We live in a filthy world. Dust floats freely and gathers on any free surface it can find. Germs spread and multiply with ferocious speed, bringing disease and sorrow. If it isn't regularly cleaned and banished,
this kind of pollution will become dark and unsightly. Growing stains of dirt - yuck! - will cover the wall, the cup, the shelf, wherever the filth is allowed to spread. But this impurity is not ritually unclean.
Someone who has been raped will sometimes spend hours in the shower, trying to wash away this thing that has happened to them, succeeding only in damaging evidence. On the outside they may be cleaner than they ever were, but the inside is deeply, darkly tainted with a stain that might never go away. This impurity is not ritually unclean either, but we're getting close.
Ritual uncleanness is an impurity of the soul as much as of the body. Although it is usually invoked by that which humans consider extremely filthy - death, disease, certain animals - it cannot be washed away with water and soap. The ritually unclean person must be cleansed through strong rites, or may find that they can't become clean at all - that the only way to salvation is death.
When you are ritually unclean, you are impure to God. Because of this, you are banned from performing acts of holiness. Hinduism and Judaism are the world religions with the most intricate system regarding this concept, but it can also be found in Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. It is most interesting, however, that the two later religions, the offspring of Hinduism and Judaism respectively, have made a point of dispelling most of the restrictions regarding what is ritually unclean.
How to become ritually unclean
Views on exactly what made one ritually unclean have changed and are changing over time. There are also different interpretations varying from sect to sect and from person to person. So, obviously, don't accept my commandments as gospel.
"He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean."
- Touch a dead body, a human bone, or a grave ("touch" includes letting your shadow touch it)
- Touch someone who has touched a dead body, a human bone, or a grave
- Touch any ritually unclean object, such as a contaminated article of clothing.
- Contract a spreading skin disease (leprosy is a well-known example, but other such diseases were more common)
- Copulate with a beast
- Touch or eat the carcass of an unclean animal, or an animal that has died of itself
Leviticus 11, Leviticus 17:15
- Have sex (the uncleanness lasted one day only)
- Commit abominations with your daughter-in-law, sister, or neighbour's wife
- Give birth (if giving birth to a son the woman is ritually unclean for 40 days, if a daughter for 80 days. Leviticus 12)
- Menstruate (Leviticus 15:19-24). A woman menstruating is niddah, and during this period faces many restrictions in her daily life.
- Masturbate (Leviticus 15:16-18)
- Have an abnormal discharge (Leviticus 15:2-15)
- Eat with or use the same eating utensils as non-Jews
- Eat non-kosher food
- Perform a ritual connected with sin, such as burning the Red Heifer (which we will come back to)
or driving out the Scapegoat.
The Hebrew word for the ritually unclean is tamai (or tameh). A great number of states, detailed above, make a person unclean. The list of unclean things and animals is even longer, but much of it can be found in Leviticus. The Jews famously divide the world of food into the categories kosher and terefah/treyf, non-kosher, a division which is based on the Torah and tradition.
- Touch a dead body or walk into a cremation ground (the shadow can spread contamination also here)
- Touch someone who has touched a dead body or works with them
- Do unclean work, such as leatherworking or scavenging
- Touch any ritually unclean object, such as certain objects used in a concluded ceremony which have lost their holiness, or human excreta (cow excrements are okay, though)
- Contract leprosy
- Touch or eat the carcass of an animal that has died of itself
- Give birth
- Have an abnormal blood discharge.
- Eat with or use the same eating utensils as a non-Hindu or people of a lower caste
- Be born into the Shudra caste, also known as the unclean, or as a Pariah, also known as casteless or untouchables, later known as Dalit
- Be born a woman. Some priests held that women were intrinsically unclean, and therefore let the children of higher castes be "born" again in a special birth ceremony. These castes were therefore known as the "twice-born". However, women are also viewed as symbols of the highest holiness. Hinduism is a huge, confusing religion.
word for unclean is ashuchau
- Touch a dead body which has become cold and is not washed ("touch" also means part of your clothing touching it)
- Touch any ritually unclean object, such as human blood, urine, faeces, semen, an animal which as not been slaughtered in the proscribed way, or any part of a living human or animal's body which has been cut off
- Touch an unclean animal: A dog or a pig (Quran 6:146)
- Go to the bathroom
- Bleed heavily, for instance menstruate
- Eat forbidden food, food which is not halal. Any food containing pork or alcohol is ritually unclean.
