in Qumran sin was considered a source of physical ritual impurity, and that unlike in rabbinic literature, moral and ritual impurity were not distinguished from each other by Qumranic authors. Here I tend to agree with Martha Himmelfarb, who showed that the conflation of impurity and sin in Qumranic texts is mainly evocative and rhetorical, and should not be taken as a testament to a view that each sinner is also impure and each impure person is also a sinner. Accordingly, I do not take sin or immorality to be a source of ritual impurity in and of itself in the legislation of Qumran, and do not see a significant discrepancy between Qumranic and rabbinic texts as far as the sources of impurity are concerned.
The main discrepancy between the Qumranic purity legislation and the rabbinic purity legislation, which led various scholars to characterize the Qumranic system as much more stringent and harsh than the rabbinic system, has to do not with the sources of impurity themselves but mainly with the question of what qualifies as one of these sources of impurity and what does not. In general, rabbinic legislation tends to impose various restrictions and limitations on what can "count" as a source of impurity and what can contract impurity, whereas the Qumranic approach is on the whole much more inclusive and does not engage in the subcategorizing and classifying of potential sources in the same way that the rabbis do. To take a few notable examples: the rabbis distinguish between different kinds of genital bleeding and determine that some sorts of blood constitute sources of impurity and some do not, whereas no such distinction is traceable in Qumranic texts; the rabbis distinguish between objects and materials that can contract impurity and objects and materials that cannot, determining among other things that stones and objects that are connected to the ground are not susceptible to impurity, whereas the Qumranic legislation mentions both stone objects and houses as requiring purification; the rabbis do not consider a dead fetus to be a source of impurity as long as it is in its mother's womb, whereas in Qumran a dead fetus is regarded like any other corpse; and many other similar examples can be found. As Vered Noam noted, the difference between the Qumranic approach and the rabbinic approach should not be understood in terms of stringency and leniency, but rather in terms of more straightforward and inclusive readings of the biblical texts as opposed to more restrictive and scrutinizing readings of these texts. To a great extent, my analysis in this book is concerned exactly with those restrictive readings introduced by the rabbis, and with the principles that guided them when excluding certain elements from the impurity system and including others. These restrictive principles have evidently not been at play in the work of earlier interpreters.
While the rabbinic purity legislation is often viewed as more "lenient" than the Qumranic legislation in terms of what constitutes a source of impurity, the rabbinic system is far more "stringent" as far as modes of transmission of impurity are concerned. That is to say, while in the rabbinic system fewer objects or persons can potentially function as sources of impurity, whatever does function as a source of impurity is much more potent in its impact on its environment than it is in the Qumranic system. As I will show in what follows, the Mishnah introduces new and unprecedented principles regarding the ways in which impurity is conveyed from the source to other people and things, ultimately suggesting that impurity can be contracted not only through direct contact with a source of impurity but also through various modes of indirect contact with a source of impurity. These new modes of transmission of impurity speak to the more general perspective of the rabbis on the presence and impact of impurity, which focuses not only on the source but also and perhaps especially on those who knowingly or unknowingly contract its impurity. It is in this perspective, I will propose, that the mishnaic purity discourse most radically diverges from the Qumranic discourse, and for that matter also from the biblical discourse.
The Extreme Transferability of Impurity in the Mishnah
The biblical impurity system essentially consists of two kinds of participants: primary sources of impurity, in which impurity is either an intrinsic quality or a result of a certain bodily condition, and secondary sources of impurity, which contracted impurity from primary sources. Since the sources of impurity in the Priestly Code are quite limited in number, and their effect normally extends only to whatever has direct contact with them, in the picture that emerges from the Priestly Code impurity generally transpires as a noticeable event. Of course, some events that bring about impurity are an inseparable and even recurring part of life (birth, death, menstruation, seminal emission), whereas others are more rare and crisis-like (scale disease, abnormal genital discharges); but all these events are discernible and traceable to a particular point in time. Whoever is impure, whether on account of experiencing the bodily conditions mentioned above or on account of having direct contact with a source of impurity, is presumably aware of whatever brought about this impurity and is capable of saying at what point, more or less, this impurity transpired. As common and natural as impurity may be in the world of the Hebrew Bible, it is restricted to very specific factors and to those in their immediate vicinity. Generally speaking, the basic view of the transpiration of impurity as a noticeable event, which impacts only the impure persons themselves and those in direct contact with them, is also dominant in the writings of Qumran. The Qumranic purity legislation focuses mainly on the ways in which impure persons and persons undergoing purification should take measures to distance themselves actively from the community, from sacred areas, from communal food, and so forth, and on their obligation to profess gratitude and humility when eventually purified.
The picture in the mishnaic discourse is notably different. While the Mishnah dedicates considerable attention to questions of the diagnosis of impurity and to processes of purification, it does not introduce the concern with impurity as restricted only to the sources of impurity themselves or to those who come into direct contact with them, but rather presents it as the daily and ongoing concern of everyone, even of persons who are not currently impure or known to have had contact with a source of impurity. In other words, impurity in the Mishnah is approached not only as a noticeable event, but also, and perhaps much more prominently, as an ongoing reality.
This approach to impurity, which marks the mishnaic discourse of purity and impurity as significantly different from what preceded it, is deeply connected to several conceptual developments introduced in the Mishnah, which greatly increased the transferability of impurity, and thereby made it a much more pervasive and all-encompassing reality. While some of these conceptual developments can be traced back, in a nascent form, to the Second Temple period, the cumulative effect of all these developments taken together is a substantial expansion of the realm of impurity and the transformation of impurity into an ever-present factor in the rabbinic construction of everyday life. In what follows, I will examine three central manifestations of the increased transferability of impurity in rabbinic legislation: the graded system of impurity, principles of duplication of impurity, and expansion of biblical modes of transmission of impurity.
The Graded System of Impurity
As I mentioned, in the Priestly Code the only participants in the impurity system, apart from the primary sources of impurity, are those who have direct contact with these primary sources. In contrast, in the mishnaic system even persons and objects several times removed from the source can be affected in terms of impurity. For the rabbis, impurity does not end with whatever had direct contact with the source. Rather, even an item that did not touch the source directly but only touched something that touched the source (or even only something that touched something that touched the source) is affected by the source's impurity, albeit in an attenuated manner. In order to understand this admittedly complex principle, which has no parallel in other codes of impurity, it is necessary to delve for a moment into the rabbinic understanding of the concept of impurity or, more accurately, into the rabbinic understanding of what is being transmitted from one entity to another in the course of the contraction of impurity.
