There is no word in biblical Hebrew that precisely corresponds to the word “ritual.” The word mišpāṭ (“law, custom”) includes ritual laws and customs, as in the rules for the sacrificial portion of the priests (Deut 18:3; 1 Sam 2:13, see below). In the Priestly source (P), the etymological phrase laʿăbōd ʿăbōdâ (“to do work”) is a technical term for rites at the Tent of Meeting. In Joshua 22:27, a P-like (or Holiness School) composition, the term laʿăbōd ’et-ʿăbōdat yhwh (“to do the work of Yahweh”) refers specifically to sacrifices. Later sources (Chronicles, Nehemiah) extend this term to the rites of the Jerusalem Temple. Despite the lack of a fixed vocabulary, ritual laws and practices are central to the world of the Hebrew Bible.

What Is Ritual?

As Mary Douglas observes, “Ritual is pre-eminently a form of communication” (1973, p. 41). It communicates ideas and dispositions about salvation, authority, moral codes, cosmology, and collective memory. It also communicates on an instrumental and pragmatic level, pointing out that one is the kind of person who performs these rites, and hence belongs to a particular community. Ritual acts display and reinforce one’s place in the native systems of classification—as male or female, child or adult, priest or layperson, native or foreigner, and so forth.

Ritual acts publicly differentiate themselves from other more quotidian acts. In Douglas’s formulation, “ritual [is] defined as a routinized act diverted from its normal function” (1973, p. 20). “Routinized” refers to the formal procedures and entrenched practice of ritual actions. The strategic “diversion” of a ritual act from its ordinary function generates its communicative function as a cultural performance. Catherine Bell extends Douglas’s definition to include how these “diverted” activities establish and authorize the distinction between the sacred and the profane: “ritualization is a matter of various culturally specific strategies for setting some activities off from others, for creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ and for ascribing such distinction to realities thought to transcend the powers of human actors” (1992, p. 74).

The definitions of Douglas and Bell aptly characterize biblical rituals. The most prominent ritual in the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice, is a routinized and diverted performance of a meal. It is routinized in that it has formal and repeatable features, and it is diverted in that it does not occur in the domestic domain, but at Yahweh’s “table” (viz. the altar). It is a meal transposed into a “communion” between God and humans, one that articulates their mutual relationship and responsibilities, and whose regular performance sustains the orderly relationship of the holy and the profane (see further Hendel, 2007; Wright, 2008).

The biblical representations of ritual make it clear that this metaphysical order is often problematic and unpredictable, and that the performance of ritual actions are not necessarily effective. The drama of ritual entails that sometimes it does not work. The potential failure of ritual is one of its general features in the Hebrew Bible, hence the frequent incursion of danger or death in ritual texts and performances.

To draw a broad picture of ritual in the Hebrew Bible, I will address the features of reciprocity, formalism, symbolic and instrumental effects, and focalization of the body. I will then sketch some distinctive features of the Priestly ritual system and the classical prophetic critique of ritual.


The first ritual act in the Hebrew Bible—Cain’s sacrifice—illustrates the feature of reciprocity, which, as Marcel Mauss (1950) established, is basic to many ritual acts. In Genesis 4:3, “Cain brought from the produce of the soil a gift (minḥâ) for Yahweh.” The word minḥâ means “gift, tribute,” and here is used to designate a sacrificial offering. (In the Priestly source, the term is further specialized to mean “grain offering.”) This ritual is, in Douglas’s sense, an act “diverted from its normal function”—it is not an ordinary secular gift or tribute, but a formal cultic gift of tribute to Yahweh.

