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Purity and the priesthood in the

Hebrew Scriptures and

Rabbinic tradition


Jacob Neusner

Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies

University of South Florida


The Book of Leviticus makes explicit the requirements that priests who ministered at the holy ark in the Tent of Meeting, that is, in the Temple of Jerusalem, had to attain the status of purity. That requirement affected every dimension of their lives, from birth through marriage to death. They had to exhibit proper genealogical credentials. They had to marry women who met a certain standard. When they entered the Temple, they had to have purified themselves in accord with the Levitical regulations. When they actually conducted the rites of sacrifice and offered up the consecrated portions, they had to meet these same standards. And, of course, when they consumed their share of the holy offerings, they and their families had to meet these same high standards.


The sources of uncleanness are specified in Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19. These include unclean animals, improperly slaughtered animals, certain bodily excretions, sexual activity (seminal emissions), and the like, as well as the corpses. Rites of purification, furthermore, are fully spelled out in context, washing with water (in an immersion pool), use of purification-water (Numbers 19), and so on. Priests could serve only if they were bodily whole and complete; they could contract corpse uncleanness only for immediate family members; they had to keep the foods set aside for their consumption pure and had to eat those foods with purified utensils. In these and numerous other ways, the written Torah spells out the conviction that the priesthood is required to preserve purity in the Temple rites and in personal life as well. There is no priesthood that can function unless the purity laws are observed.


Rabbinic literature, represented by the Mishnah, ca. AD 200, a philosophical law code that stands at the head of all the documents of the oral Torah, takes for granted that the purity laws of Leviticus and Numbers apply to all Israelites, not only to the members of the priestly caste. A brief account of the way in which the Rabbinic law treats the topic suffices.


The connection between the priesthood and purity stands behind the entire Rabbinic treatment of those two subjects: there is no priesthood without purity, and there is no service of God without the Temple and the offerings presented by that priesthood. The reason is simple. The oral Torah, represented by the Mishnah, sets forth a theory of the life of Israel that centres on the sanctification of God’s people, and that is meant in a concrete and worldly way. Sanctification being the goal, purity is a principal means toward that end. This is stated in so many words in an account of the place of purity and of sanctification on the scale of the Torah’s requirements:


R. Pinhas b. Yair says, «Heedfulness leads to (hygienic) cleanliness, cleanliness leads to cultic cleanness, cultic cleanness leads to abstinence, abstinence leads to holiness, holiness leads to modesty, modesty leads to the fear of sin, the fear of sin leads to piety, piety leads to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead comes through Elijah, blessed be his memory. Amen.» (Mishnah-Tractate Sotah 9:15).


What we see, therefore, is that there is an integral connection between purity — which invariably means the purity of the cult, the Temple, and the priesthood of Israel — and sanctification.


The tractates of the Mishnah concerning purity are these: Kelim (susceptibility of utensils to uncleanness); Ohalot (transmission of corpse-uncleanness in the tent of a corpse); Negaim (the uncleanness described in Leviticus 13-14); Parah (the preparation of purification-water); Tohorot (problems of doubt in connection with matters of cleanness); Miqvaot (immersion-pools); Niddah (menstrual uncleanness); Makhshirin (rendering susceptible to uncleanness produce that is dry and so not susceptible); Zabim (the uncleanness mentioned in Leviticus 15); Tebul-Yom (the uncleanness of one who has immersed on that self-same day and awaits sunset for completion of the purification rites); Yadayim (the uncleanness of hands); Uqsin (the uncleanness transmitted through what is connected to unclean produce).


In volume, the sixth division, devoted to Purities, covers approximately a quarter of the entire Mishnah. Topics of interest to the priesthood and the Temple, such as priestly fees, conduct of the cult on holy days, conduct of the cult on ordinary days and management and upkeep of the Temple, and the rules of cultic cleanness, predominate in the first, second, fifth and sixth divisions, in volume well over two-thirds of the whole. Rules governing the social order form the bulk of the third and fourth.


The stress of the Mishnah throughout on the priestly caste and the Temple cult point to the document’s principal concern, which centred upon sanctification, understood as the correct arrangement of all things, each in its proper category, each called by its rightful name, just as at the creation as portrayed in the Priestly document, and just as with the cult itself as set forth in Leviticus. Further, the thousands of rules and cases (with sages’ disputes thereon) that comprise the document, upon close reading, turn out to express in concrete language abstract principles of hierarchical classification.