The effect of impurity is depicted in the Mishnah in a highly physical or even mechanical manner, as if by a transmission of substance from one entity (human or nonhuman) to another entity through contact. The verb that is most commonly coupled with the word tum'a (impurity) in the Mishnah is qbl (to receive), the same verb used to describe, for instance, the pouring of liquid from one receptacle to the other, as if to suggest that the impure substance A transmits something to B. This "something" that is being transmitted is, in effect, the ability to make other things impure: in the Mishnah, to say that A makes B impure is to say that A gives B the capacity to affect C. Accordingly, the rabbis distinguish between making something ritually impure (letamē) and making something ritually disqualified (lifsol): to make something impure is to invest it with the ability to make others impure; to make something disqualified is only to prohibit this thing from being used for sacred purposes. For instance, an impure barrel of wine will make whatever touches it and whoever drinks from it impure, whereas a disqualified barrel of wine cannot be used in the sacral realm (that is, it cannot be given to the priests) but does not make others impure.
In the biblical impurity system, the chain of impurity almost always ends with B, the thing that contracted impurity directly from the source. The common paradigm is that when the source of impurity A (for example, a menstruating woman) touches another person or object B (for example, her husband), then B becomes impure in an attenuated manner, that is, only for one day. There is no indication that B can convey impurity to anything else, and it is actually hard to think what repercussions such doubly attenuated impurity would have for whatever touched B. In contrast, in the Mishnah the chain of impurity does not end with B, which had direct contact with the source, but continues to move further in a graduated manner in such a way that even an item that is five times removed from the source is affected by its impurity in a minor form. Thus, if A is the primary source of impurity, B touched A, C touched B, D touched C, E touched D, and F touched E, F is still affected by A in terms of impurity. Let us illustrate this with a hypothetical example:
1. Jill (A) is menstruating; when she touches Jack (B), Jack becomes impure in the once-removed degree (in rabbinic terms, Jack is "first" of impurity, whereas Jill, the primary source, is a "father" of impurity).
2. Jack (B) touches Josh (C); Josh is now impure in the twice-removed degree (in rabbinic terms, he is "second" of impurity).
3. Josh (C) touches a heave-offering of oil (D); the oil becomes impure in the thrice-removed degree (it is "third of impurity").
4. The oil (D) is poured on a meal-offering designated for the Temple (E); the meal-offering becomes "fourth of impurity."
5. A piece of the meal-offering (E) falls into a container with purifying water (F); the water is now "fifth of impurity."
As this example illustrates, once the item in question is twice-removed from the source or more, its impact on other items becomes increasingly limited, and is restricted to sacred articles that are particularly vulnerable to impurity: a "second" of impurity can only affect heave-offerings (terumah), holy articles (qodesh), and purifying water (mei hattat); a "third" of impurity can only affect holy articles and purifying water; and a "fourth" of impurity can only affect purifying water. Nevertheless, this graded system indicates that for the rabbis of the Mishnah, the "contagious" effect of impurity is not limited to direct contact with the source, but is seen as continuing to travel well beyond it.
The extension of the effect of impurity beyond immediate contact with the source incorporates a whole new array of participants into the rabbinic impurity system. The realm of impurity is no longer confined to the sources of impurity and to objects and persons in their immediate vicinity, but consists in a number of concentric circles. At the center stands the primary source of impurity ("the father" in rabbinic terminology); at the circle that surrounds it stand persons and objects that had direct contact with the source ("first of impurity"); at the next circle stand those that had contact with those who had contact with the source of impurity ("second of impurity"), and so forth. The farther the circle from the center, the less likely the contraction of impurity is to be perceived as a noticeable event by a person in that circle: for instance, while a person would presumably be aware that he touched a menstruating woman, a priest is hardly likely to be aware that the person who brought him a heave-offering touched a menstruating woman, and thus that the heave-offering too is impure.
Whereas the graded system of impurity is guided by the view that an object or person can be affected by the source of impurity in an attenuated manner even without having direct contact with it, other principles of transmission of impurity in the rabbinic system put forth the notion that indirect contact with a source of impurity can sometimes generate the same degree of impurity as direct contact. The Mishnah enhances the transferability of impurity to include forms of indirect contact in two ways: first, by suggesting that in some instances impurity can be "duplicated" in such a way that even something twice-removed from the source contracts impurity as if it touched the source itself; and second, by notably expanding the biblical modes of conveyance of impurity. Whereas the second development cannot be traced in Qumranic writings and seems to be uniquely rabbinic, the first development apparently has its roots in the shared purity discourse of the Second Temple period, and its echoes can be found in Qumranic legislation. I therefore address the notion of "duplication" of impurity first, and then turn to the expansion of biblical categories of contact.
Duplication of Impurity
(i) Liquids. A central principle in the rabbinic system of purity and impurity is that liquids have the power to duplicate impurity ad infinitum. That is to say, if impure liquids have contact with any object, they make this object impure as if it had direct contact with the source that initially made the liquids impure. To illustrate this simply, if Jill (A) touches Jack (B) while Jack's hands are wet, and Jack then touches a loaf of bread (C) with his wet hands, the loaf of bread (C) becomes impure as if Jill (A) herself touched this loaf of bread. This unique quality of liquids is presented in several rabbinic passages with the cryptic idiom "those that made you impure did not make me impure, but you made me impure" (metam'ekha lo tim'uni ve-ata timetani). In this idiom, the object that contracted impurity (in the example suggested above, the loaf) is depicted as complaining to the mediating liquid about the absurdity of the situation: while the source of impurity A (in this case, Jill), which made the liquid (the moisture on Jack's hands) impure, could not have made C (the loaf) impure on its own, the liquid that contracted impurity from A and transmitted it to C affected C as if C had contact with A itself.
