Ritual Cleanliness


While many Torah topics are pleasant and intellectually stimulating, some are unpleasant and at times a little uncomfortable to speak about. In our modern society few topics are as uncomfortable as bodily fluids and death. This article will be about the Torah’s rules regarding both. There are many interesting aspects of this topic to explore, but I will write on those that more commonly impact our daily lives.

The Purpose of Cleanliness

Why does the Torah (Five Books of Moses) have rules about cleanliness? Clean for what?

Why? It is a fundamental truth that blood, bodily fluids, and corpses are filthy and can transmit disease. In Judaism and Hinduism there are rules about cleanliness, these practices go back to the ancient world. Click here to learn more about purity practices in other belief systems. The Torah’s rules regarding ritual cleanliness are intended to preserve our health and to maintain healthy life practices. They are not purely about health and neither are they merely related to Temple practices as our Rabbinical brethren contend.

The Torah includes frequent mention of how people and certain objects (kelim) become “impure,” (tameh) through contact with some unclean substance or thing, and the process for making them clean (tahor) again. These laws have many uses and benefits, as science has now discovered. One of the main purposes of these laws, however, seems to be to help separate the Israelites from the abominable practices of foreign peoples, especially the Canaanites. The Torah’s laws of reproductive decency are stated quite specifically that it is intended to separate Israelites from the most egregious ancient pagan practices. These laws are very relevant to our modern lives in continuing to pursue healthy lifestyles and in remaining separate from the base practices of surrounding societies.

If a person becomes “impure” they must wash themselves in “living” water (מַיִם חַיִּים – mayim chayim), approximately potable water. They must change their garments (which must be similarly cleaned) and they must avoid contact with “impure” or “unclean” people and objects. At sunset they become “pure.” These laws also reflect an effort to prevent bacterial infections and disease in general. Ritual purity is about more than just physical cleanliness but also extends into the behavioral realm. In avoiding uncleanliness we will naturally behave differently in order to remain clean. The observance of these laws can be complex and at times difficult, but ultimately rewarding. While Rabbinical law requires a mikveh (shown in the featured image) in order to wash, in Karaite Judaism other methods of cleansing are acceptable including a shower.

Karaite vs Rabbinical Interpretations

Rabbinical Jews generally ignore the laws of ritual purity and may be curious why the topic is even raised here. Details of Karaite tradition will be provided from the Mikdash Me’at (Diminished Sanctuary), a translation and commentary by Tomer Mangoubi based upon the Karaite book Aderet Eliyahu. Aderet Eliyahu was originally written by Hakham Eliyahu ben Moshe Bashyatzi, who lived in 15th Century Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). Click here to learn more, see Section 16 on Impurity.


*Note that the author cites Vayikra 15:21 this verse is actually numbered 15:31, which is quoted later in this article.

Sources of Impurity

Uncleanliness can come from many sources: death, certain bodily fluids including blood, and animal carcasses. In Karaite tradition Kashrut (dietary laws) and holiness are also connected to ritual purity, as will be described below. In the case of some impurities, an individual must clean themselves and will then become clean at sunset. In a few cases, impurities can last for seven days, the duration of an illness, or as long as 80 days. Click here for another list of impurities.

Uncleanliness of Death – Tumat Met




Menstruation – Niddah

The details of the Niddah, Zav, and Zavah can be found in Vayikra (Leviticus) Chapter 15.


Vayikra (Leviticus) 15:19-24 states that anyone who touches the woman or anything she lies or sits upon will be impure. In a modern context where feminine products and frequent, thorough hand-washing takes place, it is also possible for a woman to go about her business during her Niddah. During the separation a husband and wife (or any couple) may not sleep in the same bed. Karaite tradition holds that they may not even sleep in the same room. A woman in Niddah should avoid touching others to the greatest extent possible.

 Child Birth – Tazria

Tazria is discussed in the parsha which bears its name, which begins with Vayikra Chapter 12.

