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Purity in Second Temple Times

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This array of vessels from Jerusalem provides evidence of the stone-craving industry that flourished in the city at the end of the Second Temple Period (form the first century B.C.E. until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.). Highly skilled artisans carved this collection, which includes small household mugs (foreground), a wine jar (left of center) and large water storage jars, all from the white chalk (a soft limestone) abundant in quarries surrounding the city.
According to Jewish law, Stone vessels, unlike pottery, are not susceptible to becoming ritually impure. The Unprecedented increase in the production of these vessels in the first century C.E. indicates that purity laws were more strictly observed at this time than ever before.
The Largest vessels shown here, measuring 2 to 3 feet tall, may be of a ritual type described in the gospel account of the marriage at Cana. John 2:6

In the decades before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and it’s Temple in 70 C.E., Jews gave a new and heightened emphasis to ritual purity. In fact, purity laws may have been interpreted more strictly at this time than at any point before-or since.

A very early rabbinic text says simply, “Purity broke out among Israel ” As early as this text is, however, it postdates the destruction of the Temple by about a hundred years. so it is fair to ask, How reliable is it?
Until Recently this question plagued historians of the era, called the late Second Temple period, which extended from the first century B.C.E. until the Roman destruction in 70 C.E.: To what extent could they rely on rabbinic texts dating hundreds of years after the events they described? Not at all, some prominent scholars instituted.
But the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has changed this understanding. The Scrolls make it clear that in in the period before the destruction of the Temple, ritual purity was so controversial and so important – at least in theory- that it created major divisions among the Jews of the time. On of the most famous Dead Sea Scrolls is MMT which list a series of religious laws called halakhot; singular, halakhah over which the Dead Sea Scroll sect (perhaps the Essenes) disagreed with other Jews (probably the Pharisees) whose allegiance was to the Temple priesthood. For each law MMT presents the views of the scroll community and then the opposition’s stance, in this format: We, the Dead Sea Scroll sect, believe this; and our opposition believes that. In this way, MMT preserves the Halakhah of both the Dead Sea Scroll community and its rivals, the Temple priesthood.

What did these Jews argue about? What caused them to form separate groups?
Here are some of the concerns raised in MMT: If pure water in a pure vessel is poured into an impure vessel, the water in the impure vessel certainly becomes impure; but does the impurity travel up the poured stream of water so that the remaining water in the pure vessel also becomes impure (along with the formerly pure vessel)? Further, when someone purifies himself or herself in a ritual bath (Hebrew, mikveh; plural, mikva’ot) , is the purification effective immediately upon the individual’s exit from the mikveh or only when the sun sets? The centrality of these kinds of questions to the Dead Sea Scrolls community amply demonstrates the importance of ritual purity at the time.

As we know however, laws on the books are often widely ignored. Was that the case with the purity laws? To answer this question let’s examine the archaeological evidence.
Many ritual baths have been discovered, and almost all of them date to the late Second Temple period. Most, however, have been found at sites associated with wealthy people.

Another interesting archaeological fact about the period: The Second Commandment, forbidding graven images, was strictly interpreted. For other periods, we have considerable archaeological evidence that Jews created images of humans and animals, even to decorate their synagogues. But archaeologists have uncovered virtually no late Second Temple period images of animals or humans in a Jewish context. This is certainly consistent with the strict application of ritual purity laws at this time.

Indeed, recent excavations have confirmed that Jews of all social and economic levels were deeply concerned with ritual purity in this period. At this time we see the rise of an important commercial enterprise: the manufacture of stone vessels. Stone Vessels were considimmune from impurity, and their popularity during this short period provides strong evidence of heightened interest in ritual purity among all Jews. These stone vessels first appear in the archaeological record in the second half of the first century B.C.E.: they were the most common in the first century C.E. The vessels-so critical to purity laws relating to the Jerusalem Temple-disappeared almost completely after the Roman destruction of the city in 70 C.E.

Tosephta to Minshnah Tractate Shabbat 13b
MMT stands for Miqsat Ma’ase Ha-Torah, which is often translated as “Some Torah Precepts”. for further details, see Yitzhak Magen, “the Stone Vessel Industry During the Second Temple Period,” in ” Purity broke Out In Israel’ (Tractate Shabbat, 13 b)-Stone Vessels in the Late Second Temple Period,

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  • Mikveh
    A collection of water A pool or bath of clear water, immersion in which renders ritually clean a person who become ritually unclean through contact with the dead (Num. 19) or any other defiling object or through an unclean flux from the body (Lev. 15) and especially a menstruant. It is similarly used for vessels […]
  • Water of Purifying
    Water mixed with the ashes of the red hefer See also Purity in Second Temple Times, and Ablution
  • Purity in Second Temple Times
    This array of vessels from Jerusalem provides evidence of the stone-craving industry that flourished in the city at the end of the Second Temple Period (form the first century B.C.E. until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.). Highly skilled artisans carved this collection, which includes small household mugs (foreground), a wine jar (left […]
  • Ablution (Immersion)
    This informative excerpt from the Encyclopedia Judaica 2:81-82 provides a detailed explanation of the significance and symbolism involved in the act of ritual immersion or ablution in the Jewish faith. This powerful act of washing serves to transform an individual from a state of impurity to a state of purity, enabling them to participate in […]
  • Red Heifer
    The Animal whose ashes were used in ritual purification of persons and objects defiled by a corpse (Num. 19) While the English term heifer means young cow that has not had a calf, the Bible (Num. 19:2) speaks simply of a cow (Heb. Parah). The Bible prescribes that the red cow be without blemish (Heb. […]

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