The same principle, as Joseph Baumgarten showed, is traceable also in the Qumranic legislation: the Temple Scroll points out that any moist stains of wine or oil in the house of the dead must be scraped off, and the reason for this is evidently that these stains can convey corpse impurity to whoever touches them even after the house itself had been purified. The "duplicating" force of liquids to convey impurity is probably also at play in the ruling that newly admitted members to the community are prohibited from touching communal liquids for two whole years (whereas they are allowed to touch communal food after only one year). Both rabbinic and Qumranic texts, then, point to what seems to have been an established view in early Judaism, according to which liquids serve as transmitters that create a connection between two things that otherwise cannot affect each other in terms of impurity.
(ii) Food. Another new mode of transmission of impurity that we find in the Mishnah, in which impurity is "duplicated" in such a way that a person can be affected by a source of impurity without having direct contact with it, is the consumption of impure food (to be clear, not nonkosher food but rather kosher food that had contact with a source of impurity). The rabbinic principle is that one who consumes impure foods or drinks becomes as impure as the food or drink she consumed: for example, if a loaf of bread was touched by a menstruating woman, the person who then eats this bread becomes impure as if she touched the menstruating woman.
The very notion that impure food-that is, food that itself contracted impurity from another substance-can convey impurity to the one who eats it is completely unprecedented in the Priestly Code. There are, however, several indications that this notion was already accepted in certain Jewish circles during the Second Temple period. Most famously, Jesus' dispute with the Pharisees on the washing of hands in Mark 7:1-23 seems to suggest that the Pharisees were concerned with the possibility that if they touched their food with impure hands they would render it impure and thus render themselves impure, as we can infer from Jesus' response, "There is nothing outside a person which by going into him can defile him." In addition, while we do not find any explicit statements in Qumranic literature regarding the result of the consumption of impure foods, we do find warnings that impure persons must be careful not to engage with produce or communal food, and that one must not eat any food touched by an impure person. Such warnings do indicate, although not conclusively, that the view that impure foods are capable of conveying impurity to those who consume them was not limited to rabbinic or protorabbinic circles.
As the notions of the duplication of impurity through food and through liquids show, the expansion of biblical modes of transmission of impurity to include also indirect forms of contact evidently had its roots in the shared purity discourse of the Second Temple period. However, in the rabbinic legislation this nascent idea significantly developed and became much more dominant within the system as a whole. The increased prominence of the notion of the duplication of impurity in the Mishnah is especially illustrated through the rabbinic rulings regarding one form of duplication of impurity that cannot be traced outside the Mishnah, duplication that takes effect specifically when inanimate objects come into contact with corpse impurity.
(iii) Inanimate objects and corpse impurity. According to biblical law, every object or person that touches a corpse or shares a space with one becomes impure for seven days and can convey impurity further to whatever touches this object or person, which will in turn be impure for one day. For example, if a corpse is placed on a bed, the bed on which it lies will be impure for seven days, and if Jill then touches this bed, Jill will be impure for one day. The rabbis, however, rule that inanimate objects that touch a corpse become like the corpse itself, and whatever touches them will become impure for seven days and make whatever touches this object or person impure for one day. In the rabbinic scheme, then, the bed on which the corpse lies becomes like the corpse itself: if Jill touches the bed, she will become impure for seven days, and if Jill touches jack, he will become impure for one day (whereas in the biblical scheme Jack would not be affected at all). Furthermore, the rabbis rule that if an inanimate object touches something that has had contact with a corpse-that is, something which is impure for seven days-the inanimate object itself becomes impure for seven days, making whatever touches it impure for one day. To return to our example, if Jill touched the bed on which a corpse was placed, Jill becomes impure for seven days; if Jill then touches a cup, the cup becomes impure for seven days, like Jill; and if Jack then touches the cup, he becomes impure for one day. This means that even something or someone three times removed from a corpse can contract the same degree of impurity as something or someone that touched it directly.
These three principles of duplication of impurity, whether they originated in the rabbinic system or were inherited from earlier interpretive traditions, amount to a significant expansion of the realm and repercussions of impurity. If impurity can be contracted not only directly from the source but also, in certain settings, from something that had contact with the source, then the presence of impurity in the world becomes much more pervasive and, at the same time, can much more easily escape one's consciousness: while one is likely to know if one touched an impure person, one is much less likely to know if one touched something that was touched by an impure person. This pervasiveness of impurity and its enhanced transferability in the mishnaic impurity system thus lead to a new perspective on impurity, at the center of which stand not the primary sources of impurity, but those who are likely to contract it.
The enhanced transferability of impurity in the Mishnah is manifested not only through the mechanisms of the duplication of impurity, some of which may date back to earlier traditions, but also in the construction of new modes of contraction of impurity that notably expand the Priestly paradigms of impurity transmission. These new modes of transmission, which to the best of my knowledge have no precedent in biblical or postbiblical literature, substantially increase the possibility of an inadvertent and unaware contraction of impurity, thus further increasing the pervasiveness of impurity in everyday encounters and experiences.
The Expansion of Biblical Modes of Impurity Transmission
(i) Expansion of the biblical "tent." According to the Priestly Code, the human corpse is the only source of impurity that conveys impurity not only to whomever touches or carries it, but also to everyone and everything that shares the same "tent" with it. While the biblical verse seems to indicate that corpse impurity is conveyed only when one shares a specific confined space with the dead, the rabbis develop and expand the category of "tent" to include every kind of shared overhang (ahel, from the noun ohel, "tent") with the dead. According to the Mishnah, everything and everyone that is (1) situated under the same roof as the corpse, (2) situated under the corpse so that the corpse overshadows it, or (3) situated above the corpse so that it overshadows the corpse is deemed impure. In this way, the rabbinic perception of overhang, which turns the biblical tent into a wholly abstract category, actually turns almost every kind of copresence with the dead into a form of physical contact. For instance, a person who stands under the shadow of a tree that also shadows a graveyard is rendered impure, even though she herself is completely outside the graveyard. The result of this rabbinic innovation is that corpse impurity becomes wildly more present in the world of the everyday: corpse impurity is no longer only the concern of the immediate relatives of the dead or those who share the same habitation with it, but is also the concern of the passersby who happen to stumble upon a dead body on the side of the road (which was not uncommon in the ancient world) or to pass next to a grave, even without touching it.