678When a woman gives birth to a male child from the day of the birth she enters a state of Yoledet, this begins with a seven day period of Niddah (separation) specific to childbirth. After this she enters a state of blood impurity for 33 days. During this time (40 days in total) she may not share her bed (or room) with her husband. Modern doctors typically recommend avoiding marital relations for about six to seven weeks after the birth of a child; those who observe the Torah properly have been doing this for millennia. Although a woman in this state may not enter the sanctuary of a synagogue she may enter a synagogue hall or other public gathering place on the eighth day for her son’s B’rit Milah (circumcision). The Torah offers no explanation as to why the Niddah and blood separation are doubled, from a total of 40 to 80 days, for the birth of a girl.

Irregular Emissions Male – Zav

What is a zav/zavah? Well, we know already the flows from a woman that constitute the Niddah and those associated with Tazaria. With a man the Zera, the emission of semen, is also described. Urination is a regular matter and is not discussed here. So what precisely is a zav/zavah? Anything else: an irregular or unexpected flow. Any puss, fluids, bleeding, kidney stones, bloody show, a miscarriage, or other discharge not otherwise provided for, but not including indications of ovulation or conception. In other words, it includes signs of ill health that must be addressed. The individual in question must be separated from others so as to prevent the spread of the illness or other ill effects. In the case of a man anything that causes a blockage is considered a zav, whether it flows out or not. Aderet Eliyahu defines zav more narrowly:


2Vayikra chapter 15 begins by describing a zav for a man. The Rabbinical sages claim that the true meaning of zav/zavah has been lost. In truth, the passage makes the meaning of zav perfectly clear to anyone who reads it: a zav/zavah is an irregular emission from a reproductive organ. Puss, blood, kidney stones, or anything else would be considered irregular. Obviously, blood, puss, and such are highly infectious and can spread disease. Therefore, a person having such emissions must be declared unclean, must avoid contact with others, and must seek healing. If a man with a zav so much as spits on another person, that person is unclean.

When the irregular flow ceases, the man remains unclean for seven days and must wash everything he has had contact with or which has contact with the emission and during these seven days. The infection might return suddenly so this seven day period helps to ensure that he has healed and is healthy. At the close of this uncleanness, the man must take an offering to the Cohanim (priests), this indicates that is an irregular happening that is unexpected. One cannot be expected to make an offering every day.

Semen – Zera

9Karaite tradition, as articulated in the Mikdash Me’at above, holds that semen is unclean due primarily to the passages of Vayikra 15:16-18. This is understood to be an uncleanliness mostly related to ritual practice. While the individuals, the clothing and bedding, and anything that has direct contact with the semen are unclean, the individuals cannot transmit their uncleanliness through contact. It is understood that reproductive behavior is generally a good thing in all forms of Judaism. Karaite Halakha also holds that reproductive behavior is necessary to a marriage and the refusal of a spouse to provide it can be grounds for divorce. Nevertheless, under the traditional construct, the behavior is seen as causing a minor impurity. The tradition holds that reproductive behavior causes one to become unclean is based upon the emission of seamen (zera).

I do not concur with this halakhic approach. Vayikra 22 addresses this matter again in stating in verse 4 that a descendant of Aharon (a Cohen) may not eat of the holy offerings of he has a tsara (skin disorder or leprosy), if they have touched a person who has had contact with the dead, or one from whom a zera (seamen) went out. These two passages taken together seem to imply that it is a voluntary or involuntary external emission of seamen that makes an individual unclean. This does not make intercourse unclean in that the emission is internal and there is no external contact with the fluid. Nevertheless, as a precaution, a man going to eat the holy things or to the Temple service should observe the tradition and not engage in reproductive behavior because there is a chance that there could be contact with seamen.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:11 refers to a man in a military encampment who is unclean because of an unintended emission at night. The traditional Karaite view is that this refers to nocturnal emissions of semen, the unintentional emission during the night.

In Shemot (Exodus) 19:15 Moshe tells the Israelites that as they are about to hear from Hashem in the morning, they should not go near a woman. There are two possible reasons for this: a woman might enter niddah that night causing the man to become unclean; or if they engage in reproductive behavior in which case there is some chance he might have external contact with seamen. As a precaution against both, Moshe called for the men to remain clean before hearing the words of Hashem by remaining away from any possibility of uncleanness. This tradition cannot, in my opinion, extend beyond the Temple service. The Karaite tradition that takes the synagogue as a metaphor for the Temple may go too far in this case. The prohibition of reproductive behavior on Shabbat may also be unnecessary.  Nevertheless, these are the traditions of Karaite Judaism and we ask anyone who wishes to visit the synagogue to observe them.

