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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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For the purpose of actual or ritual purification, ablutions or washings form an important feature of the Jewish religious ceremonial. Judaism is in thorough accord with the proverb, "Cleanliness is next to godliness" (see Mishnah, Soṭ ah, 9:15): indeed, it goes further for it holds practically that cleanliness is godliness itself. There are three kinds of Ablution recognized in Biblical and rabbinical law: (1) Washing of the hands, (2) washing of the hands and feet, and (3) immersion of the whole body in water.

Modern Practise.
The ritual washing of the hands is not explicitly prescribed by the Bible, but is inferred by the rabbis (Ḥ ul. 106a ) from the passage, Leviticus 15:11 , in which it is stated that if a person afflicted with an unclean issue have not washed (or bathed) his hands his touch contaminates. The passage, Psalm 26:6 , "I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Lord," also warrants the inference that Ablution of the hands is requisite before performing any holy act. This particular form of Ablution is the one which has survived most completely and is most practised by Jews. Before any meal of which bread forms a part, the hands must be solemnly washed and the appropriate benediction recited. Before prayer, too, the hands must be washed also after any unclean bodily function or after contact with an unclean object. The precepts concerning the carrying out of the ritual washing of the hands are contained in the rabbinical code "Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥ ayyim," § § 117-165. The chief rules are these: The water must be in a state of natural purity, not discolored or defiled by the admixture of any foreign substance it must not have been previously used for any purpose, and must be poured out by human act, the mere natural flow of water not sufficing. If a hydrant or stationary receptacle is used, the cock must be opened separately for each hand. This precept, that the water must be poured out by human act, is based on the fact that Scripture describes the pouring of water upon the hands as performed by one person for another, and considers it an appropriate act for the disciple to do for his master. The pouring on of water was a sign of discipleship. Thus, Scripture says of Elisha that he poured water () upon the hands of Elijah, meaning that he was his disciple. The hands may also be purified by immersion but in that case the same rules must be observed as in the case of immersion of the entire body in a regular ritual bath, or miḳ weh . If water is not obtainable, the hands should be rubbed with some dry, clean substance, such as cloth. The hands must also be washed after eating. The Ablution before grace is known technically as mayim rishonim (first waters), and the subsequent Ablution as mayim aḥ aronim (last waters). The latter Ablution is by no means generally observed.

Ancient and Modern Temple Service.
Washing of the hands and feet is only prescribed by the Mosaic Law for those desiring to perform priestly functions. Scripture states that whenever Moses or Aaron or any of the subordinate priests desired to enter the sanctuary (Tabernacle) or approach the altar, they were bound to wash their hands and feet from the laver which stood between the Tabernacle and the altar (Exodus 30:19 , 40:31 ). This rule was, of course, also observed in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Immersion of the Whole Body.
The washing of the whole body is the form of Ablution most frequently ordained in Scripture, and for the greatest number of causes. According to rabbinical interpretation, this is only valid when performed by immersion, either in a natural fountain or stream or in a properly constructed miḳ weh, or ritual bath, containing at least forty seahs (about one hundred and twenty gallons) of water (see Baths ). The following are the cases in which the Mosaic Law requires immersion of the whole body, the object being either purification or consecration: (a ) No leper or unclean person of the seed of Aaron could eat of holy flesh until he had washed his whole body in water (Leviticus 22:4-6 ). (b ) When a leper was healed of his leprosy, he shaved off his hair, offered up the prescribed sacrifices, washed his clothing, bathed his person in water, and became clean (Leviticus 14:8,9 ). (c ) Any person who came into contact with the body of, or with articles of furniture used by, a person having an unclean issue (), or with any article used by him, was obliged to wash both his body and his garments, and was unclean for a whole day (Leviticus 15:5-10 ). (d ) On the Day of Atonement the high priest, after sending off the scapegoat (see Azazel ), was obliged to wash his whole body in water in a holy place. The same duty devolved upon the man who took away the goat and upon him who burned the ox and the goat of the sin-offering and they were also required to wash their garments (Leviticus 16:24,26 , 28). According to the Talmud, on the Day of Atonement the high priest immersed his whole person five times and washed his hands and feet ten times (Mishnah, Yoma, 3:3). (e ) A sufferer from an unclean issue to be clean required immersion of the whole person (Leviticus 15:16,18 ). (f ) Whoever touched a menstruous woman, or any article used by her, required immersion of the whole person (Leviticus 15:19-27 ). (g ) A native Israelite or a proselyte eating unclean flesh of a beast which had died of itself, or had been torn, became thereby unclean for a day, and was obliged to wash his whole body (Leviticus 17:15 ). (h ) The priest who tended the red heifer, itself intended as a rite of purification, became unclean for a day and was obliged to wash his whole body (Numbers 19:7,8 ). (i ) Whoever came into contact with a corpse or a grave was unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days he was sprinkled with water in which ashes from the burnt carcass of the red heifer had been dissolved. On the seventh day he washed his whole body and his garments in water and became clean (Numbers 19:19 ). (j ) Among the ceremonies at the installation of priests was the washing of the whole body (Exodus 29:4 , 40:12 ). (k ) The Levites were purified by having water of the sin-offering sprinkled upon them (Numbers 8:15 ). (l ) A menstruous woman requires immersion, as is shown by 2Samuel 11:2,4 , and the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 31:23 . Most of the above purifications, with the exception of the last, are in abeyance at the present time, it being impossible, in the judgment of rabbinical authorities, to observe them properly in the dispersion. The immersions for the sake of ritual purity at the festivals are, however, still observed by the pious. The Karaites follow all the laws of purity. The numerous sects of the Ḥ asidim are especially scrupulous in their ablutions. A Gentile wishing to become a proselyte must also immerse his whole body. This ceremony is, no doubt, historically allied to Baptism , which is thought by modern authorities to have originated among the Essenes , who were very scrupulous respecting ablutions, and in the observance of the rules of purity (see Lustration Sprinkling ).