(ii)"Shift" impurity. Apart from the case of corpse impurity, in which impurity is also conveyed through shared space, there is only one way in which impurity can be conveyed in the biblical scheme, namely, through direct physical contact. The rabbis, however, introduce a new mode of impurity contraction that does not involve direct contact, which they call "shift" (heset). The category of shift pertains to any setting in which the source of impurity causes something else to move from its place, even without direct contact. The quintessential example of this is a case in which a man with genital discharge is placed on one side of a scale and foods and liquids are placed on the other side of the scale: if the man's weight tips the scale and causes the foods and liquids to move, they are rendered impure. As several passages in tractate Zavim powerfully portray, the meaning of this form of contraction is that almost every daily activity in which a pure person and an impure person both partake, even without touching each other, can cause the pure person to contract impurity. To take just two examples:
If a man with genital discharge and a pure man sat together in a boat or a raft, or rode an animal together, even though their clothes do not touch-[the clothes of the pure person] are impure on account of treading (teme'in midras, that is, impure as if the impure person physically trod on them).
If they both sat on a beam, on a bench, on a railing of a bed, or on a pole while those are wobbly, if they climbed a tree that is unsteady . . . [the pure one's clothes] are impure. (M. Zavim 3.1)
R. Yehoshua says: If a menstruating woman sat with a pure woman in the same bed-the cap at the top of [the pure woman's] head is impure on account of treading.
If she sat in a boat, the items at the top of the mast are impure on account of treading. (M. Zavim 4.1)
As these passages make clear, the notion of impurity contraction through shift makes the very physical presence of impure persons so powerful that the repercussions of indirect contact with them are identical to the repercussions of direct contact. In other words, the concept of shift-impurity inscribes everyday activities and interactions with a heightened potential of impurity: one need not only be careful whom one touches, but even with whom one sits, works, plays, rides, and so forth.
(iii) Bodily fluids. While the biblical text makes it clear that persons with genital discharges are impure as such, and that mere contact with the external surface of their bodies suffices to convey impurity, it also implies that the most immediate source of impurity in these cases is the genital discharge itself. The rule that whatever the person with genital discharge sits, lies, or rides on is as impure as the person herself strongly suggests that the genital emissions were seen as the actual cause of impurity. The rabbis make this point explicit, determining that menstrual blood and abnormal genital emissions convey the same kind of impurity as the persons who emitted them, but they also maintain that the innocuous bodily fluids of impure persons, namely, their urine and saliva, convey the exact kind of the impurity as the impure persons themselves. This idea is not entirely without biblical precedent, since the Priestly Code does mention that if a person with genital discharge spits on another person, the other person becomes impure. But whereas the Priestly text seems to envision spitting as a form of direct contact with the impure person, the Mishnah maintains that even if one encounters the bodily fluids of an impure person in the street, and the impure person him- or herself is nowhere in sight, contact with these fluids conveys impurity. Unlike menstrual blood and genital discharges, saliva and urine are commonly found in the public domain. Since it is impossible to trace the original "owner" of these fluids and to discern whether he or she was pure or impure, the marketplace and the street are viewed in the Mishnah as potentially laden with impurity, as we will see in greater detail below.
The extreme transferability of impurity in the Mishnah, which is expressed in the graded system of impurity, in the principles of "duplication," and in the expansion of biblical modes of transmission, generates a radically new perspective on purity and impurity and their place in everyday life. This perspective, which is almost completely absent both from the Priestly Code and from the writings of Qumran, is that of the "innocent passerby," that is, of a person whose body or possessions might contract impurity as a result of various daily interactions and encounters without his or her even being aware of it. The emergence of this new perspective in the discourse of purity and impurity, at the center of which stands not the unusual or noteworthy situation of the source of impurity but the person going about his or her most quotidian activities, constructs the mishnaic discourse of purity and impurity as fundamentally different from what preceded it.
In view of the various principles presented above, it becomes clear that in the Mishnah, unlike in the Priestly Code or in Qumran, the contraction of impurity is construed as a default. The effect of impurity in its rabbinic construction is so far-reaching, and the inadvertent contraction of impurity so probable, that the management of impurity becomes an ongoing daily task for anyone who wishes to remain pure. The concern with impurity, as I will now turn to show, thus profoundly shapes the very experience of everyday life in the mishnaic discourse.
Mapping the Everyday as a Realm of Impurity
Above I presented a number of prerabbinic and rabbinic principles that significantly increase the transferability of impurity, thus transforming the biblical picture in which impurity is confined in its scope and limited in its repercussions to a picture in which impurity is ubiquitous and widely effective. In what follows, I will demonstrate the extent to which this new picture of impurity shapes the mishnaic depiction of everyday encounters and activities, in such a way that impurity is constructed as an all-pervasive presence and a perpetual concern. As I will suggest, it is against this picture of impurity as ever-present and as a defining component of one's daily life that we can begin to understand how the way in which one manages one's body and one's possessions in terms of impurity became, for the rabbis, a critical site for reflections on and construction of one's relations with the material world and with oneself.
Before proceeding, however, I wish to make clear that by referring to a "concern" regarding impurity, I am not implying in any way that the rabbis or their contemporaries were afraid of impurity. Practically speaking, there is no danger in impurity: if one contracts it, one simply performs the ritual instructions for purification, which for the most part include no more than a quick visit to an immersion-pool. In general, I believe that the category of fear is entirely inappropriate for explaining ancient purity systems. As Robert Parker astutely put it, impurity "is not a product of the ill-focused terror that permanently invests the savage mind, because that terror is an invention of nineteenth-century anthropology." Nevertheless, I find it self-evident that the contraction of impurity was seen by the rabbis as disadvantageous and undesirable, and that the effect of impurity was seen as a detrimental one, although by no means as acutely dangerous. It is difficult to know what, if any, the practical repercussions of a status of impurity in the tannaitic period were; but whether or not a ritual status of impurity actually meant exclusion from certain activities or places, it is clear that the concept of impurity served for the rabbis as a marker of harmful and unwanted effect. Concern with impurity is not tantamount to panic about impurity; rather, it is simply a state of being constantly conscious of the prospect of contracting impurity and of trying to avoid it to the best of one's ability, while still considering it to be, at times, unavoidable. This is essentially the state of mind depicted in the Mishnah.
