BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Archaeology and Jewish Purity Practices

Testimony of Stepped Pools and Chalk Vessels

RITUAL IMMERSION POOL AT MAGDALA in Israel’s Galilee region. Constructed below the local groundwater table, it is not plastered (unlike most such pools), to allow water to seep in. Taken during a winter rain shower, this photo shows that even a light precipitation can replenish the groundwater supplies and then fill the pool.
Photo by Aviad Amitai

Jewish ritual purity as practiced in different historical periods continues to be a hot topic in Judaic and Biblical Studies. The Late Second Temple period in particular has received a lot of attention. The point of contention among scholars (both Biblicists and archaeologists) is the interpretation of one very common installation typically called the stepped pool. This technical term applies to embedded pools with a flight of steps leading from the rim of the pool to its floor. Are they what is later known as the ritual baths, or mikva’ot?

The problem with identifying such pools as ritual baths is that the earliest literary evidence for mikva’ot comes from rabbinic legal writings, which do not date before 70 C.E., while the pools of the type described above emerge around 100 B.C.E. and then proliferate from the beginning of the Roman period, only to disappear shortly after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.).

But there is another archaeological phenomenon from this same period that is typically interpreted as reflecting Jewish concerns over the Pentateuchal ritual purity laws— vessels carved from chalk. Because Torah interpreters thought of stone as immune to ritual impurity, these soft, workable limestone vessels became popular as tableware. They emerged in the second half of the first century B.C.E. and disappeared in the mid-second century C.E., just like the stepped pools. A coincidence?

CHALKSTONE VESSELS in various stages of production were discovered during the archaeological exploration of ‘Einot Amitai, where they were left behind because they had broken during the manufacturing process.
Photo by Thomas Kazen

Cecilia Wassén in her article “Stepped Pools and Stone Vessels: Rethinking Jewish Purity Practices in Palestine,” published in the July–October 2019 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, argues against seeing the stepped pools as a reflection of heightened concerns for ritual purity. Instead, she proposes to interpret such installations as the result of Jewish assimilation into the general bathing culture of the Greco-Roman world. Like many other critics of the “ritual bath theory,” Wassén urges that we cannot use rabbinic legal notions of a much later date to interpret first-century B.C.E. and first century C.E. archaeological remains, such as the stepped pools.

But where is archaeology in all this? Yonatan Adler of Ariel University in Israel recently revisited for the readers of BAR the two archaeological phenomena, namely the stepped pools and chalk vessels. In his article “Watertight and Rock Solid: Stepped Pools and Chalk Vessels as Expressions of Jewish Ritual Purity,” published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Adler assesses the question on purely archaeological grounds—without any anachronistic regard to the much later rabbinic writings.

A CAVE AT ‘EINOT AMITAI near Nazareth in northern Israel used to be a quarry and industrial workshop for chalkstone vessels. With the cave roof recently removed by archaeologists, this aerial view shows traces of intensive quarrying activities from the Roman period.
Photo by Tal Rogovski

Adler first focuses on the stepped pools, incrementally laying out the arguments for interpreting these installations as pools, as immersion pools, as Jewish immersion pools, and, finally, as Jewish ritual immersion pools. In doing so, Adler demonstrates that with the sole exception of the stepped pools at Magdala, which are located under the local groundwater table and depend on groundwater to fill them, all such pools are coated with hydraulic plaster to retain water. He then argues that their little breadth could not allow for any significant activities but a simple immersion. In the next step, Adler shares data showing that the pools are found almost exclusively at Jewish settlements, meaning that the phenomenon manifests strictly along cultural and ethnic lines. Finally, the author presents relevant biblical and other contemporary written accounts that independently talk about the Jewish practice of immersion in water for the purpose of ritual purification.

Learn firsthand about the intricacies of archaeological evidence and discover how chalk vessels fit into this picture by reading Yonatan Adler’s article “Watertight and Rock Solid: Stepped Pools and Chalk Vessels as Expressions of Jewish Ritual Purity,” published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

THIS UNFINISHED CUP was found at ‘Einot Amitai, where it was discarded due to a mishap during the production process in antiquity. The quarry attests to a thriving stone vessel industry, which was apparently fueled by religious concerns for Jewish ritual purity. Photo by Thomas Kazen

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Watertight and Rock Solid: Stepped Pools and Chalk Vessels as Expressions of Jewish Ritual Purity,” by Yonatan Adler, in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

 

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Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Archaeology and Jewish Purity Practices Jewish ritual baths—called mikva’ot (singular: mikveh)—are immersion pools used in ritual purification. A large mikveh—the largest thus far uncovered in modern Jordan—was excavated in 2016 at King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. This mikveh was used by King Herod and his royal family to purify themselves in accordance with Jewish religious law (halakhah).

King Herod’s Ritual Bath at Machaerus Jewish ritual baths—called mikva’ot (singular: mikveh)—are immersion pools used in ritual purification. A large mikveh—the largest thus far uncovered in modern Jordan—was excavated in 2016 at King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. This mikveh was used by King Herod and his royal family to purify themselves in accordance with Jewish religious law (halakhah).

Ancient Jewish Mikvah Found Outside Jerusalem Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have discovered the remains of a Jewish ritual bath (mikvah) used during the Second Temple period (first century B.C.E.–first century C.E.) at a site in the Shephelah foothills southwest of Jerusalem. The square bath, which has a plastered interior and three stairs that descend to its bottom, was found during salvage excavations conducted prior to the installation of a modern water line near Kibbutz Tzora. While ancient ritual baths have been found at sites throughout Jerusalem and the Galilee, none had ever been found in the Shephelah region until now.

Mikveh Discovery Highlights Ritual Bathing in Second Temple Period Jerusalem Israeli archaeologists recently uncovered a mikveh (a Jewish ritual bath) in Jerusalem’s Qiryat Menachem neighborhood that dates back to the Second Temple period (538 B.C.E–70 C.E.). Small pools used for ritual cleansing, known as mikva’ot (singular, mikveh), were built to strict specifications: According to the Mishnah, the earliest rabbinic code of law, they must be of a certain size and filled with “living” water—water that has not been transferred from a vessel but has flowed directly into the bath from a river, spring or rainwater collector.

Secret Mikveh Discovered Under a Living Room Floor What’s underneath your living room floor? The answer for one Jerusalem family is pretty incredible: a 2,000-year-old mikveh (Jewish ritual bath)!

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