As a gift, sacrifice entails the obligation of reciprocity. As Mauss explains, in traditional and archaic societies the giving and receiving of gifts is the basis of many forms of social exchange. It involves the code of honor and the constitution of personal and moral identity:

"If one gives things and returns them, it is because one is giving and returning “respects” [i.e., paying respect]. … Yet it is also because by giving one is giving oneself and if one gives oneself it is because one “owes” oneself—one’s person and one’s goods—to others.(1950, p. 46)"

This analysis of the gift aptly captures Cain’s position in offering his minḥâ to Yahweh. He is paying respect to Yahweh, to whom he owes his person and his goods, by means of a public ritual gift. Cain’s gift implies an obligation of reciprocity. Yet for no explicit reason, Yahweh does not accept it: “But to Cain and his gift, he had no regard” (Gen 4:5). It is a failed gift, which, instead of setting into motion the obligation of reciprocity and solidarity, starts instead an opposite cycle of shame and revenge. Cain’s shame at the non-acceptance of his gift in favor of Abel’s impels him to slay his brother. The act of fratricide is a perverse distortion of proper sacrifice—the ritual slaying of an animal—as Cain avenges his shame by murdering his rival. The failure of Cain’s gift yields exile rather than solidarity. The story seems to suggest that either something about Cain’s disposition spoils the sacrifice, or that Yahweh’s favor cannot automatically be acquired. The reciprocity of the gift, as in human-to-human exchange, is unpredictable.

The failure of Cain’s sacrifice contests the ideal of sacrifice embodied in the altar law in the Covenant Code:

"An altar from the soil you will make for me, and you will sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and well-being offerings from your sheep and cattle; in every place where you call my name I will come to you and bless you.(Exod 20:24; reading tazkîr, “call upon,” rather than ’azkîr; see Zakovitch, 1996, p. 60*)"

This law delineates the reciprocity of the sacrificial system. The Israelites are to “call” Yahweh by offering gifts of sacrifice at the local altars, and Yahweh will respond with his efficacious blessing. The cycle of gift and blessing establishes and privileges the solidarity—namely the covenant—between Israel and Yahweh, including the continuing obligation of reciprocity (see further Anderson, 1992, pp. 871–872).


The feature of formalism is indicated in the altar law by specifying the places and kinds of sacrifice. The sacred places must be authorized by customary practice (“every place where you call my name”) and the forms of sacrifice are burnt offerings (ʿōlôt) and well-being offerings (šĕlāmîm). These are the main categories of voluntary offerings. The Priestly source later specifies additional kinds of expiatory sacrifices (Lev 4–7). The different kinds of sacrifice are distinguished by culinary procedures (burning into smoke vs. boiling or roasting), division of the animal (fat vs. meat), portions consumed by different agents (Yahweh, priests, laypersons), and the disposition of blood (Hendel, 1989).

The importance of ritual formalism is illustrated by the malfeasance of the wicked priests of Shiloh, Hophni and Phineas:

"Now Eli’s sons were wicked, they did not know Yahweh. Regarding the portion due to the priests from the people, whenever someone would make a (well-being) offering, the priest’s assistant would come when the meat was boiling with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would thrust into the pot … and whatever the fork brought up the priest would take away.(1 Sam 2:12–14)"

In violation of this procedure, Hophni and Phineas demand meat before it has been cooked and before the fat has been burned. This violation of the formal procedures of sacrifice defines these two as wicked priests, as “raw” and immoral. As a consequence, Hophni and Phineas die in battle, and the Ark of the Covenant, which was in their care, is captured by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:11). Since the priests violate the rules of sacrifice, Yahweh reciprocates with disaster and death. By this tragic end, the story frames the necessity of the formal laws of ritual performance. The routinization of these procedures enables the Israelites and the priests to survive the potential dangers of ritual reciprocity with God.

Symbolic and Instrumental Effects.

The ritual meal has a mixture of symbolic and instrumental layers. Its performance enacts a symbolic model of the proper relationship between the worshiper and Yahweh and, on the human side, between the laity and the priests. It is also instrumental, for it is an actual meal, which is often described as a joyous feast (e.g., Lev 23:40; Num 10:10; Deut 12:7). The feast begins when the cooked meat is distributed to the worshipers. (The priest’s portion also comes from the cooked meat.) Yahweh’s portion is disembodied and more symbolic, having been turned entirely into smoke. Yet his portion is still consumed, after a sense, by its aroma (cf. Ezek 44:7, where Yahweh refers to the sacrificial fat as “my food”). At Noah’s postdiluvian sacrifice, “Yahweh smelled the pleasant aroma ([a]ḥ hannîḥō[a]),” which sets into motion the reciprocity of human gift and divine blessing (Gen 8:21–22). The ritual meal integrates the symbolic with the instrumental.

