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The Conflation of Purity and Prohibition: An Interpretation of Leviticus 18:19

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2014

Michael Rosenberg*
Hebrew College


In recent years, there has been a surge in the study of ritual impurity and its relationship to immorality (or, perhaps more accurately, prohibited activity) in biblical literature and early Judaism. Yet relatively scant attention has been paid to one of the most important topics pertaining to impurity—the menstrual laws of Leviticus (the laws of [niddah]) and their development in early Jewish texts. The niddah laws are uniquely important because they appear both in the context of ritual-impurity legislation (Leviticus 12 and Leviticus 15) and in the context of legislation concerning prohibited acts (Lev 18:19 and Lev 20:18). Or, to put it another way: biblical menstrual laws comprise both impurity and prohibition elements.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2014 

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1 The word “morality” and its various forms, commonly used in the scholarly works to be discussed here, creates unnecessary problems, since not all acts that are prohibited in a certain culture are necessarily understood by participants in that culture as being immoral per se. This is all the more so the case when the prohibitions in question are being viewed by participants in cultures distinct, wholly or in part, from the culture in which a text was produced. For example and of immediate relevance to this article: the act of sexual intercourse between a woman and a man while the woman is menstruating may not be understood as an immoral act by (many, if not most) modern readers of the biblical text, and there is little point for purposes of the argument here in trying to discern whether a contemporary reader of the biblical text would have considered such an action to be “immoral.” Thus, I will generally refer for the remainder of this article to the relationship between impurity and “prohibited activity,” rather than to “im/morality” or “ethics” (and similarly, the relationship between ritual impurity and “prohibition-based” impurity, rather than the more common “moral” impurity), even though the language of “immorality” is generally used in the scholarly literature discussed below.

2 See, for example: Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel,” in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday (ed. Meyers, Carol L. and O’Connor, M.; ASOR Special Volume Series 1; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983) 399414Google Scholar; Wright, David, “The Spectrum of Priestly Impurity,” in Priesthood and Cult in Ancient Israel (ed. Anderson, Gary A. and Olyan, Saul M.; JSOTSup 125; Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1991) 150–81Google Scholar; Maccoby, Hyam, Ritual and Morality: The Ritual Purity System and Its Place in Judaism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Klawans, Jonathan, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Himmelfarb, Martha, “Impurity and Sin in 4QD, 1QS, and 4Q512,” DSD 8 (2001) 937Google Scholar; Hayes, Christine, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kazen, Thomas, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (ConBNT 38; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2002)Google Scholar; Sklar, Jay, Sin, Impurity, Sacrifice, Atonement: The Priestly Conceptions (Hebrew Bible Monographs 2; Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2005)Google Scholar; Haber, Susan, They Shall Purify Themselves: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism (ed. Reinhartz, Adele; Early Judaism and its Literature 24; Atlanta: SBL, 2008Google Scholar); Meshel, Naphtali S., “Food for Thought: Systems of Categorization in Leviticus 11,” HTR 101 (2008) 203–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Noam, Vered, “The Dual Strategy of Rabbinic Purity Legislation,” JSJ 39 (2008) 471512Google Scholar; Kazen, Thomas, Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism (ConBNT 45; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010)Google Scholar; Michael Rosenberg, “‘I am Impure / I am Forbidden’: Purity and Prohibition as Distinct Legal Categories in the Laws of Niddah” (Ph.D. diss., Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011); Trevaskis, Leigh, Holiness, Ethics and Ritual in Leviticus (Hebrew Bible Monographs 29; Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011)Google Scholar.

3 Klawans does consider the menstrual laws briefly (Impurity, 105–8), but this discussion is relatively minimal, and most of it is focused on explaining why the menstrual laws receive greater attention in rabbinic literature than other impurity-related topics. Klawans does note that “there is one way in which the menstrual taboo differs from the other ritual impurities” in that a menstruating woman is not only “considered to be a severe source of ritual defilement in the Bible (Lev 15:24), but the act [of sexual intercourse during menstruation] is also explicitly prohibited (Lev 18:19; 20:18; ibid. 105–6).” However, he relates this fact only as a way of explaining rabbinic discussions of niddah as a relevant legal category, but not as significant for considering the relationship between impurity and prohibition in general. See also Himmelfarb's treatment of sexual prohibitions generally as “bridging” the ritual and ethical realms in “Impurity and Sin,” 12–13. My argument here in some ways expands on Himmelfarb's implications there.

