God 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 the essay before you, we will discuss various terms for “washing” / “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, hadachah, and kinuach.
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 such 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 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.
However, the Talmud rejects this possible proof-text by counter-arguing that it is possible that in this context, when the Torah commands the Jews to clean their clothes, this does not refer to immersing those clothes in a mikvah, but merely to washing them for the sake of cleanliness. If the clothes did not require immersing, then there is no reason to assume that the people themselves did. Because of this, 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 the sake of cleanliness (and not 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 literally means “you shall whiten.” This translation does not follow Oneklos’ 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 clothes, not to the underclothes that they wore. He thus infers that the purpose of this cleaning must be to honor the upcoming event at Mount Sinai with freshly laundered clothes, as opposed 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 the super-cleaning that is required: 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 even more.
Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that rechitzah refers to cleaning something by washing it from its outside (like pouring the waters from the laver onto one’s hands and feet in Ex. 30:19) or by washing something from the inside (like putting water inside the animal innards to cleanse it of fecal matter in Lev. 17:16). By contrast, he explains that shetifah refers exclusively to cleaning something from its exterior, but not penetrating inside. Alternatively, Rabbi Wertheimer writes that the difference between rechitzah and shetifah is in the quantity of the cleaning agent used for cleaning, as shetifah implies using more water 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 Kings 22:38), who notes that shetifah implies a stronger form of cleaning than rechitzah does.
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 lies in what matter is being washed away by the act: 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). Basing himself on this verse, Sefer Hashem claims that hadachah refers specifically to using water to rinse off blood, while basing himself on Proverbs 30:12 and Isaiah 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. He explains that rechitzah refers to cleaning one’s entire body, like when totally immersing oneself in a mikvah (Lev. 15.13, Num. 19:7), or 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).
As opposed to rechitzah, kevisah never refers to cleaning one’s body; rather it is always used when referring to cleaning objects, like clothes. Like rechitzah, kevisah 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 of something (e.g. one’s epidermis), while kevisah refers to cleaning something in a way that the water or cleaning agent penetrates through and through (like when one washes clothing, the water goes from the outside of the cloth through the inside).
As Rabbi Pappenheim explains it, 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.
Rabbi Avraham Bedersi compares rechitzah with hadachah by explaining that the former refers to a more intense form of “cleaning” something in order to scrub it of any dirtiness or grime, while the latter refers to merely “rinsing” something in a basic way. Moreover, he explains that shetifah refers to taking an essentially clean item and further running it under a strong current of water to make it appear even cleaner.
The way Rabbi Bedersi explains it, merikah differs from all of these terms in that it does not refer to cleaning something with water, but to buffing or polishing an item to soften it or remove rust/tarnish. In this sense, he explains that tamruk mentioned in Megillat Esther (2:3, 2:12) refers to some sort of cosmetic treatment that women would undergo to soften their skin and remove any blemishes on their exterior.
This fits with Rabbi Pappenheim’s understanding of the etymology of merikah and tamruk as deriving from the two-letter root REISH-KUF (“emptying”), because both of those terms refer to emptying something of unwanted blemishes and imperfections. Menachem Ibn Saruk lists both merikah and tamruk in his entry on the root MEM-REISH-KUF, but files them into separate categories, without even implying a connection between the two. However, Rashi (to Lev. 6:21) explains that merikah is indeed related to tamruk.
Speaking of Menachem and Rabbi Pappenheim, both of those biliteralist grammarians trace the term hadachah to the biliteral root DALET-CHET, whose core meaning is “to push away/remove.” They explain that hadachah is intended to “wash away” whatever can be rinsed off with water.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 21:25, Lev. 6:21) compares the term merikah to the word morag (“threshing tool”), by way of the interchangeability of KUF and GIMMEL. In doing so, he notes that merikah implies a penetrative, deep cleaning that goes beyond the surface. Interestingly, Machberet Menachem seems to understand that merikah even entails scratching off the surface layer in order to clean something.
Going back to the word kevisah, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) theorizes that the root KAF-BET-SAMECH/SIN means both “launder” and “young sheep” in allusion to the process of washing/cleaning the sheep’s wool. He further notes that the word rachel (“ewe”) is likewise related to rechitzah, because the Hebrew LAMMED apparently switches to a TZADI in Akkadian, in allusion to that same process. Rabbi Marcus finds a hint to the connection between rachel and rechitzah in Song of Songs 6:6 which uses both words in the same verse.
Although I have been unable to substantiate Rabbi Marcus’ claim regarding the interchangeability of LAMMED and TZADI, I will note that the Pesikta Rabbati expounds on the word keves (“young sheep”) as though it were related to kevisah (“washing,” “laundering”) as an allusion to the sacrificial lamb’s ability to “wash away” one’s sins.
An additional word for “washing” appears only in later Rabbinic Hebrew, but not in Biblical Hebrew: kinuach. This verb appears multiple times in the Mishna (including Brachot 8:3, Shabbat 21:2-3, Bava Batra 5:10, Keilim 28:2, and Parah 3:9), and refers to cleaning something by “wiping off” that which soils it. Rashi (to Isa. 47:11) maintains that kinuach is an expression of finality, as when something is “wiped away,” it is gone for good. It is probably in this sense that the term kinuach seudah (“the kinuach of the meal”) in rabbinic parlance came to refer to dessert.