The only priestly function still observed among Jews as a part of the public worship is the blessing of the people. On festivals and holy days, the descendants of Aaron pronounce upon the congregation the threefold benediction (Numbers 6:24-26 ). On this occasion the Levites pour out the water for the priests at the washing of hands, which takes place previous to the benediction, and for which a sitcher and basin, both usually of silver, are used. Levites, in consequence, often have on their tombstones lavers as heraldic symbols of their Levitic descent.

Bibliography : For older authorities see McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia Hamburger, Realencyklopä die fü r Bibel und Talmud , 1:145,872 Nowack, Biblische Archaeologie , 2:275-299 Samuel Spitzer, Ü ber Baden und Bä der bei den Alten Hebrä ern , 1884.B. D.

—Historical Presentation:

The rite of Ablution forms part of the system of purification practised at all times and in all lands by such as strive for holiness or for a communion with the Deity. It may have a twofold object: (1) the cleansing of the body from impurity, first in a physical sense, and then on a higher stage in a symbolical sense, and (2) the preparing of the body for a higher degree of holiness. Persons were not allowed to enter a holy place or to approach the Deity with sacrifice or prayer without having first performed the rite of Ablution or, as it is also called, sanctification (Exodus 19:10 1Samuel 16:5 2Chronicles 29:5 and Josephus, "Ant." 14:11, § 5, where we are told that the whole people purified themselves for the approaching festival compare Ta' anit, 19 b -20a ). The priests were especially enjoined to wash their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary or before officiating at the altar (Exodus 30:19 et seq. ). Similarly the priests in Egypt had to wash themselves twice every day and twice every night in cold— probably identical with living or flowing— water (Herod. 2:37) and the Greeks, we learn from Hesiod ("Opera et Dies," verse 722), were warned "never with unwashed hands to pour out the black wine at morn to Zeus or the other immortals" (compare Homer, "Iliad," 6:266 "Odyssey," 4:759). It is partly in view of this almost universal practise that the Psalmist says: "I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar" (Psalm 26:6 ), or "Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency" (Psalm 73:13 ) partly also in view of an especial rite prescribed (Deuteronomy 21:6 ) in the case of the commission of a murder by an unknown person, when the elders of the nearest city had to wash their hands over the blood of an expiatory heifer (parallels to which have been found in Vergil, "Æ neid," 2:217, and scholiast on Sophocles' "Ajax," 664, in 1:80 of the London edition 1758). "Clean hands" became synonymous with hands free from guilt (see Psalm 18:20 , 24:4 Job 9:30 ).

