In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Purity and Impurity in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism

  • Introduction
  • Impurity and Gender

Jewish Studies Purity and Impurity in Ancient Israel and Early Judaism
Thomas Kazen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0178


Concepts of purity and impurity are virtually global and can be found in most religions and regions of the world. Purity and impurity function as umbrella terms for a number of conceptions, aversions, taboos, and apotropaic practices. This bibliography discusses conceptions and practices of purity and impurity in ancient Israel and early Judaism, up to and including the earliest church and the Tannaitic period, but not covering rabbinic Judaism or the patristic period as a whole. In Judaism, purity and impurity take on a conspicuous character by their decidedly ritual definition, complemented by various types of figurative and/or rhetorical usages. There is a certain conceptual overlap between purity and holiness. Purity can refer to a positive property. The Hebrew term ṭāhôr/ṭāhārâ, like its Ugaritic cognate, can at times mean “shining,” or “radiance.” More generally, however, purity is conceptualized as the absence of contagion and purification involves the removal of dirt, pollution, or contaminating matter. The Hebrew word for impurity, ṭāmē’/ṭumʾâ, primarily refers to pollution, either as impure physical conditions or in the sense of culpability and moral transgression. The underlying meaning is probably dirt, as in several Semitic cognates. More specifically, concepts of impurity include a diversity of conditions and behaviors, including besmirched items, repelling substances, body fluids, certain physical states and diseases, corpses and carcasses, contagion by contact, food avoidances, disapproved sexual relations, breaches against moral and cultural codes, and various spiritual threats. At the same time, this array of meanings reveals certain common traits. Aesthetic and emotional aspects are present, as both human and divine beings are thought to enjoy that which is whole, clean, and radiant and to shun what is smelly, smeared, and smitten, especially when it threatens human life and order. Consequently, purification suggests the removal of dirt, pollution, or contaminating matter and at times partially overlaps with other concepts, such as sanctification and healing. It is necessitated by breaches of cultic prescriptions, or codes of conduct, including behaviors that evoke divine displeasure or wrath. It may also be necessary in a number of situations which do not involve any willful transgression, but rather belong to the course of normal life, such as birth, death, marriage, and disease. In addition, purification is a natural preparation for situations of heightened religious experience, encountering the divine and visiting sanctuaries to perform regular sacrifices. Some purificatory rituals are self-administered, while others are performed by ritual specialists. Not only persons and objects, but also places, buildings, and in some instances foodstuff and drink can be purified. Since impurity is usually understood as an acquired state that could be entered and exited, purification rituals are repeatable. However, some exceptional impurities for which there are no purification rituals prescribed, are regarded as permanent, and can only be handled by removal or destruction.

General Overviews

Biblical purity legislation is mainly found in the book of Leviticus (Lev 11: impure animals and contagion by dead “swarmers” and carcasses; Lev 12: parturients; Lev 13–14: skin disease; Lev 15: genital discharges) and the book of Numbers (Num 5; 19; 31: corpse impurity). Another version of food impurity is found in Deut 14. Purification is a prominent topic in the sacrificial laws (Lev 1–10) and the Day of Atonement ritual (Lev 16), particularly in relation to the ḥaṭṭā’t and ’āšām sacrifices, which effect kipper. The Holiness Laws (Lev 17–26) frequently use purity language in relation to various types of disapproved behavior and some of the psalms, and some of the prophets do, too, in particular in relation to sexual misconduct and worship of foreign deities (e.g., Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). Ezra and Nehemiah use purity language in relation to foreign influence and non-Israelites. Concepts of purity and impurity also surface in a number of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts: narratives like Judith and Tobit, in various apocalyptic texts, and in historical texts about and around the Maccabean revolt. A considerable number of Qumran texts, and also the earlier known Damascus Document, discuss issues of purity and impurity, in particular 1QS, 4QMMT, and a number of fragmentary texts from Cave 4. Purity issues are present in the New Testament gospels as well as in Pauline letters and some of the “Apostolic Fathers” and early Church Fathers. The Mishnah and the Tosefta deal with purity and impurity repeatedly, especially in the tractates of the sixth order, Tohoroth, and purity issues are conspicuous in the Sifra to Leviticus and the Sifre to Numbers. Research about purity and impurity in later periods is not covered by this bibliography. Overviews include encyclopedia articles, word studies, commentaries on primary texts, and general studies.

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