4 See below for a more precise explanation of the bifurcation of purity in these scholars’ thinking.

5 Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Contraversions: Jews and Other Differences; Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

6 Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 1966)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 See Douglas's critiques of previous anthropological treatments of purity in scholars such as Eliade, Frazer, and Robertson-Smith: Purity and Danger, 7–28. For two critiques of Douglas's approach relevant to this article, see: Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism: The Haskell Lectures, 1972–1973 (Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 1; Leiden: Brill, 1973) and Klawans, Impurity, 7–10, the latter of which will be discussed below. See also Douglas's own critiques of Purity and Danger in Leviticus as Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), as well as the articles in vol. 8 of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, originally presented at the International Meeting of the SBL in July 2007.

8 Douglas, Purity and Danger, 133.

9 See, for example, Maccoby, Ritual and Morality, and Himmelfarb, “Sin and Impurity,” 13 (the latter with regard only to P, but not to H).

10 Büchler, Adolph, Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1928)Google Scholar.

11 Frymer-Kensky, “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation”; Wright, “Spectrum.”

12 Klawans, Impurity, 22–26.

13 Ibid., 22.

14 Ibid., 27–31.

15 Douglas, Purity and Danger, 129–39.

16 Klawans, Impurity, 11. In particular, see Klawans's exceptionally clear description of the debate between Neusner and Douglas, and why Klawans thinks that both fail to account adequately for the various biblical materials.

17 Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, 207, as well as Kazen, Issues of Impurity, 16. In fact, though we do not see explicit language to mark the distinction between ritual and moral law in biblical or early rabbinic literature, I show in my dissertation that Babylonian rabbis dating from the second half of the Amoraic period (i.e., roughly 300 c.e. and later) in fact do make explicit distinctions between these two realms of law, at least with regard to the laws relating to menstruation (Rosenberg, “I Am Impure”). Thus, though Kazen is right in pointing out that this self-awareness is not expressed in biblical and early rabbinic literature, it is also not a uniquely modern way of thinking about the question.

18 Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, 210.

19 In a sense, Kazen's argument is similar to that of Douglas, insofar as both view impurity as a unified idea that is consistent throughout all of its appearances. But whereas Douglas uses anthropological tools to arrive at such a description, Kazen is motivated primarily by linguistic concerns.

20 See, however, Himmelfarb's brief analysis of Lev 20:21, attributed to her student Lauren Eichler Berkun, in “Impurity and Sin,” 12.

21 The verse is very difficult to translate, due to the unclear antecedent of the Hebrew (hu’). See Jacob Milgrom's commentary, in which Milgrom provides five possible interpretations of the verse (Leviticus: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary [3 vols.; AB 3, 3A, 3B; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991] 1:938–40).

22 Translations of all biblical texts in this article are taken from Milgrom, Leviticus.

23 Much has been written about the chiastic structure of this chapter and its possible implications. See, for example: Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:904–5; Wenham, Gordon J., The Book of Leviticus (NICOT 3; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979) 216–17Google Scholar; Whitekettle, Richard, “Leviticus 15:18 Reconsidered: Chiasm, Spatial Structure and the Body,” JSOT 49 (1991) 3145Google Scholar.

24 I am using “normal” here as something opposed to the kind of bleeding or uterine shedding described in v. 25, as I describe in the following sentences.

25 Knohl, Israel, Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995Google Scholar; repr., Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2007) 69–70. Page numbers taken from the reprinted edition. See also Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:946–47.

