The Ritual Baths Near the Temple Mount and Extra-Purification Before Entering the Temple Courts: A Reply to Eyal Regev
In an article published in the latest addition of IEJ entitled: “The Ritual Baths Near the Temple Mount and Extra-Purification Before Entering the Temple Courts” (Regev 2005), Dr. Eyal Regev addresses an important issue which has often been neglected by current scholarship: a detailed examination of the laws of ritual purity in the context of archaeological finds. Referring to the numerous ritual baths (miqwa’ot) that have been uncovered in close proximity to the Temple Mount1, Regev asserts that within the entire corpus of rabbinic laws of purity, no satisfactory explanation can be found to account for the possible functional uses of these miqwa’ot, and therefore proposes a novel theory that these miqwa’ot represent vestiges of an unrecorded custom of “extra-purification” prior to entrance into the Women’s Court of the Temple. In his treatment of the laws of impurity, Regev unfortunately neglects several points that are recorded within the rabbinic corpus2 which provide ample explanation for the functional uses of these miqwa’ot in the fulfillment of mandated ritual law, and not merely in the practice of a supposed “extra-purification”3.
The crux of Regev’s argument can be summarized as follows: Regev asserts: (pg. 196) “…there is no halakhic obligation whatsoever to cleanse before approaching this area (i.e. the Outer Court of the Temple Mount – Y.A.)”, and hence visitors who wished to enter no further than the Outer Court had no use for the miqwa’ot in question. On the other hand, Regev points out (pp. 195–196) that a ritually impure person who had immersed in a miqweh immediately prior to entering the Temple Mount would have been unable to enter the inner precincts of the Temple (the hēl forecourt, the Women’s Court, and the ’azara Inner Court) until sundown on the same day as his ablution, a time when the Temple was closed regardless. This being the case, Regev asserts that the miqwa’ot uncovered in proximity to the Temple Mount were intended not for the use of ritually impure visitors to the Temple, but rather for the use of ritually pure visitors who practiced an “extra-purification” rite before entering the inner precincts. Regev brings evidence from rabbinic literature that such a rite of “extra-purification” was indeed practiced prior to entering the Inner Court (’azara)4, but forwards reservations regarding the suggestion that the miqwa’ot in question were used for this purpose since they are located at a distance from this court (pg. 198). Instead, Regev offers a theory that these miqwa’ot were used by ritually pure visitors to the closer Women’s Court in a rite of “extra-purification” which has gone completely unrecorded in rabbinic literature (pp. 198–200). Regev presents a story recorded in Acts (21: 24–26) whereby Paul immersed himself prior to entering the Women’s Court, and suggests this source as evidence of this forgotten rite (ibid.).
Ritual Purity Requirements for Entering the Outer Court of the Temple Mount
The problem posed by Regev, as well as his subsequent solution of “extra-purification”, is based upon a number of erroneous concepts regarding the rabbinic laws of ritual impurity in the context of Temple practice. Regev’s assertion that all ritually impure individuals were allowed entrance into the Outer Court on is based on the fact that: “gentiles and corpse-defiled persons5 can enter there as long as they do not cross the hēl which bounded the ’azarot (m. Kelim 1:8; Contra Apionem 2:103–104)” (pg. 196). The implied a fortiori argument is that if an individual in the most stringent state of ritual impurity, namely corpse-defilement, is allowed entrance into the Outer Court, certainly those in lesser states of ritual impurity are to be permitted6. This argument is quite easily refuted by the two very sources brought by Regev himself. The Mishnah in Kelim (ibid.) clearly states that individuals in certain states of lesser ritual impurity are in fact denied entrance into the Outer Court, namely: men and women suffering unusual genital discharges (zavim and zavot), women in a state of menses impurity, and women in a state of childbirth impurity (yoldot). The description of Josephus in Contra Apionem (ibid.) is less detailed, but generally parallels that of the Mishnah: “Into the first court everyone was allowed to go, even foreigners, and none but women during their courses were prohibited to pass through it”.7 To this list may be added an additional state of ritual impurity, mentioned in a slightly later source8 (BT Pesahim 67b), namely qeri, which refers to both men and women after experiencing sexual contact, and men who have experienced nocturnal discharge. All of the aforementioned are restricted from entering into the Outer Court until having undergone miqweh ablution. After immersing in a miqweh, they are all allowed immediate entrance into the Outer Court of the Temple without having to wait until sundown (M. Kelim ibid.)9. It would appear most likely that the miqwa’ot situated opposite and in close proximity to the gates leading directly into the Outer Court of the Temple Mount served this precise purpose10.
Ritual Purity in the Temple for Purposes Other than Access into Temple Precincts
A second problem with Regev’s presentation is his assumption that the sole purpose of the miqwa’ot adjoining the Temple Mount was to provide purification for defiled persons which would allow for their entrance into parts of the Temple where access would otherwise have been denied to them. A possibility that is left unexplored in Regev’s discussion is that the miqwa’ot in question may have been intended for other purposes. Aside from the aforementioned types of ritual impurity (all due to genital discharges11), numerous other forms of ritual impurity existed which were both common and easily contractible – such as corpse-defilement, madras-impurity (physical contact with clothing or furniture defiled by a woman in a state of menses impurity, a yoledet, a zav, or a zavah, not to mention contact with these ritually impure persons themselves), animal carcass impurity, vermin impurity, and impurity due to eating ritually defiled food or drink12. It stands to reason that many visitors entering the Outer Court of the Temple Mount were defiled by at least one of these types of impurity, and while this fact did not bar their actual entry into the Outer Court, it most certainly posed many potential ritual problems. Individuals in a state of ritual impurity were apt to defile through simple contact any of the consecrated vessels, clothing, or foodstuffs that were abundant in the Temple precincts13. However, immediately after ritual ablution in a miqweh – even before sundown – these people could no longer defile vessels and clothing, and foodstuffs to only a lesser degree (M. Tevul Yom 2:2). It follows that many visitors to the Temple would probably endeavor to perform miqweh ablutions even before entering the sacred precincts, in order to avoid the danger of defiling consecrated objects once inside.