A striking instance of this ritual duality is the story of the ritual bread at the sanctuary of Nob. David, a fugitive from Saul, comes to the site and asks the priest to provide bread for his band of brigands. The priest, who is “afraid before David,” replies that he has no “profane bread” (leḥem ḥōl), only “holy bread” (leḥem qōdeš) (1 Sam 21:1–5). The implication is that laypeople may eat only profane bread and only holy functionaries, that is, priests, may eat the holy bread (as is the case in the Holiness Code in Lev 24:9). But the terrified priest makes an exception to this rule on the condition that David’s men “have kept away from women,” meaning they are in a state of ritual purity. David vouches for their ritual purity and takes the holy bread.

This language about holiness and purity masks the violent overtones of the scene, in which a mercenary chieftain is demanding provisions from a rural priest. By their verbal transaction, which negotiates the ritual distinctions between holiness/profaneness and purity/impurity, the priest modifies the ritual law, and David receives his provisions without violence or dishonor. The contrast between holy and profane bread—between symbolic and instrumental food—is blurred in a way that saves lives and reputations. Later authorities cite this story to illustrate that ritual laws may be suspended when life is at risk (Mark 3:25–26 and parallels; b. Menaḥ. 95b–96a). It is perhaps ironic that it is primarily the priest’s life that is at risk in the exchange over the ritual bread.

The Body.

Biblical ritual often focuses on the body. As Douglas observes, “the body is capable of furnishing a natural system of symbols” (1973, p. 12). Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes that bodily practices are “highly charged with social meanings and values,” and hence are a rich repertoire for ritualization (1990, p. 71). Ritual is, he maintains, a form of “enacted belief, instilled by childhood learning that treats the body as a living memory pad” (1990, p. 68). Ritual redirects the elementary acts of the body into second-order actions, which themselves become habitual practices. Biblical rituals often mobilize the elementary bodily acts involving food, sex, and death.

In the Hebrew Bible, as we have seen, eating practices are ritualized in the system of sacrifice. Sexual practices are similarly ritualized. When the priest of Nob asks if David’s men “have kept away from women,” he is referring to the temporary state of ritual impurity that is caused by sexual intercourse. This sexual field is addressed in the Priestly purity laws in Leviticus 15, where it is classified with other instances of genital discharges. The Priestly laws are arranged in chiastic fashion, foregrounding the distinction of male and female, with sexual intercourse bridging the transition from male to female genital fluids (Milgrom, 1991–2001, p. 905).

(a) Abnormal male genital flow (Lev 15:2–15)

(b) Normal male genital flow (ejaculation) (vv. 16–17)

(c) Heterosexual intercourse (v. 18)

(b') Normal female genital flow (menstruation) (vv. 19–24)

(a') Abnormal female genital flow (vv. 25–30)

The common feature in these purity laws is viscous fluids that flow from the penis or vagina. (Note that urine is not an agent of impurity, nor is blood from other parts of the body.) These genital flows are associated with sexuality, either directly or by metonymy. Their flow, whether normal and abnormal, generates a condition of ritual impurity. The reason is nowhere given, but we may infer that these flows, which implicate sexual processes, are incompatible with the holy. The practical consequence of the resulting states of ritual impurity is that one cannot come into contact with holy things, and therefore one cannot enter into holy space to offer sacrifice. The ritual cycle of gift and reciprocity is interrupted for those in a state of ritual impurity.

Why should this be so? As David Wright observes, the sources of impurity in P “arise from distinctly human conditions … death, disease, and sexual processes. … The mortal condition is incompatible with God’s holiness” (1992, p. 739). In this ritual subsystem, genital flows that signify human sexuality are incompatible with the holy. The all-too-human body—marked particularly by its traits of mortality and sexuality—is incommensurate with God’s cultic presence.