Irregular Emissions Female – Zavah



Schistosomiasis and the Zav/ah

Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by parasites in fresh water. The parasites incubate in fresh water snails then find mammalian hosts to infest. The parasites grow into flatworms most commonly in the liver. They cause, among other symptoms, bloody stools and bloody emissions from the urinary tract. The bloody emissions include the eggs from the flatworms which then enter fresh water and infest snails. The disease was so common in Egypt, at one time, it was treated as a normal biological cycle, a kind of “male menstruation.” This disease was common in Egypt and the Middle East millennia ago. It is quite possible the laws of the zav relate to this disease. Schistosomiasis infects nearly a quarter billion people each year around the world today; mostly in developing countries. Even if these laws may be directed at this particular disease, any bloody or irregular emission from the urinary tract or reproductive organs must be regarded as a zav or zavah.



Open Sores

If one has an open sore with puss they are unclean until the sore has sealed and healed. When the sore has healed, the individual must wash and change their clothing, and wash any item that may have had contact with the sore. As with the zav/zavah, seven days must pass without any emission or evidence of sores or illness before the individual can be considered clean. The Tsarat, often called leprosy in translation, was a skin ailment known to be a punishment from Hashem for misdeeds. Likewise, clothing, bedding, and any object that touches the person or any emission from the individual are unclean and must be washed in water. These laws can be found in Bemidbar (Numbers) Chapter 19.

Military Encampments

The laws of the encampment are described in Devarim (Deutronomy) 23:10-15.

When the Israelite Army, a righteous army, gathers and encamps, the camp must be kept clean. Latrines must be dug outside the camp (Devarim 23:14), for example, and the men should remain ritually clean. From this Jewish tradition has been that human excrement must be kept away from human settlement. Modern bathrooms and plumbing satisfy this need.

Dietary Laws, Holiness, and Ritual Cleanliness

Another excerpt from Tomer Mangoubi’s Mikdash Me’at regarding dietary laws verses Rabbinical practices.


Karaite tradition draws dietary laws into the realm of ritual purity and ties these together with the collective holiness of the nation.

Unclean Objects – Kelim


Rabbinical Practices

Devarim 4:2 states that we may neither add to nor subtract from the commandments. I have detailed elsewhere commandments wholly invented by the Rabbis in Hashem’s name; in the area of cleanliness and purity the Rabbis subtract from the Torah by means of legal subterfuge. They interpret Vayikra 15:31 to say that these laws are only attached to the Temple and do not apply in its absence.

“Thus shall you separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile My Mishkan (Tabernacle) that is in the midst of them.”

Does this passage obviate the laws of ritual purity? If so, why should anyone continue to recognize the Niddah or Zavah? Why has ritual purity in Rabbinical Judaism become a matter neatly contained to the uncleanliness of women? Ritual purity should not be an engine for misogyny, it applies equally to men and women.

The Talmud undermines the law also in offering inappropriate detail so as to limit the law’s application. In some cases, they will render details not at all based upon what is written, for example what colour certain kinds of flow must be. In Talmudic law, the flows of a Niddah must be red, for example. While menstrual discharges are commonly red, this is not the only means of determining menstruation. The Rabbis also argue that there is no commandment to be clean, although they themselves wash before major holidays. That these laws are even included in the Torah and that the uncleanliness statutes relate to irregular occurrences strongly implies that Israelites were expected to remain generally clean, and not just because of the Temple.

The Rabbinical claim that they do not know for certain what zav/zavah means is also troublesome. In Rabbinical practice, each month a women remains separated from her husband for the duration of menstruation and for seven days after the flow has ceased. Again, there is no basis for such a practice in what is written and no authority is ever granted to any corporeal Israelite authorized to issue such a judgment. This practice is wholly based upon the opinions and judgments of men with no authority under Torah.

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