Following the custom of the priests, the pious Israelite bathed, or at least washed his hands, every morning before prayer. Thus the God-fearing Jews are represented in Sibylline Books, 3:591-593 as "such who, rising from their bed early in the morning, wash their hands in water to lift them ever pure to heaven in prayer." The same is related of Judith (Judith 12:7 ), and of the seventy-two elders who are said to have translated the Scriptures for Ptolemy we are told, in the Letter of Aristeas, 305, that, in accordance with Jewish custom, they washed their hands in the sea every morning before offering their prayers. For this reason it became "a tradition of the fathers to build houses of worship near the water" (see the decree of Halicarnassus in Josephus, "Ant." 14:10, § 23 and Acts of the Apostles, 16:13).

So fixed became this custom of washing the hands before divine service that the Christian Church adopted the Jewish custom of providing the worshipers with fountains or basins of water (see Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl." 10:4,40), exactly as the Temple, or Tabernacle, had the laver, or the molten sea, for the use of the priests (Exodus 30:18 2Chronicles 4:2,6 ). The rabbis instituted a special benediction to be recited every morning: "Blessed be Thou O Lord, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy laws and commanded us to wash the hands" (Ber. 60b ). Some erroneously derive the term used for washing, "neṭ ilat yadayim " (lifting up of the hands) from natla = Greek α ν τ λ ί ο ν (B. B. 58 b see S. Frä nkel, "Aramä ische Fremdwö rter im Arabischen," p. 65), the name for the jar of water used (Ḥ ul. 107 a ) others, from the prescribed manner of pouring the water upon the up-lifted hands until it reached up to the wrist (pereḳ ) —Yad. 2:3 Tosef., Yad. 2:2 Soṭ ah, 4b — but it seems rather to be taken from Psalm 134:2 , "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord!" referred in Targ. Yer. to the officiating priests. The Apostolic Constitutions, 8:32, also have the rule, "Let all the faithful, whether men or women, when they rise from sleep, before they go to work, pray, after having washed themselves" (ν ι ψ ά μ ε ν ο ι = "washed their hands").

Ablution among Mohammedans.
Among the Mohammedans the ablution preparatory to prayer, called waẓ ú , becomes far more burdensome because it is required five times a day— before each of the stated prayers, before touching the holy Koran, and after every ritual defilement and the washing of each hand and part of the face is accompanied by prayer: "O believers, when ye prepare yourselves for prayer wash your faces and hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles" (Koran, sura 5:8). In all the principal mosques there are tanks or wells, which supply water for the rites of Ablution (T. P. Hughes, "Dictionary of Islam" s.v. "Ablution").