These define the document’s method and mark it as a work of a philosophical character. Not only so, but a variety of specific, recurrent concerns, for example, the relationship of being to becoming, actual to potential, the principles of economics, politics, correspond point by point to comparable ones in Graeco-Roman philosophy, particularly Aristotle’s tradition. This stress on proper order and right rule and the formulation of a philosophy, politics and economics, within the principles of natural history set forth by Aristotle, explain why the Mishnah makes a statement to be classified as philosophy, concerning the order of the natural world in its correspondence with the supernatural world.


The system of philosophy expressed through concrete and detailed law presented by the Mishnah, consists of a coherent logic and topic, a cogent world-view and comprehensive way of living. It is a world-view which speaks of transcendent things, a way of life in response to the sanctification of Israel in deed and in deliberation. Sanctification thus means two things: first, distinguishing Israel in all its dimensions from the world in all its ways; second, establishing the stability, order, regularity, predictability and reliability of Israel in the world of nature and supernature, in particular at moments and in contexts of danger. Danger means instability, disorder, irregularity, uncertainty and betrayal. Each topic of the system as a whole takes up a critical and indispensable moment or context of social being. Through what is said in regard to each of the Mishnah’s principal topics, what the system expressed through normative rules as a whole wishes to declare is fully expressed. Yet if the parts severally and jointly give the message of the whole, the whole cannot exist without all of the parts, so well joined and carefully crafted are they all. These general remarks bring us back to the topic at hand: purity, the priesthood, the Temple, and the cult.


The Division of Purities presents a very simple system of three principal parts: sources of uncleanness, objects and substances susceptible to uncleanness, and modes of purification from uncleanness. So it tells the story of what makes a given sort of object unclean and what makes it clean. Viewed as a whole, the Division of Purities treats the interplay of persons, food and liquids. Dry inanimate objects or food are not susceptible to uncleanness. What is wet is susceptible. So liquids activate the system. What is unclean, moreover, emerges from uncleanness through the operation of liquids specifically, through immersion in fit water of requisite volume and in natural condition. Liquids thus deactivate the system. Thus, water in its natural condition is what concludes the process by removing uncleanness. Water in its unnatural condition, that is, deliberately affected by human agency, is what imparts susceptibility to uncleanness to begin with. The uncleanness of persons, furthermore, is signified by body liquids or flux in the case of the menstruating woman and the zab (the person suffering from the form of uncleanness described in Leviticus 15: 1ff). Corpse uncleanness is conceived to be a kind of effluent, a viscous gas, which flows like liquid. Utensils for their part receive uncleanness when they form receptacles able to contain liquid.


In sum, we have a system in which the invisible flow of fluid-like substances or powers serve to put food, drink and receptacles into the status of uncleanness and to remove those things from that status. Whether or not we call the system ‘metaphysical’, it certainly has no material base but is conditioned upon highly abstract notions. Thus in material terms, the effect of liquid is upon food, drink, utensils, and people. The consequence has to do with who may eat and drink what food and liquid, and what food and drink may be consumed in which pots and pans. These loci are specified by tractates on utensils and on food and drink.


The human being is ambivalent. Persons fall in the middle, between sources and loci of uncleanness, because they are both. They serve as sources of uncleanness. They also become unclean. The zab, suffering the uncleanness described in Leviticus chapter 15, the menstruating woman, the woman after childbirth, and the person afflicted with the skin ailment described in Leviticus chapters 13 and 14 — all are sources of uncleanness. But being unclean, they fall within the system’s loci, its programme of consequences.


So they make other things unclean and are subject to penalties because they are unclean. Unambiguous sources of uncleanness never also constitute loci affected by uncleanness. They always are unclean and never can become clean: the corpse, the dead creeping thing, and things like them. Inanimate sources of uncleanness and inanimate objects are affected by uncleanness. Systematically unique, people and liquids have the capacity to inaugurate the process of uncleanness (as sources) and also are subject to those same processes (as objects of uncleanness).


