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G-d primed the Jews for the Revelation at Mount Sinai by commanding them to groom themselves and otherwise prepare for the great spectacle. One of the items included in this commandment was, “And they shall wash (v’chibsu) their clothes” (Ex. 19:10). This word for “washing” is an inflection of the term kevisah. In this essay, we will discuss various terms for washing and cleaning in biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, tracing them to their core etymological roots and trying to determine if and how these apparent synonyms differ from one another. The terms under discussion include kevisah, merikah, shetifah, rechitzah and hadachah.

In attempting to find a source for the notion that the Jews immersed in a mikvah at Mount Sinai, the Talmud (Yevamot 46b) first proposes that it is implied by the commandment “and they shall wash (v’chibsu) their clothes” (Ex. 19:10). The Talmud reasons that if the Jews were commanded to clean their clothes, this means that they were considered impure, and just as an impure person must immerse in a mikvah to purify himself and must also clean his clothes by also immersing them in a mikvah, so too were the Jews at Mount Sinai themselves required to immerse in a mikvah, along with the commandment to “clean” their clothes – which ostensibly means that they should be immersed in a mikvah.

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However, the Talmud rejects this possible proof-text by arguing that it is possible that in this context, when the Torah commands the Jews to clean their clothes, it refers to washing the clothes for the sake of cleanliness. If the clothes did not required immersing, then there is no reason to assume that it was required of the people themselves. Therefore, the Talmud seeks out other sources for the notion that the Jews immersed in a mikvah at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen of Vilna (1828-1905) writes that the Talmudic proposition that the Jews were required to cleanse their clothes at Sinai for cleanliness (rather than to purify them from ritual impurity) is also implied by Targum Onkelos to Ex. 19:10, who renders v’chibsu into Aramaic as v’yichavrun, which means “you shall whiten.” This translation does not follow Onkelos’s typical way of translating biblical injunctions to “wash” clothing by purifying them.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893) makes the same point, adding that the fact that the Bible used the word simlah (clothes) in this case, as opposed to beged (clothes), implies that the commandment only applies to the Jews’ outer clothing. He thus infers that this cleaning must be to honor the upcoming event at Mount Sinai with freshly laundered clothing rather than to purify their clothes from ritual impurity (because if the cleaning was intended to remove ritual impurity, then there is no reason why that impurity would apply only to their outer clothes and not their undergarments).

The Torah stipulates that a metal receptacle used for cooking the meat of a sin-offering must be thoroughly cleaned before being used for another purpose; it must undergo merikah and shetifah in water (Lev. 6:21). Rashi (to Zevachim 96b) explains that merikah refers to washing the vessel from the inside, while shetifah refers to washing its exterior. Maimonides (in his commentary to Zevachim 11:7) explains that these two terms refer to the quality of super-cleaning required for this: merikah refers to purging the vessel from any particles that cling to it, while shetifah refers to filling the vessel with water and scrubbing at it to clean it further.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) explains that rechitzah refers to cleaning something by washing it from the outside (as in pouring water from the laver onto one’s hands and feet in Ex. 30:19) or by washing something from the inside (as in putting water inside an animal’s innards to cleanse it of fecal matter in Lev. 17:16).

Shetifah, he explains, refers exclusively to cleaning from the outside and not penetrating the interior. Alternatively, he writes that the difference between rechitzah and shetifah is in the quantity of cleaning agent used for cleaning: shetifah implying more water used than rechitzah does because the act of shetifah is associated with mayim rabim – “much water” (Ps. 32:7).

A similar point is made by Radak (to I Kgs. 22:38), who notes that shetifah implies a stronger form of cleaning than does rechitzah.

Interestingly, Rabbi Wertheimer clarifies that shetifah only refers to washing something’s exterior when it appears as an active verb, but when inflections of shetifah appear as passive verbs, they imply that the item that was shutaf was cleansed both internally and externally. Since shetifah implies using “much water,” with this form of cleaning it was almost inevitable that both sides of the item in question would be cleansed.

Rabbi Wertheimer further clarifies the difference between shetifah and hadachah (typically translated as “rinsing”) by noting that both verbs primarily refer to cleaning something’s exterior, but that hadachah implies doing so with a minimal amount of water while shetifah implies using a lot of water. He finds proof to his assertion about the nature of hadachah from the following verse: “If G-d will cleanse (rechitzah) the excrement of the Daughters of Zion, and He will rinse (hadachah) the blood of Jerusalem from within it…” (Isa. 4:4). As Rabbi Wertheimer explains it, in this verse, the word hadachah is associated with blood, because blood can easily be washed away with a little bit of water (while cleaning off excrement requires more water).

The Kabbalistic work Sefer Hashem (ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms) contends that the difference between rechitzah and hadachah depends upon the substance being washed away; The Bible relates that King Solomon built ten lavers for the Temple in Jerusalem, explaining that their purpose was “to wash (rechitzah) in them, [and] to rinse (hadachah) the burnt-offerings in them” (II Chron. 4:6). Based on this verse, Sefer Hashem claims that hadachah refers specifically to using water to rinse off blood, while based on Prov. 30:12 and Isa. 4:4, he explains that rechitzah refers to using water to rinse off feces.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) writes that the difference between rechitzah and kevisah lies in what is being cleaned, while shetifah refers to the method of cleaning: Rechitzah refers to cleaning one’s entire body, as when totally immersing in a mikvah (Lev. 15.13, Num. 19:7), or cleaning select body parts, like washing one’s feet (Gen. 18:4) or face (Gen. 43:31). Furthermore, he notes that rechitzah can denote cleaning via immersing oneself in pre-existing water (Ex. 2:5, Num. 19:7) or via pouring water onto one’s person (Gen. 43:31, Ex. 30:21).

Unlike rechitzah, kevisah always refers to cleaning objects. It can refer to cleaning an entire object, such as when totally immersing a garment in a mikvah for ritual purification (Ex. 19:10, Lev. 11:25, 13:6), or when partially cleaning one part of a garment (Lev. 6:20). Also like rechitzah, kevisah can refer to immersing a garment into pre-existing water or to pouring water upon that garment. In another discussion of the difference between these words, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that rechitzah refers to cleaning or rinsing just the surface (e.g., the epidermis), while kevisah refers to cleaning something in a way that the water or cleaning agent penetrates through and through (as when one washes clothing, the water goes from the outside of the cloth through to the inside).

According to Rabbi Pappenheim, these two terms contrast with shetifah, which can refer to both cleaning one’s body (Lev. 15:11) and cleaning an object (Lev. 6:21, 15:12). Furthermore, while the former two terms can refer to bringing the person/item to the cleansing waters or bringing the waters to the person/item, the term shetifah applies exclusively to bringing the person/item to the cleansing waters. Rabbi Pappenheim clarifies that the core meaning of the triliteral root shin-tet-peh is “flow/stream.” When used in the context of “cleaning,” shetifah refers to bringing a person’s body or an item underneath flowing waters and vigorously shaking that body or item in order to allow the stream of water to clean it.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.