In the Mishnaic Time.
With the Jews, Ablution was also required before each meal, inasmuch as the participation in the meal by the members of the Pharisean brotherhood was to assume the same character as the sacrificial or sacred meal, of which the priest could partake only after having undergone the rite of Ablution and the name of God had to be pronounced over it, as was done over the sacrifice (1Samuel 9:13 , 16:5 ). According to rabbinical tradition, King Solomon, the builder of the Temple with its molten sea, instituted the practise (Shab. 14b ' Er. 21 b ). The twofold injunction, "Sanctify yourselves and be ye holy" (Leviticus 20:7 ), was interpreted as commanding a twofold Ablution, the second being in preparation for the grace after meals (Ber. 53b see 43 b , 46b ). Edersheim ("Life of Jesus," 2:11) erroneously identifies the mayim rishonim and mayim aḥ aronim with the rishonot and sheniyot of Yadayim, and says: "The ' first waters' were poured upon the uplifted hands to remove the defilement, and if the water did not reach up to the wrist the hands were not clean while the ' second waters' were to wash away the water that had absorbed the defilement. These pourings preceded the grace before meals and to this reference is made in Mark 7:3 : ' The Pharisees and all the Jews eat not except they wash their hands to the wrist' " (π υ γ μ ῆ A. V. ' often' reads as if = π υ κ ν ἁ ). In the Mishnaic time only the ablution after the meal is spoken of by the Hillelites and Shammaites (Ber. 3:1). The washing of the hands after the meal— originally a sanctification before saying grace— soon fell into desuetude. In vain the Amoraim contended that this duty was superior to the ablution preceding the meal (Yoma, 83 b Ḥ ul. 106 a ). Later rationalists explained the custom away, as having arisen from the danger of wiping the eyes with fingers on which the salt of Sodom, used in the food, might have remained, and therefore declared it antiquated (Tosef., Ber. 53b Alfasi, Ber. 48 b "Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥ ayyim," § 181,10). Akiba, when in prison, deprived himself of the water given him to quench his thirst rather than neglect the rite of Ablution (' Er. 21 b ) and according to the Mishnah the people at large might only in extreme cases, as on a battle-field, dispense with the rite (' Er. 1:10, p. 17a ). According to one of the Amoraim, the eating of bread with unwashed and undried hands is eating unclean bread, or is tantamount to committing an act of unchastity according to others it leads to sudden destruction or poverty (Soṭ ah, 4b Shab. 62 b ). Still Rab says (Ḥ ul. 106b ), "One may perform the rite of Ablution in the morning and take care that it should apply to the meals of the whole day." Anomalous as this teaching of an amora may seem, it was probably the same for which Eleazar b. Ḥ anok was long before excommunicated, as undermining the authority of the elders (see ' Eduy. 5:6). A similar opposition was shown by Simeon the Essene (ha-Ẓ enu' a = "the Saint"), Tosef., Kelim, B. Ḳ . 1:6, who entered the holy place without having washed his hands and feet, claiming a greater degree of holiness for himself than the high priest because of his ascetic life.

This seems to cast new light on the attitude of Jesus toward the rabbinical law of Ablution. According to Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 , Pharisees and scribes that had come from Jerusalem had seen some of the disciples eat their bread with profane (ḥ ullin ), that is, unwashed, hands: for, says Mark, the Pharisees and all the Jews, unless they wash their hands up to the wrist (see Edersheim, l.c. ), eat not, holding fast to the tradition of the elders and when they come from the market-place, except they have first sprinkled themselves, they eat not. The Pharisees and the scribes ask Jesus: "Why walk not thy disciples according to the traditions of the elders, but eat their bread with profane hands?" And he answers them: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you Pharisees (hypocrites), ' This people draw nigh with their mouth, and with their lips they honor me but their heart is far from me and their fear of me is a precept of men learned by rote' (Isaiah 29:13 , Masoretic text). Ye leave the commandment of God and hold fast to the tradition of men" (compare the rabbinical phrase . B. M. 30b ). What follows in Mark, or precedes in Matthew, has no bearing on the question of Ablution and is the outcome of Pauline antinomianism. Another record is that of Luke 11:37-41 : "Now as he spake, a Pharisee asked him to breakfast with him, and he went in and sat down to meat. And as the Pharisee saw this he marveled that he had not bathed [ἐ β α π τ ί σ θ η ] before breakfasting. And Jesus said unto him: ' Now ye Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the platter, but your inward part is full of extortion and wickedness. Ye foolish ones, did not He that made the outside make the inside also? However, give the things that are within over to righteousness [, not alms], and behold all things are clean unto you.' "

In the course of time it became customary to pour water three times upon the hands to cleanse them from impurity and in a Baraita (Shab. 109a ) the opinion is expressed by R. Nathan, that the spirit of impurity, resting upon man during the night, will not leave him until he has poured water three times upon his hands. The cabalists go still further, and maintain that man incurs the penalty of death if he walks a distance of four yards from his bed without Ablution (Meir ibn Gabbai in his "Tola' at Ya' aḳ ob" see "Shulḥ an ' Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥ ayyim," 4:1,2, and Magen Abraham). So too a passage in the Zohar ("Wayishlaḥ ," p. 387) says: "Whosoever sleepeth at night in his bed tasteth of death, for his soul leaveth him for the nonce. Being thus bereft of its soul, an unclean spirit possesseth his body and defileth it. Wherefore I say, let no man pass his [unwashed] hand over his eyes in the morning, by reason of the unclean spirit which resteth on it." The hygienic intent of these prescriptions is manifest. K.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Ablution'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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