Where the Mishnah moves beyond Scripture — the oral Torah beyond the written — is in its premise that the purity laws concern not only the cult and the Temple, but also the home and the heart. The ideas ultimately expressed in the Mishnah began among people who had a special interest in observing cultic cleanness, as dictated by the Priestly Code. There can be no doubt, moreover, that the context for such cleanness is the home, not solely the Temple, about which Leviticus speaks. The issues of the law leave no doubt on that score. Since priests ate heave offerings at home, and did so in a state of cultic cleanness, it was a small step to apply the same taboos to food which was not a consecrated gift to the priests.


What is said through the keeping of these laws is that the food eaten at home, not deriving from the altar and its provision for the priesthood of meat not burned up in the fire, was as holy as the meal offerings, meat offerings, and drink offerings, consecrated by being set aside for the altar and then, in due course, partly given to the priests and partly tossed on the altar and burned up. If food not consecrated for the altar, not protected in a state of cleanness (in the case of wheat), or carefully inspected for blemishes (in the case of beasts), and not eaten by priests in the Temple, was deemed subject to the same purity-restrictions as food consecrated for the altar, this carries implications about the character of that food, those who were to eat it, and the conditions in which it was grown and eaten. First, all food, not only that for the altar, was to be protected in a state of Levitical cleanness, thus holiness, that is, separateness. Second, the place in the Land, in which the food was grown and kept was to be kept cultically clean, holy, just like the Temple. Third, the people, Israel, who were to eat that food were holy, just like the priesthood, in rank behind the Temple’s chief caste. Fourth, the act of eating food anywhere in the Holy Land was analogous to the act of eating food in the Temple, by the altar.


The purity of the priesthood therefore symbolized the sanctification of all Israel — that is the proposition implicit in the laws of the Mishnah. All of these obvious inferences point to a profound conviction about the Land, people, produce, condition, and context of nourishment. The setting was holy. The actors were holy. And what, specifically, they did which had to be protected in holiness was eating. For when they ate their food at home, they ate it the way priests did in the Temple. And the way priests ate their food in the Temple, that is, the cultic rules and conditions observed in that setting, was like the way God ate his food in the Temple. That is to say, God’s food and locus of nourishment were to be protected from the same sources of danger and contamination, preserved in the same exalted condition and sanctification. So by acting, that is, eating like God, Israel became like God: a pure and perfect incarnation, on earth in the Land which was holy, of the model of heaven. Eating food was the critical act and occasion, just as the priestly authors of Leviticus and Numbers had maintained when they made laws governing slaughtering beasts and burning up their flesh, baking pancakes and cookies with and without olive oil and burning them on the altar, pressing grapes and making wine and pouring it out onto the altar. The nourishment of the Land — meat, grain, oil, and wine — was set before God and burned (‘offered up’) in conditions of perfect cultic antisepsis.


In context, this antisepsis provided protection against things deemed the opposite of nourishment, the quintessence of death: corpse matter, people who looked like corpses (Leviticus 13), dead creeping things, blood when not flowing in the veins of the living, such as menstrual blood (Leviticus 15), other sorts of flux (semen in men, non-menstrual blood in women) which yield not life but then its opposite, so death. What these excrescences have in common, of course, is that they are ambivalent. Why? Because they may be one thing or the other. Blood in the living is the soul; blood not in the living is the soul of contamination. The corpse was once a living person, like God; the person with skin like a corpse’s and who looks dead was once a person who looked alive; the flux of the zab (Leviticus 15) comes from the flaccid penis which under the right circumstances, that is properly erect, produces semen and makes life. What is at the margin between life and death and can go either way is what is the source of uncleanness. But that is insufficient. For the opposite, in the Priestly Code, of unclean is not only clean, but also holy. The antonym is not to be missed: death or life, unclean or holy.


So the cult is the point of struggle between the forces of life and nourishment and the forces of death and extinction: meat, grain, oil and wine, against corpse matter, dead creeping things, blood in the wrong setting, semen in the wrong context, and the like. Then, on the occasions when meat was eaten, mainly, at the time of festivals or other moments at which sin offerings and peace offerings were made, people who wished to live ate their meat, and at all times ate the staples of wine, oil, and bread, in a state of life and so generated life. They kept their food and themselves away from the state of death as much as possible. And this heightened reality pertained at home as much as in the Temple, where most people rarely went on ordinary days. The Temple was the font of life, the bulwark against death, and the purity of the priesthood formed the Temple’s guarantee of sanctification.