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