The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia
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As compared with the Greeks and Romans, the Hebrews paid little attention to the care of the body; and the bath was a rarity in a land where water was relatively scarce. It was important, therefore, that personal cleanliness should have a religious basis, and that the cult should ordain frequent ablutions. Thus, for example, the ancient custom of washing before meals may have had its origin in ritualistic requirements; and water was an important factor in the Hebrew cult as in all other Semitic religions. A partial explanation of this phenomenon lies in the fact that springs and rivers were often worshiped by the Semites either as gods or as the dwelling-places of divinities. To bathe or wash in such waters was, therefore, in itself a ritualistic act, although this should not be taken to imply that all water was holy, and it must also be borne in mind that one who wished to take part in a ritualistic act had first to be in a condition appropriate to it, or, in other words, had to be ritually clean.

The original meaning of this concept can not be discussed here; for many things conditioned "purity," just as there were many things which made one ritually defiled. First of all, however, bodily cleanliness was requisite; for one could no more come unclean into the presence of God than before the king. Consequently a man washed not only himself (Gen. xxxv. 2; Ex. xxx. 17 et seq.), but also his clothes (Ex. xix. 10 et seq.), while the camp of Israel, which was considered a holy place on account of the presence of Yhwh, was defiled by any pollution (Deut. xxiii. 10 et seq.). It thus becomes plain how ablutions developed into symbolistic purifications, especially from ritualistic defilements. It is sufficient in this connection to allude to the ritual uncleanness connected with certain physical pollutions, as with touching a corpse, a leper, or his house, or with sexual intercourse. From this standpoint of symbolic purification ablutions were prescribed, in the course of the development of the Law, for a number of impurities which, since they could easily be removed by washing, were characterized as slight, in contradistinction to those graver states of defilement which required sacrifice and the like. Thus, the clothing of a leper (Lev. xiii. 6, 34, 54-58), one who had been in a leper's house (Lev. xiv. 47), and the house itself (Lev. xiv. 52) were to be washed, while washing also removed the pollution resulting from sexual intercourse and the like. See also Ablution.

E. G. H. I. Be.
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