- Use eating utensils which have been in contact with unclean food
- Accumulate wealth without giving any of it to the poor
Najis is the word used for ritually unclean in Arabic.
Christianity originally did away with the concept of ritually unclean objects or persons. Rather, Jesus taught that the evil thoughts of someone's heart is what defiles him. (Mark 7:20-23).
However, many of the Church's leading members were stricter than their founding father, and several of the Judaistic rules found their way in the back door. Many bishops said menstruating women should not come to church, and certainly not receive holy communion. Anyone who had sex became unclean, which is why some churches require their priests and monks to live in celibacy. The Christian view on sex as unclean is still present in today's western society - why else would jokes about sex be called dirty jokes?
The body itself is seen as being unclean in Buddhism, and the spirit tainted by it. The goal of the spirit is to attain purification and release from the eternal cycle. Occupations concerned with death, such as butchery, are especially defiling. However, there is no big emphasis on the ritually unclean. Instead, the Buddha went against the ruling Brahmins of his time who seemed to declare everything under the sun unclean.
How to become ritually clean again
For lesser states of uncleanness, wait until the next day, and you shall be clean again. Otherwise, perform a purification ceremony
"And for an unclean person they shall take some of the ashes of the heifer burnt for purification from sin, and running water shall be put on them in a vessel. A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, on the persons who were there, or on the one who touched a bone, the slain, the dead, or a grave."
The water in which one washes has to be "living", either water from a river or rain water. The Hebrew word for purification is taharas. Mikvah is the name of the ritual bath.
The heifer mentioned in the citation is the red heifer, still an important symbol to many Jews and Christians looking for symbols. When one was recently born in Israel, it caused quite a stir, as it was hoped it would purify the country.
Take a ritual bath (preferably water from a river, especially the Ganges), or perform a purification ceremony, where a whole lot of things are used, including burnt cow dung and sprinkled holy water.
The most common purification in Islam is wudu, the ablution performed before every prayer: The thorough washing of head, hands and feet with clean water. If there is no water, a dry ablution will do. If the degree of impurity is great, the whole body must be washed. Since shoes may have touched something impure, they must be taken off outside a mosque.
There are quite specific instructions for how to perform ablutions, for instance after going to the toilet. The Muslim law Shariah proscribes that The organ of urination can be made tahir only by the pouring of water on it at least twice. It is better to wash it three times.
As previously mentioned, acquiring wealth just for oneself is ritually unclean in Islam. Zakat, the giving of alms, is a pillar of Islam that all good Muslims should follow. The word actually means purification. (Quran 9:103)
Touch or be touched by Jesus. (Mark 5:25-34)
One touching (heh) story from the New Testament tells how a woman, bleeding and unclean for twelve years, dared touch the hem of Jesus' garment. He noticed at once, of course, that he had been touched with the hand of faith, and told her she was healed. (Mark 5:22-34)
The touching also works in an abstract manner, of course. The Jewish law of the ritually unclean no longer applied to Christians.
Be baptised - a symbolical washing or a full body immersion in some sects is supposed to wash away the original sin and make people worthy of paradise.
Through bathing, lighting incense and meditating the mind may seek to detach itself from the unclean world.
Why all the fuss?
There are many reasons for declaring certain things ritually unclean. Most obvious is Man's need to be purified before meeting God's total purity. It would be just plain wrong for someone to stand before God with the memory of death on his skin, poison in his belly, or bodily fluids oozing from most unholy crevices.
Obviously, it makes sense to wash if you want to remain healthy. This is especially the case in hot countries, and at a time when cleansing was not just as simple as turning on the tap in the bathroom. The face that certain animals are ritually unclean may come from experience and tradition: Pigs living in warm climates can carry trichinosis, and could therefore easily smite their eater with a revenge from God. For a leader of the people it was much easier to tell them to wash, or not to eat pork, because God said so - people are notoriously bad at abstaining from something simply because it is not good for them.
One beautiful interpretation says that certain things belong to God, and cannot be touched by mere mortals¹. This explains why bodies that have just given up their soul and mothers who have just given birth are ritually unclean, but cannot be the case with the leprous and haemorrhaged. Perhaps there are two ways to uncleanliness, one by getting closer to God and one too far away.
The Hindu caste system has a less honourable background. Like the apartheid systems of the American South and South Africa, or the feudal laws of Old Europe for that matter, it was designed to keep the society stable with the poor ones down and the powerful ones in power. Many new directions within Hinduism now say that caste is not a religious concept and should be done away with.
Corrections are always welcome.