26 This ambiguity is reflected in scholarly discussions of the meaning of this word. Jacob Milgrom points out that the word takes on three different meanings in the Bible: menstrual impurity, impurity in general, and lustration. He claims that the word comes from a root about being discharged or sent out; the word originally referred to the menstrual discharge itself, but then came to refer to the woman herself, who was, at least in some communities, physically quarantined (Leviticus, 1:744–45). Baruch Levine, on the other hand, claims that the word refers to the physical condition of menstruation itself, not necessarily to the impurity thereby caused (Leviticus [Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary 3; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989] 97). For more on the etymology of niddah, see Moshe Greenberg, “The Etymology of ‘(Menstrual) Impurity’,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield (ed. Ziony Zevit, Seymour Gitin, and Michael Sokoloff; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1995) 69–77.

27,” BDB, 188. BDB, in fact, provides as one of the translations of this root in the adjectival form “menstruous,” and it is under this listing that they cite our verse. However, as I will argue later in this article, even if the word in fact has the specific meaning of “menstruous” in some contexts, that phenomenon is clearly a derivative of the more general meaning of “ill.” My point here is not that the word cannot or should not be translated in Lev 15:33 as “menstruous,” but rather, that the word fundamentally derives from the notion of illness.

28 I have intentionally avoided referring to a root for the word niddah because the relevant root remains debated. See, for example, Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:744–45, as well as Greenberg, “The Etymology of .”

29 If this is correct, then this example should be added to Knohl's and Milgrom's lists of words and phrases with different meanings in P and H (Knohl, Sanctuary of Silence, 108–10; Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1325–27).

30 See, for example, Tirtzah Meacham, “Mishnah Tractate Niddah with an Introduction” (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989) 164 [Hebrew]; Cohen, Shaye J. D., “Menstruants and the Sacred in Judaism and Christianity,” in Women's History and Ancient History (ed. Pomeroy, Sarah B., Hill, Chapel, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 273–99, at 274–75Google Scholar; Wegner, Judith Romney, “‘Coming before the Lord’: The Exclusion of Women from the Public Domain of the Israelite Priestly Cult,” in The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception (VTSup 93; ed. Rendtorff, Rolf and Kugler, Robert A. with the assistance of Sarah Smith Bartel; Leiden: Brill, 2003) 451–65, at 452–59Google Scholar; Philip, Tarja S., Menstruation and Childbirth in the Bible: Fertility and Impurity (Studies in Biblical Literature 88; New York: Lang, 2006) 4951Google Scholar.

31 Milgrom points to Lev 11:40, which states merely that “one who eats the carcass of a pure animal” is “impure until evening,” while parallels at Lev 17:15 and 22:6 relate that such a person indeed requires immersion. Thus, the biblical text does not consistently state the requirement of immersion in every verse where it is relevant; sometimes the immersion requirement is simply assumed (Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:667). Milgrom also compares the case of the menstruant, whose impurity lasts seven days, to that of corpse contamination, which also lasts seven days, and likewise requires ablutions (ibid., 1:934, though see Philip's critiques of this comparison in general [Menstruation and Childbirth, 52]). Finally, Milgrom notes via a fortiori reasoning that if the relatively minor impurity of male genital emissions requires ablutions, then “all the more so the major genital discharges” (Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:934–35). See also Kazen, Issues of Impurity, 45–49, and especially 46, in which he argues that the vestiges of the chapter's redactional history reveal that the redactors intended the reader to read the material in a “systemic” way, and that Milgrom's claim about immersion is thus likely correct.


33 Levine, Leviticus, 72.

34 Ibid., 73 [emphasis added].

35 Ibid., 99.

36 Which, I would suggest, is popularly conceived of as P.

37 Wright, “Spectrum,” 158 n. 1.

38 Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:940.

39 Levine expresses this point well: “It is not the condition of impurity per se that evokes God's punishment, but the failure to rectify that condition so as to restore a state of purity” (Leviticus, 98). See also Klawans, Impurity, 97.

40 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1353.

41 Ibid., 2:1550. Charlotte Fonrobert, without stating it explicitly, also seems to understand that Lev 15:24 does not necessitate any sense of prohibition; see Menstrual Purity, 20. Milgrom interestingly offers a third option (presented in between that of Abravanel and the understanding that H simply overturns P's lack of prohibition), namely, that H fundamentally agrees with P that the only prohibition is on violating sancta, but that with the expansion of holiness and the divine's dwelling to the entire land, there is no safe space left for being impure.

