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Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

 

Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism

Concerning Ritual Purity and Cleanliness

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

7.  Ritual Impurity and Food

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

(Editor’s note: This page discusses food and ritual purity and impurity. There is no prohibition against consuming ordinary food that is ritually impure. The topic of food that is permitted or not permitted for eating is discussed in a separate section of this website on the Laws of Judaism Concerning Food.

 

While there are numerous laws concerning ritual purity in Judaism, only certain specific practices based on these laws are observed today, as explained in the Introduction to this section. Ritual purity laws whose procedures are still followed today are so noted in our summaries.)

 

The carcass of a creeping animal is a source of impurity. Such animals include the weasel, the mouse, the lizard (or tortoise), the gecko and the chameleon.[1] (Editor’s note: The names of these creeping animals vary from translation to translation because their identities are not completely known.) When the carcass of any of these creeping things falls on an object, whether it is something made of wood or skin or is clothing or a sack, if it is useful then it is to be put in water and it will be impure until evening, at which time it will be pure again.[2] Whatever such a carcass falls upon becomes impure. An oven or stove becomes impure in this way and must be broken into pieces.[3] Exceptions, which remain pure when a carcass of a creeping animal fall onto them, are a spring, a cistern with water[4] and a dry seed to be planted;[5] if the seed has water on it then it becomes impure when any part of the carcass falls upon it.[6] If the carcass falls on an earthenware vessel, then everything in that vessel is rendered impure and the vessel is to be broken.[7] Any liquid that can be drunk becomes impure. If water comes on any food that may be eaten, that food becomes impure.[8] (Editor’s note: The meaning of this last sentence, taken from Leviticus 11:34, varies from translation to translation. Some say that it refers to water coming on food in the earthenware container into which the dead creeping animal has fallen. Others say it refers to water from such an earthenware container getting onto any food that may be eaten or to water coming onto food that then is in contact with a carcass of a creeping animal. This is the Torah commandment which Maimonides cites in saying that all foods or drink can become impure.[9] Maimonides specifically cites the necessity of a seed being wet before the carcass of the forbidden animal can cause it to become impure (Leviticus 11:37-38) as the basis for the rule that only foods that are made wet by one of seven particular liquids are susceptible to becoming impure. This rule is discussed below.)

 

 

Ritual Impurity and Food

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

CONTENTS

Susceptibility and impurity of food

Transfer of food impurity

Purifying impure food

Heave offering and other food offerings.

 

(Editor’s note: We use the words “clean” and “unclean” to refer to animal species that are permitted or forbidden for eating, as does the Yale translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The Moznaim translation uses the words kosher and non-kosher to refer to types of animals that are permitted or forbidden for eating. While these words, clean and unclean, are used in the Moznaim and Yale translations of the Mishneh Torah to refer to ritual states of purity and impurity of people or things, we describe these as being “pure” or “impure” or, occasionally for more clarity, as “ritually pure” or “ritually impure.” Such ritual impurity can often be transmitted by contact. Food that is forbidden for eating may be ritually pure.[10])

 

Susceptibility and impurity of food. All foods and liquids intended for human consumption may become ritually impure.[11] (Maimonides here cites Leviticus 11:34, discussed on this page above.)

 

A food can only become impure if it is first made wet by one of seven specified liquids – water, dew, oil, wine, milk, blood or honey – and susceptibility to becoming impure occurs only if the wetting of the food happens with the approval of the owner.[12] The susceptibility of food to impurity by being in contact with any of the seven liquids is known only by tradition; it is the traditional interpretation of the Torah passage (Leviticus 11:38), cited on this page above, about a seed becoming wet.[13]

 

For this purpose, water includes human urine as well as liquids emanating from a person's eye, ear, nose or mouth.[14] Blood here includes blood taken from a man for purposes of being used as a drink but not blood let for healing purposes.[15] Blood coming out from an animal being slaughtered makes the flesh of the animal susceptible to impurity. If no blood comes out, then some other liquid is necessary before the animal becomes susceptible.[16] However, blood from animals sacrificed in the Temple (in Jerusalem), which are Hallowed Things, is always pure and does not make the animal susceptible to impurity.[17] Milk from a woman makes a food susceptible to becoming impure but milk from a man does not.[18]

 

A food becomes impure without first being made susceptible if it comes in contact with a liquid that is a Father of Impurity, including, the discharge, urine or semen from a man with irregular genital flow and the blood of a corpse or menstruating woman. These liquids render what they touch impure even if there is no intention of contact.[19] Neither human sweat nor feces transfers impurity or makes food susceptible to impurity.[20]

 

In order to make a food susceptible to becoming impure, the owner of the food must freely consent to its becoming wet with one of the seven specified liquids. If this is done out of fear or for some other purpose, then the food does not become susceptible. For example, if the owner puts the food in water to hide it from thieves or in a stream for the purpose of transporting it, then the food does not become susceptible to impurity.[21] If the owner of the food puts it on a roof so that maggots will not infest it and the food becomes wet with dew, it is still not susceptible to impurity unless it was the intention of the owner for the food to become wet.[22]