These states of ritual impurity have different durations but symmetrical rites of purification and reintegration. For abnormal male and female genital flows (a and aʹ), after recovering from the disease the rites of purification and reintegration last for eight days and involve the sacrifice of two birds, one as a purification offering (ḥaṭṭāʾt) and one as a burnt offering (ʿōlâ). For normal male and female genital flows (b and bʹ), lesser rites of purification involve laundering clothes and washing the body. For normal female genital flow (menstruation), the duration of impurity and purification is seven days. For normal male genital flow (ejaculation), including heterosexual intercourse, the impurity lasts until evening.

By combining natural processes together with diseases, this ritual system indicates that impurity from genital liquids is not a moral fault, but a condition of human embodiment. The condition of human sexuality is the common denominator, which is clearly a positive trait. In the Priestly source, sexuality is a divine command and blessing (“be fruitful and multiply,” Gen 1:28; 9:7). The consequent state of ritual impurity seems to be a consideration of propriety rather than fault. Karel van der Toorn aptly characterizes the condition of impurity as a matter of ritualized etiquette:

"[In the ancient Near East,] cultic ceremonies are not concerned with ethics as we understand them; they focus on what can be termed the etiquette, the seemingly arbitrary rules of conduct to be observed in the intercourse with the gods. As such the lists of tabooed food, sacred animals and the like are founded on the ethical command to worship the god in a proper manner.(1985, p. 12)"

In this sense human sexuality and its bodily metonyms are conditions that must not be displayed before the holy, thus generating the rules of ritual etiquette. This analysis is supported by the law that a priest must not expose his penis in the sacred precincts on penalty of death (Exod 28:42–43; which develops a law in the Covenant Code, Exod 20:23) and the story of Phineas’s execution of the copulating couple in the sacred qubbâ (“tent [?]”; Num 25:6–9). Human sex—and its liquid flux—must be restrained in the holy proximity of God’s body.

A Restricted Code.

According to Douglas, we should “consider ritual as a restricted code” (1973, p. 77). A restricted code is an in-group discourse that relies on the shared practices and assumptions of a tightly bound hierarchy. She writes, “The restricted code is deeply enmeshed in the immediate social structure, utterances have a double purpose: they convey information, yes, but they also express the social structure, embellish and reinforce it. The second function is the dominant one” (1973, p. 44). The Priestly writings are a prime example of a restricted code. It is the discourse of a highly hierarchical social group, for which authority inheres in their genealogy and practices, not in their rhetoric. Their laws and procedures therefore do not require persuasion or explanation, but rely on obedience to their office. As Menahem Haran observes, the Priestly writers do not explain their laws:

"Nowhere do the priestly writers themselves, in spite of their tendency to indulge in details and repetitions, explain the nature of these prohibitions in an orderly manner. They are referred to incidentally, when describing other matters, or are suggested indirectly as if they did not require explicit mention.(Haran, 1978, p. 175)"

Douglas describes the Priestly writing style and “thought-style” as correlative and analogical:

"Instead of explaining why an instruction has been given, or even what it means, it adds another similar instruction, and another and another, thus producing its highly schematized effect. … Sometimes the analogies are hierarchized, one with another making inclusive sets, or sometimes they stand in opposed pairs or contrast sets. They serve in place of causal explanations.(1999, p. 18)"

A perspicuous example is the ritualization of clothing in Priestly ritual law. As Haran has detailed, there is an elaborate set of correspondences between the priestly garments and the degrees of holiness in the Tabernacle and its courtyard (1978, pp. 158–174). Nowhere is this set of correspondences explained, rather it is “shown” in the textual representations and lexical correspondences in the ritual laws of Exodus 26–28. The correlations can be schematized as follows, indicating the graded holiness of ritual space and the priestly hierarchy.

