I. the ceremonial washing, whereby, as a symbol of purification from uncleanness, a person was considered
(1.) to be cleansed from the taint of an inferior and less pure condition, and initiated into a higher and purer state;
(2.) to be cleansed from the soil of common life, and fitted for special acts of religious service;
(3.) to be cleansed from defilements contracted by particular acts or circumstances, and restored to the privileges of ordinary life;
(4.) as absolving or purifying himself, or declaring himself absolved and purified, from the guilt of a particular act.
A marked example of the first kind of ablution occurs when Aaron and his sons, on their being set apart for the priesthood, were washed with water before they were invested with the priestly robes and anointed with the holy oil (Le 8:6). To this head we are inclined to refer the ablution of persons and raiment which was required of the whole of the Israelites, as a preparation to their receiving the law from Sinai (Ex 19:10-15). We also find examples of this kind of purification in connection with initiation into some higher state both among the Hebrews and in other nations. Thus those admitted into the mysteries of Eleusis were previously purified on the banks of the Ilissus by water being poured upon them by the Hydranos (Polyaen. 5:17; 3:11). SEE CONSECRATION.
The second kind of ablution was that which required the priests, on pain of death, to wash their hands and their feet before they approached the altar of God (Ex 30:17-21). For this purpose a large basin of water was provided both at the tabernacle and at the temple. SEE LAVER. To this the Psalmist alludes when he says, "I will wash my hands in innocency, and so will I compass thine altar" (Ps 26:6). Hence it became the custom in the early Christian Church for the ministers, in the view of the congregation, to wash their hands in a basin of water brought by the deacon, at the commencement of the communion (Jamieson, p. 126); and this practice, or something like it, is still retained in the Eastern churches, as well as in the Church of Rome, when mass is celebrated. SEE HOLY WATER. Similar ablutions by the priests before proceeding to perform the more sacred ceremonies were usual among the heathen (see Smith's Dict. of Class. Antiq. s.v. Chernips). The Egyptian priests indeed carried the practice to a burdensome extent (Wilkinson, 1:324, abridgm.), from which the Jewish priests were, perhaps designedly, exonerated; and in their less torrid climate it was, for purposes of real cleanliness, less needful. Reservoirs of water were attached to the Egyptian temples; and Herodotus (2:37) informs us that the priests shaved the whole of their bodies every third day, that no insect or other filth might be upon them when they served the gods, and that they washed themselves in cold water twice every day and twice every night; Porphyry says thrice a day, with a nocturnal ablution occasionally. This kind of ablution, as preparatory to a religious act, answers to the simple wadu of the Moslems, which they are required to go through five times daily before their stated prayers (see Lane, Mod. Eg. 1:94 sq.), besides other private purifications of a more formal character (see Reland, De Relig. Moh. p. 80-83). This makes the ceremonies of ablution much more conspicuous to a traveler in the Moslem East at the present day than they would appear among the ancient Jews, seeing that the law imposed this obligation on the priests only, not on the people. Connected as these Moslem ablutions are with various forms and imitative ceremonies, and recurring so frequently as they do, the avowedly heavy yoke of even the Mosaic law seems light in the comparison. SEE BATHE.
In the third class of ablutions washing is regarded as a purification from positive defilements. The Mosaical law recognises eleven species of uncleanness of this nature (Leviticus 12-15), the purification for which ceased at the end of a certain period, provided the unclean person then washed his body and his clothes; but in a few cases, such as leprosy and the defilement contracted by touching a dead body, he remained unclean seven days after the physical cause of pollution had ceased. This was all that the law required; but in later times, when the Jews began to refine upon it, these cases were considered generic instead of specific — as representing classes instead of individual cases of defilement — and the causes of pollution requiring purification by water thus came to be greatly increased. This kind of ablution for substantial uncleanness answers to the Moslem ghusl (Lane, ib. p. 99; Reland, ib. p. 66-77), in which the causes of defilement greatly exceed those of the Mosaical law, while they are perhaps equalled in number and minuteness by those which the later Jews devised. The uncleanness in this class arises chiefly from the natural secretions of human beings and of beasts used for food, and from the ordure of animals not used for food; and, as among the Jews, the defilement may be communicated not only to persons, but to clothes, utensils, and dwelling — in all which cases the purification must be made by water, or by some representative act where water cannot be applied. Thus in drought or sickness the rinsing of the hands and face may be performed with dry sand or dust, a ceremony that is termed tayemmum (Lane, ib.). SEE UNCLEANNESS.
Of the last class of ablutions, by which persons declared themselves free from the guilt of a particular action, the most remarkable instance is that which occurs in the expiation for an unknown murder, when the elders of the nearest village washed their hands over the expiatory heifer, beheaded in the valley, saying, "Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it" (De 21:1-9). It has been thought by some that the signal act of Pilate, when he washed his hands in water and declared himself innocent of the blood of Jesus (Mt 27:24), was a designed adoption of the Jewish custom; but this supposition does not appear necessary, as the practice was also common among the Greeks and Romans (see Smith's Dict. of Class. Antig. s.v. Lustratio). SEE MURDER.
