The conception of personal cleanliness as both a prerequisite of holiness and an aid to physical fitness is central to Jewish tradition. Many of the biblical commandments promote hygiene, though their stated intention was ritual purity rather than physical cleanliness. The military camp had to be kept clean by establishing the latrine outside its bounds; every soldier had to be equipped with a spade with which he had to dig a hole to cover his excrement (Deut. 23:13–15). War booty had to be cleansed and purified (Num. 31:21–24), and the blood of slaughtered animals had to be covered by dust (Lev. 17:13–14). Lepers, anyone who had an "issue," and all who were polluted by contact with a corpse, were excluded from the limits of the camp for specific periods of quarantine (Lev. 15:1–15; Num. 5:1–4). Persons who touched a carcass, a creeping animal, or a reptile were similarly "defiled," as were the vessels into which these objects might have fallen (Lev. 11:27–40). The Bible also stresses the cleanliness of garments (Eccles. 9:8).

Rabbinic literature is even more specific in its stress on hygiene. The rabbis considered the human body as a sanctuary (Ta'an. 11a–b). They stressed the importance of good and regular meals (Shab. 140b), and gave much advice on the types of food conducive to good health (Ḥul. 84a; Ber. 40a; Av. Zar. 11a), and on the care of teeth (Ber. 4b; Shab. 111a; TJ, Av. Zar. 3:6). Exercising their halakhic authority, the rabbis' elaboration on some rituals and the introduction of others had an expressly hygienic intent. This was certainly the case with regard to personal cleanliness. The rabbis ordained that one must wash one's face, hands, and feet daily in honor of one's Maker (Shab. 50b). The hands must also be washed on certain occasions: after rising from bed in the morning, after urination and/or defecation, bathing, clipping of the fingernails, removal of shoes, touching the naked foot, washing the hair, visiting a cemetery, touching a corpse, undressing, sexual intercourse, touching a louse, or touching any part of the body generally clothed (Sh. Ar., OḤ 4:18). It is a particularly important religious duty to wash hands before eating a meal (Ḥul. 105a–b; Sh. Ar., OḤ 158–165). Similarly, hands should be washed after the meal and before grace (mayim aḥaronim), because, inadvertently, a person may touch his eyes with salty hands (Hul. ibid.). A person who neglects the washing of hands before or after a meal "will be uprooted from the world" (Sot. 4b; see *Salt; *Ablution). The rabbinic stress on the connection between cleanliness and holiness is emphasized by the injunction forbidding those whose dress is unclean, or torn, to act as *sheli'aḥ ẓibbur (Meg. 4:6). Similarly a kohen may not pronounce the priestly benediction if his hands are soiled (Meg. 24b). No prayer may be recited by one who is in a state of physical uncleanliness, or about to relieve himself, or has touched parts of his body generally covered by clothing, without either washing his hands, or rubbing them in sand (Sh. Ar., OḤ 92:1, 4, 6).

The proper protection of foodstuffs was also noted by the rabbis. Thus, to the biblical laws of *sheḥitah (Deut. 12:23–35) were added the extensive rules of bedikah, an examination of the slaughtered animal for various signs of diseased condition. Originally eight (Ḥul. 43a), these disqualifying symptoms were increased in the Mishnah to 18 (Ḥul. 3:1), and subdivided by Maimonides into 70 (Yad, Shehitah 10:9). Indeed, according to the latter authority, the reason for the prohibition to eat pig lies in the fact that it is a "filthy animal" (Guide, 3:48). In mishnaic times, it was forbidden to drink any liquid (water, wine, milk) which was left uncovered overnight, lest it had been defiled by a venomous snake (Ter. 8:4; Sh. Ar., YD 116:1), and the Gemara advised that all foodstuffs be protected from flies because they may have been in contact with persons suffering from skin diseases (Ket. 77b). R. *Akiva praised the care which the Medians took to chop meat on the table (Ber. 8b). Later authorities advised that the hands be washed between eating a dish of meat and one of fish (Sh. Ar., YD 116:3) and that adequate precautions be taken to ensure that bread should not come into contact with human perspiration (ibid., 116:4–5). The rabbis also stressed the importance of public health. The Talmud rules that no carcass, grave, or tannery be placed within 50 ells of a human dwelling (BB 2:9), and insisted that streets and market places be kept clean (Yal. 184). In Jerusalem, they were swept daily (BM 26a). Scholars were forbidden to live in a city in which there was no doctor or where there was no bathhouse (Sanh. 17b). *Hillel the Elder considered that the act of bathing is an act of caring for the vessel containing the divine spirit (Lev. R. 34:3).

During the Middle Ages, the Jewish communities were surprisingly free of disease and plague in comparison to their non-Jewish neighbors, notwithstanding the very limited living space they had. This fact often led to pogroms, as the Jews were suspected of magical practices. There can be no doubt that the strict observance of the halakhah contributed, in no small measure, to their immunity.


J. Preuss, Biblisch-talmudische Medizin (19233); M. Perlmann, Midrash ha-Refu'ah, 3 vols. (1926–34).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.