Holy entry-curtains Holy clothing Material
Outer courtyard Priestly undergarments Twisted linen
Outer Tabernacle Priestly sash Tricolor wool, twisted linen, rōqēm-work
Holy of Holies High priest’s outer garments Tricolor wool, twisted linen, hōšēb-work

The boundary of the outer courtyard corresponds to the basic priestly garments, made from twisted linen. Priests officiate in this area, and ritually pure laypeople may enter to offer sacrifices. The boundary of the Tabernacle corresponds to the priestly sash, made of a mixture of wool and linen, woven in the style called rōqēm (“embroidered”). The mixture of wool and linen is prohibited for laypeople (Lev 19:19, from the Holiness Code), and laypeople may not approach the Tabernacle. The boundary of the Holy of Holies, inside the Tabernacle, corresponds to the outer garments of the high priest, made from mixed fibers and woven in hōšēb (“technical”) style. The high priest is distinguished from the other priests by his garments and by his authority to enter the Holy of Holies (on the Day of Atonement) without the penalty of death (Lev 16:2–3). The high priest’s outerwear—the breast-pouch and ʾēpôd—are also interwoven with gold, which corresponds to the gold plating of the holy objects inside the Holy of Holies.

As Haran observes, “this correlation is not merely a matter of externals. The technical-material equivalence is meant as a concrete expression of an identity of inwardness and function” (1978, p. 171). The correlations between the priestly garments and the zones of the ritual compound display the graded holiness of the priests, the sacred zones, and the ritual practices. The correlations of clothing and curtains indicate who may enter which boundary, thus displaying the priestly hierarchy and its grades of authority in sensible signs.

These correlations are symbolic, displaying the sacred hierarchies, and instrumental, in that they protect from the danger of Yahweh’s presence. Only bodies initiated into ritual holiness can withstand the proximity of Yahweh’s divine body. Each of the zones of passage is hedged with danger, for violation of these boundaries is, in theory, punished by instant death. This is the implication of the fiery death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, “when they encroached upon the presence of Yahweh and died” (Lev 16:1; cf. Lev 10:2). The priestly clothes are not only insignias of authority, but they are also, in a sense, sacred armor or camouflage (Propp, 2006, p. 522; Schipper and Stackert 2013). The holy weave has a symbolic and protective character, as does the high priest’s gold tiara, which bears the inscription “Holy to Yahweh” (Exod 28:36), a mark of protected entry into the holiest zone.

The Priestly ritual laws exemplify the features of a restricted code, operating by correlation and analogy rather than by explanation. Note, for example, the following correlations. The priests’ bodies must have no mûm (“blemish, imperfection”)—no broken limbs or crushed testicles, and so forth—in the same manner as the bodies of sacrificial animals (Lev 21:16–24; Lev 22:17–25, from the Holiness Code; see Olyan, 2000, pp. 103–114). The ritual daubing of right thumb, earlobe, and big toe with blood in the sanctification of the priests and the priestly garments occurs also in the ritual of purification/reincorporation of the healed leper (Exod 29:20; Lev 14:14). Hyssop, cedar, and crimson are ritual ingredients in the latter ceremony and also in the production of the ritual ashes of the red cow, which purifies from corpse impurity (Lev 14:6; Num 19:6). Analogous to the body of the leper are mildewed garments and houses, which also have “leprosy” (ṣārāʿat) and require ritual purification (Lev 13). Occasionally one can infer the logic of these correlations—elsewhere leprosy is a metaphorical condition of death (cf. Num 12:12, “let her not be as one dead”). But many of these correlations are not susceptible to explanation. They belong to what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls the “science of the concrete” (1966, pp. 1–33), whereby objects and signs are manipulated to create sensible systems that conjoin disparate fields of experience. The worshiper sees, in a way that does not require verbal justification, that priests, altars, and sacrificial animals “go together” in ritual, just as the high priest “goes together” with the Holy of Holies, and the leprous skin “goes together” with mildewed walls.

This restricted code reinforces the social structure of the priesthood and justifies its supporting metaphysics. It is symbolic and instrumental in that its performance articulates and constitutes reality. As Bell states of ritual, “it acts and it actuates” (1992, p. 195). The biblical priests say nothing in the performance of their rites; they operate in a “sanctuary of silence” (Knohl, 1995). Priestly ritual is a restricted code that requires no explanation.