42 Wright, “Spectrum,” 158.

43 Klawans presents the closing of Leviticus 18 as his first example of moral impurity (Impurity, v–vi).

44 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1514–15.

45 The question of the impurity of idolatry in biblical and rabbinic literature has been subject to debate. For both a summary of previous scholarship and a powerful argument against seeing any such impurity in the biblical texts, see Christine Hayes, Gentile Impurities.

46 See, for example, the discussion and survey of literature cited in Baruch Schwartz, Holiness Legislation: Studies in the Priestly Code (Publications of the Perry Foundation for Biblical Research in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1999) 136 n. 8 [Hebrew] and Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1765–68.

47 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1765.

48 The food impurities are a thorn in the side of all scholars attempting to understand impurity in the Hebrew Bible, since they seem to include elements of both ritual impurity as well as moral impurity, or at least prohibition language (i.e., there is a clear prohibition on eating these impure animals). See in particular Klawans's discussion in Impurity, 31–32 (as well as the work of Douglas, Harold Eilberg-Schwartz, and Milgrom cited there), and Wright, “Spectrum,” 165–69. Between the two poles of viewing the food impurities as ritual or moral, Klawans favors D. Z. Hoffman's view that they have more in common with the moral impurities, since he is committed to the notion that ritual impurities are never forbidden. But even he concedes that the way in which these food impurities appear in Leviticus 20 is more in line with the ritual-impurity model than with that of moral impurity. And indeed, resolving this dilemma is not important for my point here; rather, the fact that the mention of food impurities in Leviticus 20 fits best with a ritual-purity model is the only relevant fact for the present analysis. See also Meshel, “Food for Thought.”

49 Although the concerns of his study are different, Schwartz has already noted the absence from Leviticus 20 of impurity as a motivating concern, striking in light of its presence in Leviticus 18 (Holiness Legislation, 138–39).

50 This is indeed the interpretation taken by Levine, who does not engage the difficulty of the reversal of the words (Leviticus, 122). Perhaps he assumes the idea about reversed pairs suggested by Milgrom and discussed shortly, though if one understands niddah to mean “menstruation” and not “menstrual impurity,” then it and “impurity” are not necessarily “nearly synonymous pairs.”

51 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1549.

53 The linguistic allusion to Leviticus 15 also raises the substantive interpretive question of whether Lev 18:19 implies some sort of requirement of immersion or washing. Later rabbinic law certainly assumes immersion as a requirement for ending the period of prohibition on sexual relations, though the origin of this requirement—even as understood by late antique, medieval, and early modern rabbinic authorities—is murky. Recall from above that washing or immersion can be connected to niddah laws in the first place only based on this body of law's context as part of the impurity system, since the pericope in Leviticus 15 about niddah does not explicitly mention immersion or washing. By introducing ritual impurity language to its expression of a prohibition on sexual intercourse, the author of Lev 18:19 also introduces the possibility of immersion as relevant to the prohibition. For an interesting intuitive grasp of this point, see the responsum of Moses Sofer, Responsa Hetam Sofer, Yoreh De‘ah 194.

54 I should emphasize here that when I write “midway point,” I am deliberately not making a claim about the literary history or respective dating of Lev 15:19–33, 18:19, or 20:18, but only expressing the conceptually and linguistically hybrid nature of Lev 18:19 when compared to the other verses about menstruation. Indeed, the relationship between Leviticus 18 and 20 as whole units is a complex and debated matter. Against the assumptions and claims of many earlier scholars, Baruch Schwartz has ably described the evidence for viewing these two chapters as independent compositions, that is, as opposed to being the work of a single author/editor (Schwartz, Holiness Legislation, 135–44), and indeed, my argument here about the important difference between Lev 18:19 and Lev 20:18 likely supports his argument. But even if these two chapters existed as separate and fundamentally independent sources, there still may have been influence from one on the other—just not in a unidirectional manner. In other words, it is possible that these chapters represent two different traditions that over time had repeated interactions and mutual influence, thus making it impossible to claim one as earlier than the other (see, for example, Gerstenberger, Erhard S., Leviticus: A Commentary [trans. Stott, Douglas W.; Old Testament Library; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1996])Google Scholar. In any event, my argument about Lev 18:19 neither makes necessary nor is sufficient to argue for a later dating of Leviticus 18 vis-à-vis Leviticus 20. Rather, either because some author/editor of Lev 18:19 was at some point (not necessarily its final stage of editing) familiar with some version of Lev 20:18 (again, not necessarily its final form), or because the author/editor(s) of Lev 18:19 was(were) familiar with the sort of ideas that lie behind the legislation of Lev 20:18 (but not necessarily with that actual text), some author/editor was able to create a composite of a prohibition on sexual relations during menstruation with a discourse of ritual impurity.

