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

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

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

Complete Immersion

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

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

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

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

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

Washing the Hands and Feet

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

Washing the Hands

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

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

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

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

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

[Raphael Posner]

Women and Ablution

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

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

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

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

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


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

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