In the wisdom books and the Deuteronomic writings, ritual practices are deemphasized in favor of the practice of righteousness and obedience. Moshe Weinfeld describes this as a secularizing tendency, in which traditional cultic practices were “transformed into an abstract religion which did not necessarily require any external expression” (1972, p. 190). A pertinent example is Samuel’s reproof of Saul: “Is Yahweh pleased with burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of Yahweh? For obedience is better than sacrifice; to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). The book of Proverbs affirms this view: “Doing justice and righteousness is more acceptable to Yahweh than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3). In this secularizing trend, sacrifice and other ritual practices become merely “an expression of gratitude to the Deity” (Weinfeld, 1972, p. 212), rather than gifts that establish a reciprocity with God. The verbal contrast between “sacrifice” and “obedience/justice” indicates a hierarchy of values in which interior disposition and right action are more essential than ritual practices.

This contrast between ritual and ethics becomes radicalized in the writings of the classical prophets (Hendel, 2012). According to Amos 5:21–24, Yahweh “hates” and “rejects” the people’s rituals, including festivals, sacrifices, and sacred songs. He desires only ethics and right behavior: “Let justice roll like water, and righteousness like an eternal stream.” This is no longer a hierarchy of positive values, but of rejection of ritual practices as such. Other classical passages of anti-ritualism stemming from the eighth-century prophets are Isaiah 1:10–17 (which includes the rejection of prayer) and Micah 6:6–8 (which satirizes the idea that Yahweh desires “one-year old calves”). Hosea 8:13 seems to describe sacrifice as simply the people’s excuse for eating meat: “They love [?] sacrifices; they sacrifice meat, and they eat it.” The ritualized meal is collapsed back into a purely instrumental meal. These prophetic texts announce that Yahweh does not require ritual, and that moreover he rejects and despises it. The relative contrast between ritual and ethics in the wisdom literature is intensified into an either/or, in which ritual acts no longer have any significance. Ritual is merely an outcome of false consciousness, a crass excuse to eat meat, and no longer entails a relationship of reciprocity. As Bourdieu observes, “once the possibility is admitted that the ‘cycle of reciprocity’ may not apply, the whole logic of practice is transformed” (1977, p. 9). The logic of the gift is undermined by the anti-ritualism of the classical prophets.

Douglas observes that anti-ritualism is generally rooted in an individualistic social context, in which there is aversion to hierarchy and the discursive authority of restricted codes (1973, pp. 19–39). The classical prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, are exemplary cases of individuals operating in such a social field. They are not institutional prophets, but free agents addressing various strata of society, whose authority derives from personal charisma rather than any institutional status. Their religious knowledge comes not from formal rites of initiation, but from visionary experiences unmediated by ritual acts. Their valorization of direct knowledge of God naturally inclines them to mistrust conventional ritualized forms of sacred knowledge. For these prophets, ritual “becomes a despised form of communication” (Douglas, 1973, p. 20).

Yet despite the denunciations of the classical prophets, the logic of the gift persisted in biblical religion. Psalm 50, from the Second Temple period, shows how the language of anti-ritualism was neutralized and reintegrated into the ritual practices of prayer and sacrifice. The psalm quotes Yahweh, “I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, / and your burnt offerings, made to me daily,” even as he grants that he does not need them: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, and drink the blood of rams?” Yet if one offers sacrifices of thanks (tôdâ) and fulfills one’s vows, then God will reciprocate: “Call on me on a day of trouble; I will rescue you, and you shall honor me.” The obligation of the gift and the communicative system of ritual absorb the language of anti-ritualism into the ideology of reciprocity. The critique of the classical prophets is neutralized by appropriating their language into prayer that extols—and perhaps accompanies—sacrifice.

The dialectic of ritual practice and prophetic anti-ritualism emerges anew in the New Testament and in rabbinic Judaism, both religious systems without a Temple, but for whom specific ritual acts involving the body, sex, and death retain significance. Sacrifice is transposed into the Eucharist, or into halakhic discourse about its former and future practice. The body and food continue to be a focal point of ritual, hedging ordinary behaviors with purity and danger (Boyarin, 1995; Brown, 1988; Bynum, 1988). This dialectic plays out in the secularizing trends of modernity, taking different forms in, for instance, the Reformation, the Jewish Enlightenment, Vatican II Catholicism, and fundamentalism. Ritual and anti-ritualism remain the practical idiom of biblical religions.




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Ronald Hendel