Doubtful Impurity: The Certainty of Uncertainty
The extreme transferability of impurity as it was construed in the rabbinic system inscribes the entire lived world with the potential presence of impurity. In the rabbis' view, every random object that was found on a street corner could have been touched by an impure person, thus becoming impure and thus acquiring the ability to further transmit impurity to anyone and anything that touches it. Every person one comes across-unless specifically known to be scrupulous in the observance of purity-could be a source of impurity that would make whatever she touches impure. For the rabbis, then, to interact with the human and material world was to risk the chance of contracting impurity. Nowhere is the overall perception of the human and material environment as impure by default more explicit than in tractate Tohorot of the Mishnah, which sets guidelines for those who attempt to maintain a reasonable level of purity (presumably, mainly in order to have their meals in a state of ritual purity) within an overall impure world. The tractate is concerned with various subtopics that pertain to this general theme, and its main portion addresses the topic of doubtful impurity (safeq tum'a), that is, determining the ritual status of someone or something that could have been in contact with a source of impurity, but cannot be said to have had such contact with certainty.
As a rule, the determination of ritual status-that is, the discernment of something or someone as pure or impure-is performed through a tracing of the history of the object or person in question. Simply put, it is necessary to determine with what this person or object had contact since the last time the person or object was known to be pure, as well as to determine whether the things or persons with which the person or object had contact were themselves pure or impure. The assumption in tractate Tohorot, however, is that most of the time tracing this history in full is impossible. Let us suppose that Jill was walking in the street and happened to stumble over a rug that someone had left there. According to the mishnaic scheme of transferability, if the rug was impure (for instance, if it was made impure by a corpse or was trodden on by a menstruating woman) and Jill had direct physical contact with it, Jill also becomes impure.But how can it be known if the rug was impure? To answer this question one would have to trace every single person who happened to touch the rug since it was made, which is of course impossible. In other cases, it can be known for sure whether the object or person in question is pure or impure, but it cannot be said with certainty whether contact indeed took place or not. For instance, the Mishnah mentions a case in which a person came across two dead creatures, a dead creeping-crawling creature (for example, a lizard), which is a source of impurity, and a dead frog, which is not impure. This person knows for sure that he touched one of them, but does not know which one he touched, and thus does not know whether he contracted impurity or not.
Through the many examples that the Mishnah provides for such cases of doubt, it portrays the world as pervaded with impurity. To paraphrase Murphy's Law, the underlying mishnaic assumption is that everything that can become impure will become impure. For example, the mishnaic rule is that if one lost an article and found it the next day, this article is automatically rendered impure: the night that it spent away from its rightful owner is presumed to have entailed contact with a source of impurity. Other passages in the tractate state even more pronouncedly that objects that have been left unattended, even for a short duration of time, can be assumed to have been touched by people in a state of impurity, and thus to have contracted impurity from them. For example:
If a potter left his pottery-bowls and went down to drink-the inner ones are pure, and the outer ones are impure.
If one leaves artisans inside his home, the house is impure, the words of R. Meir. And the Sages say: [It is impure] up to the place where [the artisans] can reach with their hands and touch.
In the first passage, the Mishnah describes a scene in which a potter, whose merchandise is lined up in rows against a wall, leaves his merchandise for a short time to get a drink. The rule here is that the outer pottery articles, that is, the ones farthest away from the wall and closest to the road, must have been touched (advertently or inadvertently) by passersby, and have thus become impure. Two assumptions guide this ruling: first, that whatever is left unattended will be touched by someone; and second, that this someone is likely to be impure. Similarly, in the second passage R. Meir and the Sages are in dispute regarding a case in which one leaves artisans unattended in one's home. Whereas R. Meir believes that the artisans will touch everything in the house, and thus every item in the house is to be rendered impure after they leave, the Sages maintain that they will only touch what is in their immediate vicinity. Here too, however, both R. Meir and the Sages share the premise that whatever is left unattended is touched, and whatever is touched becomes impure.
In addition, the assumption in the Mishnah is that every person one comes across, unless publicly known to be stringent in the observance of purity, is potentially impure, and thus contact with this person makes one impure by default. Guided by this assumption, the Mishnah describes the following scene:
If one sat in the public domain, and another person came and trod on his garments, or [the other person] spat and he touched the spittle, on account of [him touching] this spittle they burn the heave-offering, and in regard to his garments, they follow the majority.
In this scene, Jack (who is presumably pure) is sitting in the public domain when Josh, a man whom Jack probably does not know, comes and treads on Jack's cloak or spits in Jack's vicinity. If Josh happens to be a person with genital discharge or scale disease or a Gentile, then every garment on which he treads and everything that touches his saliva immediately becomes impure. While it cannot be known whether Josh is any of these things, the default option is that he was indeed impure and had transmitted this impurity further to Jack. The consequence is that if Jack had contact with Josh's spittle, Jack will be rendered impure in such a way that he will disqualify a heave-offering if he touches it, and it will have to be incinerated. As for Jack's garments, here the Mishnah is more lenient and suggests that, instead of automatically rendering the garments impure, it will be considered whether most of the people in this specific place are usually pure or impure. The Mishnah thus creates a picture of daily human interactions, even of the most random and mundane kind, as inherently defined by the risk of contracting impurity.
An especially pronounced example for this view of the lived world as pervaded with impurity can be found in the following passage of the Mishnah:
If there is one mentally inept woman (shotah) in a town, or a Gentile woman, or a Kuthian woman-all the spittles in this town are impure.
As I have mentioned, the saliva of an impure person is itself a source of impurity. The most commonly encountered impure person in the mishnaic system is a menstruating woman (since unlike other forms of impurity that depend on abnormal bodily states, menstruation occurs on a regular basis), and the overall assumption is that Jewish menstruating women are aware of their status and are careful not to convey their impurity to others. Accordingly, they will be careful not to spit in public or at least to conceal their spittle, lest other people touch it and contract impurity. However, if in a certain town there is a woman who is not mentally capable of being careful in such a way or a woman who is otherwise considered to be constantly impure and not to be careful about it, any spittle found in this town potentially belongs to this woman and is thus potentially impure. Needless to say, in the ancient world spitting in the public domain was an ordinary thing, and the streets of the town were always replete with spittle. This passage paints a forceful picture of a world in which it is not only a direct encounter with people or objects that harbors the risk of impurity; but even merely walking in the street exposes one to impurity. This is closely related, as Charlotte Fonrobert observed, to the place of fluids, and particularly bodily fluids, in the rabbinic system of impurity. The very fact that saliva and urine, two substances that are commonly found in the public domain, have the same power to make something or someone impure that their original "owner" has marks the marketplace and the street as potentially laden with impurity, and defines one's very interaction with space-even if this space does not entail actual people or objects-as noxious in terms of impurity.