55 Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity, 27.

56 Ibid., 25–27.

57 Kazen, Issues of Impurity, 16–17.

58 For a partial summary of scholarly views and his critical analysis of them, see Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:766–68.

59 Douglas, Purity and Danger, 51.

60 Milgrom, Leviticus, 1:766, 1002.

61 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, “Law and Philosophy: The Case of Sex in the Bible,” Semeia 45 (1989) 89102Google Scholar.

62 Kazen's turn to disgust as a legal motivation indeed provides a possible way to connect the impurities of P and those of H, but it does not explain, for example, why P nowhere describes feces as impure (even as Deut 23:12–14 mandates their distancing from the military camp), nor does it explain what about the action depicted in Lev 18:19 generates “disgust.”

63 The verse does accuse the female partner of having revealed “the source of her blood,” but even in this phrase the focus is not on the fluid itself but rather on her revealing of her own body. This focus on her participation is problematic; see n. 64.

64 Milgrom, Leviticus, 2:1755.

One major problem with Gane's interpretation is the fact that, uniquely in Lev 20:18, the woman is held legally accountable as well, a strange phenomenon if this verse is focused on a woman's vulnerability and potential lack of legal or social ability to refuse her male spouse's sexual approach. In practice, however, this application of culpability to a female sexual partner may have been irrelevant; if we assume male readers (or hearers) of this priestly text in antiquity, then the desired effect—discouraging men from taking advantage of women's weakened physical state during menstruation—is achieved simply through the prohibition and the invocation of impurity language. This is not to discount the negative discursive effects of holding a person, meant to be protected precisely because of her vulnerability, accountable for an act that she may not have been physically or socially able to consent to or to refuse, but rather to explain why this phenomenon does not undermine Gane's fundamentally plausible interpretation.

65 I am deliberately agnostic on whether the blurring of the lines here was intentional, since there are good reasons to speculate for both a conscious and an unconscious weaving of ritual impurity and prohibitions/prohibition-based impurity here. The weaving could have been the deliberate work of an author/editor trying to color our reading of one passage or the other. Thus, for example, if we follow the work of scholars such as Israel Knohl in treating H as chronologically later than P, we can imagine an editor actively trying to impose H concerns about menstruation (e.g., those articulated by Gane) onto the language of tum’ah and its association with menstrual impurity. Once I as a reader am familiar with Lev 18:19, I will take my knowledge of that prohibition—and its obvious parallel in Lev 20:18—and hear it resonating when I read Leviticus 15. (Of course, if one were to take the view that P is later than H, the same fundamental argument for deliberate blurring could apply, just in the other direction—this time coloring the concerns about sexual vulnerability with a new set of concerns about the boundary between life and death, sexual reproduction, wholeness, etc.). On the other hand, the language of ritual impurity associated with menstruation may have been such a strong cultural meme (as is suggested, for example, by the use of menstrual impurity in Ezekiel, a book with close connections to H), that an author/editor articulating a prohibition on sexual relations during menstruation may have invoked ritual impurity as an almost unintentional literary flourish. Of course, for readers intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible as a whole (and in some sense, for this author/editor as well), this “literary flourish” would nonetheless have had nearly immediate conceptual implications, causing the reader to read both treatments of menstruation and menstrual impurity as interrelated. Thus, the difference between an intentional and an unintentional blurring of these lines is not so significant as it might first appear.

66 Douglas, Purity and Danger, 133.