Similarly, it should be noted that rabbinic legislation required that anyone wishing to partake of hallowed foodstuffs (qodesh) must first immerse his hands in a miqweh (M. Hagigah 2:5), and in this instance as well, there was no need to await sunset (M. Parah 11:5.). Certainly many of the visitors to the Temple came to offer sacrifices and to partake of qodesh, and hence required the availability of miqwa’ot for this purpose. Furthermore, anyone who immersed himself with the intention of handling priestly heave-offerings (terumah) may not handle qodesh objects or foodstuffs (M. Hagigah 2:6). Thus, even a ritually pure person who did not purify himself with conscious intention for Temple purposes was deemed ritually impure with regard to qodesh objects and foodstuffs until he performed an additional immersion with this specific intention (ibid.). This sort of ablution as well did not require a waiting period until sunset (M. Parah ibid.). In this vein, we find numerous other stringencies with regard to the ritual purity of vessels to be used with qodesh that did not apply to purity issues outside of the Temple (M. Hagigah 2:5–3:3)14. It bears to reason that visitors to the Temple would find need to purify vessels in order to make use of them with Temple qodesh, such purification being accomplished through miqweh immersion without need to await sunset (M. Parah ibid.).
Additionally, individuals who brought certain mandated sacrifices were required to perform ritual immersion after bringing their sacrifice in order to allow the eating or handling of qodesh (M. Hagigah 3:3). Thus, many visitors to the Temple required use of miqwa’ot after leaving the Temple Mount, and not just in order to enter the Temple as Regev supposes.
Impurities Which Did Not Require Awaiting Sunset
Another erroneous concept is proposed by Regev when he writes (pg. 195): “The final expiration of the period of defilement always15 ends at sunset. Scripture defines this interim period as טמא עד הערב ‘impure until the evening (ie. sunset)’. Therefore, an impure person who bathed near the Temple Mount could not enter the Temple immediately after his purification, but needed to wait at least until sundown”. The implication is that all ritually impure persons remained in this state after immersing until sunset. While the interim period regulation (termed “tevul yom” in rabbinic literature) holds true for most forms of ritual impurity, many forms of ritual impurity do not subscribe to this rule. Persons defiled by impurities of rabbinic legislation were deemed completely pure after ritual immersion, and could enter the Women’s Court immediately without having to wait until sunset (M. Parah 11:5). This includes persons defiled by very commonplace forms of ritual impurity such as one who ate or drank ritually impure foodstuffs or liquids (M. Zavim 5:12; BT Shabbat 13b), one who had showered or bathed in “drawn waters” (i.e. any bath other than a valid miqweh; ibid.), as well as one who had any form of physical contact with a gentile16. If we can rely on the veracity of the story told in Acts (21: 24–26), it would seem quite reasonable to assume that Paul immersed himself before entering the Court of Women in order to purify himself from one of these types of ritual impurities mandated by rabbinic legislation. In fact, it is recorded that Paul was seen in the company of a gentile immediately prior to his entrance into the Temple (ibid.: 29), and it would not be at all unreasonable to assume this to have been the cause of his subsequent motivation to undergo ritual ablution.
Immersion Prior to Entering the ’Azara
Finally, we may return to the evidence brought by Regev (pp. 197–198) from rabbinic literature which discusses the need for ritual ablution prior to entering into the ’azara for serving priests and laymen who are already ritually pure. Referring to the possibility that the miqwa’ot in question were used for this purpose, Regev writes (pg. 198): “One important reservation pertains to the very location of the excavated ritual baths. It is more reasonable that people immersed outside the Temple Mount in order to prepare themselves for the subsequent phase of sacredness, that is (according to m. Kelim 1:8) the Women’s Court, and not the ’azara”. Regev is mistaken in terming the Women’s Court a “phase of sacredness”, implying a chronological stage, since the source he quotes refers only to a state of sacredness. Direct entrance to the ’azara was in fact possible through one of the eight17 gates which lead directly from the Outer Court of the Temple Mount into the ’azara (M. Midot 2:6). Even if we were to accept the proposition that most visitors to the ’azara entered via the Women’s Court, it is unclear why it is “more reasonable” to assume that the miqwa’ot situated outside of the Temple Mount were used exclusively by those entering the Women’s Court only, and not by those continuing on to the neighboring ’azara18. It should be pointed out that ritual ablution for those entering the ’azara was required of all visitors to the ’azara19, and was not limited only to “serving priests and lay Israelites who took an active role in the sacrificial rite” as Regev asserts (pg. 197). Hence, those requiring ritual immersion before entering the ’azara would seem to have been rather more numerous than Regev suspects.
In summary, we have seen an ample number of examples from the corpus of rabbinic literature which would explain the possible functional uses for the miqwa’ot uncovered in close proximity to the Temple Mount. It follows that Dr. Eyal Regev’s novel theory of “extra-purification” prior to entering the Women’s Court is superfluous, and therefore unconvincing.
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