 

Anything which is presumed to have been made susceptible to impurity is also assumed to be actually impure. This is because any person may have touched it while it was susceptible.[23] Fish are assumed to be susceptible to impurity and, therefore, also impure.[24] Fruit is assumed to be pure unless it is known to have been made susceptible to becoming impure.[25] Food on a plant can only be made susceptible to becoming impure if the plant is out of the ground.[26]

 

A part of an animal, bird or fish that is food can only become impure after the animal is dead.[27] Impurity of and from the flesh of animals has been discussed on the previous page, Ritual Purity and Animals.

 

Transfer of food impurity. Impure food transfers impurity to another food or to any liquid that it touches.[28] Transfer of impurity from food to food cannot occur more than three times in sequence, while transfer of impurity from liquid to liquid is unlimited and can happen any number of times in succession.[29] A food or vessel that is touched by an impure liquid becomes impure, but a vessel that touches an impure food does not.[30]

 

Eating ritually impure food or drinking an impure liquid makes a person impure until he ritually immerses himself in water.[31] However, a pregnant woman who eats ritually impure food because of her condition does not become impure.[32]

 

A person who is impure because of eating ritually impure food or drinking ritually impure liquid makes any food or liquid he touches impure. Such a liquid then will make any food or liquid it touches, but not useful objects, impure.[33] A ritually impure person who has immersed himself but is still awaiting sunset (when his impurity will be lifted) will transfer impurity by touch to foods and liquids that are heave offerings or Hallowed Things, but not to ordinary foods.[34] (Transfer of ritual impurity to heave offering and other food offerings is discussed on this page below.)

 

Wine poured out as a libation to an idol transfers impurity to people or useful objects susceptible to impurity by touching and also to a person who carries such wine even without touching it. Other non-Jewish wine transfers impurity like any other impure liquid.[35] (The rules concerning what wine may be consumed and what wine may not be consumed are discussed in a separate page on this website, “Laws of Judaism Concerning Food/13. Idol-Worshippers, Non-Jews and Food.”)

 

Purifying impure food.  A food or drink that has become so spoiled that it is not suitable for human consumption cannot become ritually impure.[36] A food that has become impure cannot become pure by immersion. However, if it becomes so spoiled that it is not fit for a dog to eat, then it becomes pure.[37] A ritually impure liquid cannot become pure, either by immersion or by becoming putrid. The exception is ritually impure water, which can be made pure by immersion in an immersion pool (mikvah).[38]

 

Heave offering and other food offerings.  (Editor’s note: Tithes, heave offerings, etc., are discussed in a separate page of this website, “Laws of Judaism Concerning Food/14. Offerings of Food.” Some of the relevant laws concerning purity and impurity are presented here.)

 

One-fiftieth of the crops and fruits produced each year was required to be given to the priests; this is the great heave offering.[39] Heave offerings and heave offerings of the tithe, are to be given to the priests (meaning those who trace their descent through their male ancestors back to Aaron, the brother of Moses) whether the offering is ritually pure or impure. Heave offering may be eaten by the priests if it is ritually pure. Impure heave offering and heave offering of the tithe may be burned for the benefit of the priests, such as for light or for cooking.[40] Today all heave offering is burned because of ritual impurity.[41]

 

Only those male and female descendants of Aaron (the priestly family) who are in a state of ritual purity may eat heave offering. Commoners (not of the priestly family) or ritually impure persons (based on the Torah at Leviticus 22:4) who eat a pure heave offering are subject to death at the hand of heaven, which entails a flogging.[42] A ritually impure person must wait until the appearance of three stars after sunset to eat a heave offering.[43]

 

A ritually impure person who has immersed himself but is still awaiting sunset (when his impurity will be lifted) will transfer impurity by touch to foods and liquids that are heave offerings or Hallowed Things, but not to ordinary foods.[44] If such a person touches first tithe, it does not become impure and heave offering of the tithe may still be taken from it. Similarly, a ritually impure woman who has immersed herself in an immersion pool (mikvah) and is still awaiting sunset may take the dough offering from dough she is kneading.[45] Hallowed Things in relation to impure foods and liquids are offerings made at the Temple.[46]

 

Dry foods that have not been made susceptible to impurity may be eaten without washing one's hands. However, Hallowed Things are susceptible to becoming impure because of the reverence they deserve, and may not be eaten by a person with unwashed hands.[47]

 