Maintaining Purity within a World of Impurity
As I hope to have illustrated through the examples above, impurity in the Mishnah is depicted as an ineluctable reality. Not only does impurity potentially lurk everywhere, but it is also highly difficult to discern whether one actually contracted it or not, and thus one is prone to be almost always in a state of doubtful impurity. The mishnaic premise that "everything that can become impure will become impure" makes the task of maintaining oneself and one's possessions in a state of purity throughout one's daily interactions and activities seem almost impossible. Nevertheless, maintaining oneself and one's possessions in a state of purity is unquestionably assumed to be the task of the mishnaic subject. That is to say, while the rabbis of the Mishnah create a world in which impurity is the default, they also direct their text to an idealized agent (real or imagined) who operates in this world with the purpose of avoiding impurity to the best of his abilities. To be sure, the Mishnah makes abundantly clear that a state of ritual purity can by no means be a perpetual one, but is rather always a temporary and transient state. By the mere fact of being in a physical body and of engaging with the material world, one contracts impurity, purifies oneself, and before long contracts impurity again, in an unending cyclical process. But it is nonetheless the mishnaic subject's responsibility to take measures to purify oneself after having contracted impurity, and to try to maintain this state of purity for a certain duration of time, at least for the purpose of engaging in particular activities, which in the Mishnah have mostly to do with the preparation and consumption of food.
Here a short digression is in order so as to contest a common view according to which, in the setting of the Mishnah, impurity is completely inconsequential throughout one's everyday life, since the only time in which impurity has any repercussions is when one is approaching the sanctuary or handling holy articles. According to this view all the intricate considerations of impurity and doubtful impurity throughout daily interactions and spaces that we have seen pertain only to priests, or at most to pilgrims in the vicinity of the Temple. This, however, is not commensurate with the rhetoric of the Mishnah nor with the scenarios it discusses, which assume an overarching commitment to purity in nonconsecrated times, in nonconsecrated places, and in regard to nonconsecrated objects. While the Mishnah acknowledges that not everyone is or can be committed to this high standard of purity, it does posit an idealized subject who is strongly defined by his commitment to this standard.
The view that impurity is only consequential in the vicinity of the Temple and the sancta is a long-standing one in the Jewish tradition, and was most famously and influentially articulated by Moses Maimonides, who contended that "all that is written in the Torah and in the traditions [divrei qabala, that is, in rabbinic literature] regarding the laws of impurities and purities does not concern anything except for the Temple and its holy articles and heave-offerings and tithes." The roots of this prevalent view are in the fact that according to the Hebrew Bible, the only realm in which impurity is proscribed is that of the sanctuary and the sancta. However, there is no reason to assume, even in the biblical context, that if impurity is explicitly prohibited only in the context of the sanctuary and the holies, it is overlooked everywhere else. The expectation that those who have become impure will purify themselves as soon as they can is made abundantly clear in various Priestly passages, without any suggestion that such purification is necessary only for the priests or only for those approaching the sanctuary. Furthermore, it is stressed that anyone who does not take measures to purify himself or herself in due time commits a transgression, regardless of whether he or she approached the sanctuary or not. The Priestly rhetoric leaves little room for doubt that constant striving toward ritual purity was expected of all the Israelites at all times, needing no further justification other than the all-encompassing requirement to be holy.
While we have no way of knowing whether, to what extent, and by whom, if at all, ritual purity was observed in biblical times, it is quite evident that in the Second Temple period ritual purity was observed in everyday life, beyond the precinct of the Temple, and by nonpriests. While the ubiquity of the observance of ritual purity is debatable, the literary and archeological evidence from this period strongly suggest that such observance was not restricted to festival times or to the Temple area. In an article that has become a classic, Gedalyahu Alon showed that in Second Temple literature we find persistent views according to which daily practices of religious significance must be conducted in a state of ritual purity. This includes not only activities such as prayer and reading of the Torah, but also, and most notably, the consumption of nonconsecrated foodstuffs (hullin). Whereas in the Hebrew Bible the only restriction on the consumption of food in a state of impurity pertains to priests who eat holy foods, a large number of Second Temple sources point to a lay custom of eating ordinary food in a state of ritual purity. The literary evidence for this practice brought forth by Alon is strongly supported by the Qumran Scrolls, which are unequivocal that the members of the community eat all daily meals in a state of ritual purity. Moreover, as Jacob Milgrom showed, it seems that in the Qumranic legislation an impure person is prohibited from eating anything at all during his or her first day in a state of impurity (that is, before performing a preliminary rite of purification). Thus, in the writings of Qumran "purity" in its most basic sense is purity that allows one to consume ordinary food.
As more recent scholarship has shown, the literary evidence for the custom of eating ordinary food in a state of purity is corroborated by archeological findings, and especially by the large number of stone vessels from the Second Temple and mishnaic periods found in various areas in Palestine. Since stone vessels were considered to be "impurity-proof," this was the material of choice for making utensils that were to be used in settings in which purity had to be maintained. It is not surprising that many remains of stone vessels were found in the vicinity of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but such vessels were also found in abundance in other parts of the country, especially in the Galilee.
The Mishnah seems, in this respect, to be in keeping with evidence from the Second Temple period, and it does not suggest in any way that the pursuit of purity is restricted to the priests or to those about to approach the Temple. As we have seen and will continue to see throughout this book, in the Mishnah considerations of purity guide one through the most quotidian aspects of life. It is hardly clear why the rabbis would bother to elaborate on the ways in which household furniture such as commodes and beds contract impurity, or on the ways in which fish, which cannot be brought to the Temple or given to the priests as a heave-offering, contract impurity, if impurity is only of consequence for priests or in the vicinity of the Temple during festival times. By and large the assumption in the Mishnah, as it is in Second Temple literature, is that people strive (or should strive) to maintain themselves and their possessions in a state of purity at all times, to the limited extent that this is possible. Furthermore, in most of the legal discussions of the Mishnah the rabbis operate with the premise that nonconsecrated food is ideally handled, prepared, and consumed in a state of ritual purity. Indeed, unless specified otherwise, the appellation "pure" in the Mishnah refers to the level of purity required to consume nonconsecrated food.