Other practices not indicated in the law appear to have existed at a very early period, or to have grown up in the course of time. From 1Sa 16:5, compared with Ex 19:10-14, we learn that it was usual for those who presented or provided a sacrifice to purify themselves by ablution; and as this was everywhere a general practice, it may be supposed to have existed in patriarchal times, and, being an established and approved custom, not to have required to be mentioned in the law. There is a passage in the apocryphal book of Judith (12:7-9) which has been thought to intimate that the Jews performed ablutions before prayer. But we cannot fairly deduce that meaning from it (comp. Ru 3:3); since it is connected with the anointing (q.v.), which was a customary token of festivity (see Arnald, in loc.). It would indeed prove too much if so understood, as Judith bathed in the water, which is more than even the Moslems do before their prayers. Moreover, the authority, if clear, would not be conclusive. SEE PURIFICATION.
But after the rise of the sect of the Pharisees, the practice of ablution was carried to such excess, from the affectation of extraordinary purity, that it is repeatedly brought under our notice in the New Testament through the several animadversions of our Savior on the consummate hypocrisy involved in this fastidious attention to the external types of moral purity, while the heart was left unclean (e.g. Mt 23:25). All the practices there exposed come under the head of purification from uncleanness; the acts involving which were made so numerous that persons of the stricter sect could scarcely move without contracting some involuntary pollution. For this reason they never entered their houses without ablution, from the strong probability that they had unknowingly contracted some defilement in the streets; and they were especially careful never to eat without washing the hands (Mr 7:1-5), because they were peculiarly liable to be defiled; and as unclean hands were held to communicate uncleanness to all food (excepting fruit) which they touched, it was deemed that there was no security against eating unclean food but by always washing the hands ceremonially before touching any meat. We say "ceremonially," because this article refers only to ceremonial washing. The Israelites, who, like other Orientals, fed with their fingers, washed their hands before meals for the sake of cleanliness. SEE EATING. But these customary washings were distinct from the ceremonial ablutions, as they are now among the Moslems. There were, indeed, distinct names for them. The former was called simply נטַילָה, netilah', or washing, in which water was poured upon the hands; the latter was called , טבַילָה, tebilah', plunging, because the hands were immersed in water (Lightfoot on Mr 7:4). It was this last, namely, the ceremonial ablution, which the Pharisees judged to be so necessary. When, therefore, some of that sect remarked that our Lord's disciples ate "with unwashen hands" (Mr 7:2), it is not to be understood literally that they did not at all wash their hands, but that they did not plunge them ceremonially according to their own practice (πυγμῇ not "oft," as in the Auth. Vers., but with the fist, q. d. "up to the elbow," as Theophylact interprets). And this was expected from them only as the disciples of a religious teacher; for these refinements were not practiced by the class of people from which the disciples were chiefly drawn. Their wonder was, that Jesus had not inculcated this observance on his followers, and not, as some have fancied, that he had enjoined them to neglect what had been their previous practice. (See Otho, Lex. Rabb. s.v. Lotio.) SEE WASH.
In at least an equal degree the Pharisees multiplied the ceremonial pollutions which required the ablution of inanimate objects — "cups and pots, brazen vessels and tables" — the rules given in the law (Le 6:28; Le 11:32-36; Le 15:23) being extended to these multiplied contaminations. Articles of earthenware which were of little value were to be broken, and those of metal and wood were to be scoured and rinsed with water. All these matters are fully described by Buxtorf, Lightfoot, Schottgen, Gill, and other writers of the same class, who present many striking illustrations of the passages of Scripture which refer to them. The Mohammedan usages of ablution, which offer very clear analogies, are fully detailed in the third book of the Mishkat ul-Masabih (or "Collection of Musselman Traditions," translated from the Arabic by A. N. Matthews, Calcutta, 1809, 2 vols. 4to), and also in D'Ohsson's Tableau, liv. 1, chap. 1. SEE BAPTISM.
II. In the Roman Church ablution is a liturgical term, denoting the use of wine and water by the priest, after communion, to cleanse the chalice and his fingers. Two ablutions are made in the mass.
1. Wine alone is poured into the chalice, in order to disengage the particles, of either kind, which may be left adhering to the vessel, and is afterward drunk by the priest.
2. Wine and water are poured upon the priest's fingers into the chalice (see Boissonnet, Dict. des Rites, 1,65). SEE MASS.
III. In the Greek Church, ablution is a ceremony observed seven days after baptism, wherein the unction of the chrism is washed off from those who have been baptized (King, Greek Church). SEE CHRISM.
For the literature of the subject, in general, see T. Dassorius, De lustratione Judaeorum (Viteb. 1692); A. Froelund, De χειροκαιποδουιψίᾷ sacerdotum Hebraeorum (Hafn. 1695); O. Sperling, De baptismo ethnicorum (Hafn. 1700); J. Behm, De lotione Judoeorum et Christianorum: (Regiom. 1715); J. G. Leschner, De lustrationibus vett. gentilium praecidaneis (Viteb. 1709); J. Lomeier, De vett. gentilium lustrationibus (Ultraj. 1681, 1701); H. Lubert, De antiquo lavandi ritu (Lubec, 1670); J. J. Miller, De igne lustrico (Jen. 1660); T. Pfanner, De lotionibus Christianorum, in his Observ. Eccles. 1, 364-421. SEE WATER.