If a ritually pure priest who is consuming a heave offering is about to become impure by the discharge of semen, he must hold his penis firmly (to prevent the discharge) and swallow the heave offering quickly.[48] A man who has been riding a camel must wait until he has been purified by immersion in water and waiting until sunset before consuming a heave offering since the warmth from the camel’s bare hide may have induced the emission of semen.[49] After having sexual intercourse followed by immersion in water and waiting until evening, a woman may eat of heave offering only if she did not turn herself over during the intercourse. Otherwise, she must wait three days before eating heave offering.[50] (Turning herself over to avoid pregnancy by making the semen flow out of her vagina[51] makes the woman ritually impure for two days due to contact of the discharged semen with her external skin, as has been discussed.) A male too young to emit semen or a female too young to have menstruated can eat heave offerings without being examined for discharges of semen or menstrual blood.[52]

 

First tithe, unlike a heave offering, may be consumed by a person, even a commoner, who is in a ritually impure state.[53]

 

Second tithe is to be eaten only in Jerusalem and only when the Temple is standing.[54] The punishment for eating unredeemed second tithe in Jerusalem while a person or the second tithe is impure is flogging; a ritually impure person eating second tithe outside of Jerusalem is liable to a flogging for disobedience.[55]

 

________________

 

Laws of Religion is a project of the Religion Research Society.

 

Updated October 9, 2012

 

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Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here. (Book 10, the Book of Cleanness, has not been published by Moznaim.)

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Lev 11:29-31, Lev 11:40-44

[2] Lev 11:32

[3] Lev 11:35

[4] Lev 11:36

[5] Lev 11:37

[6] Lev 11:38

[7] Lev 11:33

[8] Lev 11:34

[9] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 7, sec 1 (page 278Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Note (page 332Y)

[10] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 2, sec 10 (pages 262-263Y)

[11] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 1, sec 1 (page 333Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 7, sec 1 (page 278Y)

[12] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 1, secs 1-2 (page 333Y); described in great detail in MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapters XI-XV (pages 372-390Y)

[13] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 12, sec 1 (pages 377-378Y)

[14] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 2 (page 368Y)

[15] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 3 (pages 368-369Y)

[16] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 7 (page 337Y)

[17] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 16 (page 371Y)

[18] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 4 (page 369Y)

[19] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 5 (page 369Y)

[20] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 10, sec 7 (page 370Y)

[21] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 12, sec 2 (page 378Y)

[22] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 14, sec 2 (page 385Y)

[23] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 16, sec 2 (pages 390-391Y)

[24] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 16, sec 3 (page 391Y)

[25] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 16, sec 6 (page 392Y)

[26] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 8 (page 338Y)

[27] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 6 (page 337Y)

[28] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 7, sec 1 (page 278Y)

[29] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 7, sec 5 (pages 279-280Y)

[30] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 7, sec 1 (page 278Y)

[31] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 8, sec 10 (page 283Y)

[32] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 8, sec 13 (page 284Y)

[33] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 8, sec 10 (page 283Y)

[34] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 10, sec 3 (pages 288-289Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 7, sec 7 (page 358Y)

[35] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 6, sec 8 (page 275Y)

[36] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 14 (pages 338-339Y)

[37] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 18 (page 339Y)

[38] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 2, sec 21 (pages 339-340Y)

[39] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 2 on Gifts to the Poor, Matnot Aniyim; Chapter 6, sec 2 (pages 154M 73Y) 

[40] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 2, secs 14-15 (pages 224M 109Y)

[41] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 3, sec 1 (pages 224-226M 110Y)

[42] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 6, sec 6 (pages 272M 131Y); Chapter 7, sec 1 (pages 278M 134-135Y)

[43] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 7, sec 2 (pages 278M 135Y)

[44] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 10, sec 3 (pages 288-289Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 7, sec 7 (page 358Y)

[45] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 6 on Uncleanness of Foodstuffs, Chapter 8, sec 17 (pages 362-363Y)

[46] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 11, sec 13 (page 295Y) and note to this section (page 580Y)

[47] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Treatise 5 on Other Fathers of Uncleanness, Chapter 12, sec 13 (page 299Y)

[48] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 7, sec 4 (pages 280M 135Y)

[49] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 7, sec 6 (pages 280M 135Y)

[50] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 7, sec 7 (pages 280-282M 136Y) and Note to this section in Yale translation (page 452Y)

[51] MT Book 4, The Book of Women, Sefer Nashim; Treatise 1 on Marriage, Ishut; Chapter 14, sec 5 (pages 172M 88Y)

[52] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 3 on Heave Offerings, Terumot; Chapter 7, sec 9 (pages 282M 136Y)

[53] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 4 on Tithe, Ma’aser; Chapter 1, sec 2 (pages 380M 185Y)

[54] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 5 on Second Tithe and Fourth Year’s Fruit, Ma’aser Sheni V’Neta Reva’i; Chapter 2, sec 1 (pages 510M 248Y)

[55] MT Book 7, The Book of Agriculture, Sefer Zeraim; Treatise 5 on Second Tithe and Fourth Year’s Fruit, Ma’aser Sheni V’Neta Reva’i; Chapter 3, sec 1 (pages 520M 252Y)