Given that ritual purity is assumed to be a desirable and even expected goal of the mishnaic subject, the question arises of whether and how maintaining a state of ritual purity is even tenable in the conditions I described above, namely, in a world in which the transferability of impurity is so great and its incidence so ubiquitous that every person and every object is assumed to be impure unless distinctly known otherwise. Is purity not a lost cause to begin with? How can the Mishnah pose an unspoken expectation that its subjects should strive to be ritually pure, at least for the purpose of certain activities, and at the same time assert that they are inescapably surrounded by impurity and are prone to contracting it, knowingly or unknowingly, at any given point?
On the face of it, one could dismiss this question by saying that the Mishnah does not concern itself with tenability. It describes a world in which impurity is ever present, because this is the result of systematically applying the rabbinic developments in the concept and scheme of impurity unto the lived environment, and it maintains a view in which one strives to be pure because impurity is by definition an undesirable condition and purity a desirable one. Whether or not it is actually feasible for one to be ritually pure for more than a few seconds or minutes at best in the impure world that surrounds him-this, one could argue, was of little interest to the rabbis, who were invested in the production of principles and not in the trifles of practice. However, a closer look at the Mishnah's way of approaching cases of doubtful impurity of the type described, that is, cases in which the guiding premise is that everything and everyone is impure by default, reveals that the rabbis were in fact highly concerned with the tenability of ritual purity. As we see in a series of rulings regarding doubtful impurity in tractate Tohorot (3.5-4.13), the rabbis make a concentrated and conscious effort to neutralize some of the most common settings in which one can contract impurity, and thereby to make the contraction of impurity somewhat more controllable and the pursuit of purity more feasible. As I will argue, had the rabbis not been actively invested in their subjects' ability to maintain a state of ritual purity, there would be absolutely no reason for them to put forth such peculiar rulings.
Here I will focus on the two most conspicuous rulings in this series, which introduce extremely lenient and completely counterintuitive principles for the determination of purity status in cases in which one cannot know for a fact whether impurity was contracted or not. Both of these rulings essentially present the notion that whenever impurity is most likely to have been contracted, it will be determined that impurity was not contracted.
The first ruling pertains to cases in which a person is suspected to have contracted impurity, but this person is not capable of accounting for him- or herself. For example, a small child or a mentally inept person is found next to a dead rodent. If they touched it, they have become impure; but it cannot be determined with certainty that they are indeed impure, because they cannot provide a reliable answer to the question "did you touch it?" This principle also pertains to animals that are suspected to have wandered into an impure area (for example, a graveyard) and are carrying articles, thus making the articles they were carrying impure (animals in and of themselves, it should be noted, are not susceptible to impurity). Such cases are referred to in the Mishnah as cases involving "one who has no mind to be asked" (ein bo da'at lishael). We could assume that in cases of doubt of this sort, the rabbis would rule that the person or articles would be considered impure. After all, is it not especially mentally inept people and animals who are prone to touching things that mentally capable people will be careful not to touch, and to wander into places that mentally capable persons will be careful not to go? But the Mishnah, surprisingly, rules exactly the opposite: in any case of doubt in which one cannot account for oneself, the persons or articles in question are rendered pure. In contrast, in an identical case of doubt involving a mentally capable person, the default ruling is impurity. For example, if an adult capable person says that he is not sure whether he touched a dead rodent or not, he will be determined to be impure, even though he is far less likely to have touched the rodent than a child is:
A deaf person, a mentally inept person (shoteh), and a minor who were found in an entry way in which there is impurity, are held to be pure; and all mentally capable persons (kol ha-piqeah) are held to be impure.
Whoever has no mind to be asked, his doubt is pure (that is, will be considered pure in a case of doubt).
This ruling is highly counterintuitive, but it is this very counterintuitivity that indicates how invested the rabbis were in making purity a tenable goal. If persons and animals who cannot be responsible for avoiding impurity and who cannot be held accountable for their state of impurity were considered to be perpetually impure, as would have been the predictable ruling based on the premises we have examined throughout this chapter, then one's ability to maintain oneself and one's immediate environment in a state of purity would be significantly compromised. Through this overarching ruling the Mishnah does not dismiss the possibility that those who cannot give account of their actions have in fact encountered a source of impurity, but it allows one to ignore the ever-present potential of impurity that children and animals harbor, thus making the pursuit of purity more feasible.
The second mishnaic principle I will mention here pertains to cases of doubtful impurity in public as opposed to private domains. According to this principle, in a case of doubt regarding the contraction of impurity in a public domain, the ruling will be that the person or object in question is pure, whereas in a case of doubt regarding the contraction of impurity in a private domain, the ruling will be that the person or object in question is impure. For example, if one is not sure whether one touched a dead rodent or not while walking in the town square, he will be declared pure; but if he is not sure whether he touched a rodent or not in his own home, he will be declared impure. Similarly, if one sat on a bench that was situated in someone's backyard, and it cannot be known whether this bench was pure or not (for example, whether a menstruating woman previously sat on it), it will be assumed that the bench was impure and the person who sat on it will also be rendered impure; but if one sat on a bench in the street or in the marketplace, the person who sat on it will be rendered pure. Once again, this seems completely counterintuitive: surely there is greater likelihood for a bench on which two hundred people sit in one day to be impure than for a bench in someone's private quarters, and surely there is greater chance to encounter sources of impurity in the bustling public domain than in the confined space of one's own home, which can be monitored much more closely. Here too the mishnaic principle does not propose an account of what is most likely to have taken place, but rather functions as a green light for the subjects of the Mishnah to ignore what may have taken place so as to be able to maintain a state of purity in situations in which it seems most impossible to do so.
