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Dirty Laundry

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ Talmudic rabbis decide how to clean the garments used in ritual slaughter (using urine). Also: When is a garment just a cloth?

Adam Kirsch
July 24, 2018
Inset image: Flickr
Inset image: Flickr
Inset image: Flickr
Inset image: Flickr

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

As we have seen throughout Tractate Zevachim, the priests in the Temple operated in a very bloody environment. Ritual sacrifice of a large animal like a sheep or bull involved the priest slitting its throat, catching the spraying blood in a sacred bowl, and the priest using his fingertips to sprinkle the blood on the corners of the altar. (Any blood left over after this procedure was complete would be poured out at the base of the altar.) In last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Zevachim 93b, the Talmud clarified that the bowl had to contain enough blood for the priest to be able to dip his finger in it, rather than wiping blood from the sides or the bottom of the vessel. If the priest had two vessels, each containing an inadequate volume of blood, he was not allowed to pour one into the other; each bowl had to receive a sufficient quantity of blood directly from the animal’s neck.

With all this blood present, it was inevitable that sometimes blood would spill or spray onto the garments of the officiating priests. What should be done with such stained garments? On this subject, the Talmud offers seemingly contradictory answers. In Zevachim 88a, we read that priestly vestments cannot be laundered: “If the garments were soiled one may not launder them, neither with natron nor with soap.” (Natron, or sodium carbonate, was a natural detergent found in dried lake beds.)

The reason for this rule has to do with cosmetic appeal: “There is no poverty in a place of wealth,” the Gemara explains. That is, in a national showplace like the Temple, it would be unfitting for the priests to wear laundered garments, which would inevitably appear worn and stained; rather, they should always wear new, unsoiled garments, for the sake of the spectacle and of national pride. This sounds good, but it is hard to see how it would have worked in practice, since one imagines that the priests’ garments would have become stained virtually every day. A new set of vestments for each priest every day would have been an expensive and laborious proposition.

In Chapter Eleven of Tractate Zevachim, which Daf Yomi readers read last week, the Talmud takes a different approach to the problem of laundry. Now its concerns are not cosmetic but religious. Because the blood of a sacrifice is sacred, any garment or vessel that absorbs that blood has to be cleansed before it can be used again. Leviticus 6:20 says that such a garment has to be laundered “in a sacred place”—that is, inside the Temple courtyard. When it comes to the bowls used to collect the blood, earthenware vessels must be shattered, so that they can’t be used again, while metal vessels have to be scoured and rinsed.

The mishna in Zevachim 92a begins by asking which kind of bloodstains require laundering. Not all of them, it turns out: We are only concerned with blood that is sanctified, and the blood is not sanctified until it is collected in the bowl. Thus blood sprayed directly from the neck of a slaughtered animal does not count, nor does blood that dripped onto the floor and was then scooped up, since these types of blood cannot be used for sprinkling. By the same token, only the blood of animals that are slaughtered—that is, killed with a knife—requires laundering; this eliminates the blood of birds, which are not slaughtered but strangled by pinching their windpipe.

It seems to follow that, contrary to what the Talmud said earlier, the priests’ robes must have been bloodstained most of the time, since most kinds of bloodstains did not require laundering. When it comes to sacred blood, which did require cleansing, how was this performed? The answer involves the “seven abrasive substances”—Talmud-era detergents, which are prescribed for the removal of menstrual blood from women’s garments. These are saliva (it must be tasteless saliva, collected from someone who hasn’t eaten since waking up), the liquid of a certain type of bean, urine, natron, lye, a particular kind of soil, and potash. These detergents must be applied separately, three times each, for the garment to be considered ritually clean according to Talmudic standards.

When it comes to laundering sacred garments, however, the Gemara immediately detects a problem. Urine is not supposed to enter the Temple grounds, because it is unfitting for such a holy place. Without urine, however, how could laundering take place? The rabbis come up with a kind of compromise answer: The urine was dissolved in the saliva, which apparently neutralized its offensiveness.

The discussion of these matters branches out into related areas, as usually happens in the Talmud. For instance, when a garment is sprayed with sacred blood, it has to be laundered. But how exactly do you define a garment? What about an animal hide that hasn’t yet been cut into a piece of clothing: Does this qualify as a garment? Or what about a small piece of cloth that could be used as a patch on a larger piece of clothing? The answer, as often in Jewish law, comes down to the question of intention. If a garment is considered completed by its owner, then it can contract ritual impurity and has to be laundered. If it is considered to be incomplete or fragmentary, then it can’t become impure.

This definition, in turn, raises new questions for the rabbis. What about a garment whose owner intended to adorn it with an image? (This is common now, with T-shirts especially, but in ancient times putting an image on a garment would presumably have been unusual.) Without the image, the tunic or whatever it may be is certainly wearable, so in one sense it can be considered complete; but it is incomplete in the mind of its owner, since he intended to do more work on it. On the other hand, the Gemara points out, the owner could “void his intention”—that is, change his mind about adding an image—in which case the garment would presumably become complete on the spot. These are the kinds of paradoxes that arise when intention becomes a significant legal category, as it often does in the Talmud.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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