The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Jewish Purity Rites

February 6, 2017 | Yonatan Adler
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From the Bible, the Talmud, and various texts from the Second Temple period it is evident that ritual purity was a major concern of ancient Jews—as it is for many modern Jews. Only recently, however, has extensive physical evidence of this concern come to light, particularly in the form of the many ancient mikva’ot, or ritual baths, discovered by archaeologists. Yonatan Adler writes:

Most ritual baths were located in residential contexts, in the basement or ground floor of houses as well as in shared domestic courtyards. The phenomenon of ritual baths installed in private homes was prevalent across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, from simple dwellings in rural villages to lavish mansions such as those found in the upper city of Jerusalem and the royal palaces of the Hasmoneans and of Herod the Great. Numerous ritual baths have been found near entrances to the Temple Mount. . . . These were apparently public ritual baths intended for the use of the multitude of pilgrims who visited the Temple on the festivals and throughout the year and required purificatory immersion prior to entering the sacred realms of the Temple. . . .

Another important archaeological phenomenon that points to the observance of ritual-purity regulations is the widespread use of chalkstone vessels [for food]. The practice is based on the notion that stone is a material impervious to ritual impurity. . . . The status of vessels made of stone (such as grinding implements usually made of basalt or other hard rock) is nowhere apparent from [the Bible itself]. Throughout rabbinic literature, [however], we find the assumption that stone vessels cannot contract ritual impurity and, as such, never have any need for purification. . . .

During the early Roman period, various types of vessels made of chalkstone, serving as both domestic tableware and storage containers for food and liquids, were in widespread use at Jewish sites throughout Judea, supplementing the usual repertoire of ceramic vessels. These include hand-carved bowls, mugs, basins, and platters, as well as lathe-turned bowls, trays, goblets, stoppers, spice bowls, and inkwells.

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