These two principles, then, serve as formal legalistic means to inhibit the full implications of the mishnaic system itself. Were the rabbis to follow the logic of their own system all the way through, it would indeed be very difficult to find a time and a place in which one or one's possessions cannot be at least suspected to have contracted impurity, and thus to be impure by default. The rabbis prevent purity from becoming an entirely lost cause by creating a critical distinction between situations and settings that are at least partially in one's control and situations and settings that are entirely beyond one's control, allowing a freer pass for purity in cases of the latter sort. To emphasize, the principles described above pertain only to cases of doubt: if one knows for a fact that a person or an object contracted impurity, it makes no difference at all in which domain this took place or what the mental capacities of the person are. But by declaring that in situations which one cannot control there is no default assumption of impurity as there is in situations that one can control, the rabbis turn the maintaining of oneself in a state of purity from an impossible task to a sisyphic yet feasible task. It is in this distinction between controllable circumstances and incontrollable circumstances, I propose, that the key to understanding the rabbis' stakes in ritual purity as an aspired ideal can be found.
Impurity and the Making of the Mishnaic Subject
The classification of persons, things, places, and bodily conditions as either pure or impure was a critical part of the conceptual framework that the rabbis inherited from their biblical and postbiblical predecessors. This classificatory enterprise is not just a manifestation of an intellectual desire for order and systematization; it also has strong normative implications, since it entails by its very nature an expectation that one should avoid impurity to the extent that this is possible, or otherwise get rid of it as soon as possible. This is not to say that the ritually impure was in any way identified with the immoral or unethical, or that concern with purity was expected to override any other legal or social considerations: obviously there are legitimate and even highly condoned activities that generate impurity, such as childbirth or care of the dead, and there is no reason to believe that people refrained (or were encouraged to refrain) from such activities so as not to contract impurity. But regardless of how meritorious the situation in which one contracted impurity was, the very condition of being impure was an undesirable condition that, as is evident in all textual sources concerned with ritual impurity, one should want to change. When the rabbis create an elaborate body of knowledge on the workings of impurity as they do in the Mishnah, explaining exactly how it is transmitted and in what situations it is likely to be contracted, the underlying message of this body of knowledge, so obvious that it does not need to be explicitly stated, is "try to be pure." In this respect, the Mishnah is not different from earlier and much more concise impurity codes, as we find in the Hebrew Bible and in the texts from Qumran. What does make the Mishnah different, however, is the circumstances to which the implicit-but-obvious injunction "try to be pure" pertains. Whereas in the biblical and the Qumranic systems impurity is consequential mainly for those who function as primary sources of impurity, and at most to those in their most immediate vicinity, in the Mishnah impurity is consequential for everyone, all the time. As I put it above, for the rabbis impurity is an ongoing reality, whereas for their predecessors it is a noticeable event. In the mishnaic discourse, then, the injunction "try to be pure" has bearing not only on the way one conducts oneself after intercourse, for example, or after handling the dead, but also on the way one walks in the street, the way one interacts socially, the way one buys food in the market, the way one mends clothes, and so on. The concern with impurity encompasses every aspect of the mishnaic subject's life, and is manifested in all his actions.
Since the injunction "try to be pure" is the normative pivot of the Mishnah's discourse of impurity, it seems evident to me that when the rabbis elaborate on the various daily activities and behaviors that make the contraction of impurity likely, they also implicitly discourage certain activities and behaviors and endorse others. To take two simple examples, by drilling the notion that things left unattended are immediately taken to have become impure, the Mishnah discourages its subjects from leaving things unattended, and by making the point that one who eats impure food becomes as impure as what one eats, the Mishnah discourages its subjects from consuming food of whose origin and purity they are not certain, or for that matter from dining with persons of whose purity they are not certain. In constructing a world in which even the most mundane and banal actions have repercussions in terms of impurity, the rabbis also construct an idealized subject who conducts himself with heightened awareness of these repercussions, and whose effort to avoid impurity and maintain his body and possessions in a state of purity underwrites every minute aspect of his life. In other words, the rabbinic discourse of purity and impurity not only constitutes a picture of the lived world, but constitutes-and prescribes-a way of being in the world.
In light of the rabbis' construction of a way of being in the world through their impurity discourse, and in light of their emphasis on the behaviors and actions that the individual takes on in the course of his daily engagement with impurity, we can gain further understanding of the two counterintuitive rulings discussed above. As we have seen, impurity is the default in a case of doubt, but only in situations in which one has some control over the environment in question (that is, the private domain) or over the transmitters or contractors of impurity at hand (ones who "have a mind to be asked"). Whenever this is not the case, and one has no control over the situation, the rabbis dismiss the possibility of impurity unless one knows in certainty that it has been contracted. The rabbinic decision consciously to disregard situations in which one might be considered impure by default because of circumstances that are entirely beyond one's control speaks to the rabbis' directed attention to the actions and choices of the individual, more so than to questions of the probability and likelihood of impurity. Simplistically put, the rabbis can ignore the possibility of doubtful impurity in situations that are beyond one's control because these situations cannot be seen as manifestations of one's commitment to purity and of one's choice of a way of life.
Does this mean that the rabbis turn impurity into a completely artificial construct, a "nominalistic" concept as scholars like to call it, which only serves to assess one's intentions and actions and thus can be tweaked and toyed with as the rabbis desire? Certainly not. Let us be reminded that the rabbis' lenient rulings that I described above pertain to cases of doubt, that is, to cases in which no decision can be reached based on the facts alone, and therefore a formal legal consideration is warranted. A case of uncertain impurity is no different from a case of disputed property: in both cases the rabbis assume that there is a factual truth out there (one contracted or did not contract impurity, one is or is not the owner), but this truth is not accessible, and thus a formal overarching principle must be applied to solve the case (for example, "in a case of doubt in the public domain, [it] is pure" or "disputed property will be shared"). More generally, as I will point out in various junctures in this book, I do not see any way in which the rabbis' emphasis on subjectivity, thought, and intention detracts from the "realness" of impurity. What this emphasis does do, however, is establish the self as a new focal point in the discourse of impurity. The mishnaic self, it should be made clear, does not control the workings of impurity as such: he only controls, to a limited extent, how his own body and his own possessions operate in the realm of impurity. As the following chapters will show, it is in this limited space of control, in which the relations between the self, his body, and his environment are actively constituted, that the rabbis are most avidly interested, and where the most innovative aspects of their impurity legislation emerge.