How laundry stains were removed in Biblical days
This week’s Haftara (Yirmiyahu 2:4-28, 3:4, 4:1-2), the second of the three Haftarot of destruction speaks about how God is bitter and angry at the Jewish people for worshiping other gods.
They are told in 2:22, “Even were you to wash yourself with neter and use much borit upon yourself, your iniquity is the mark of a stain before me, says the Lord, God.”
Both neter and borit were laundry detergents that were used at the time of the Tanach and Talmud which were able to remove the toughest of stains such as bloodstains.
There is a dispute as to what exactly neter is. According to Yerushalmi, Shabbat 9:5, neter is natron, a naturally occurring form of sodium carbonate (commonly used in Egypt). Rashi in Avodah Zarah identifies neter as alum (which is white). Rambam translates neter as tafal in Arabic which is a type of chalk.
There is also a question as to what exactly borit is. The Talmud, Nida 62a states that it isn’t sulpher, as it is a plant. The Talmud suggests that it may be a type of aloe (not the common aloe), an herbal cleanser (possibly Mesembryanthemum). Rashi in Sanhedrin 49b says that neter is soapwort (Saponaria), a plant which is used to make soap.
The metaphor from Yirmiyahu 2:22 leaves no hope for repentance. No matter how much we scrub our laundry with the best detergents, we are not going to get the stains out. No matter how much we try to repent, our sins will still not be forgiven, the stains will remain.
This is very different from the quote that we find two chapters later in Yirmiyahu 4:14, “O Yerushalayim, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your thoughts of calamity lodge within you?”
Abravanel explains the difference: If you are wicked in secret but pious in public, God will know your inward evil and it will not count as repentance.
Nehama Leibowitz points out that 4:14 refers to washing your heart (true repentance that God will accept) while 2:22 depicts the laundering of a garment.
The nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av which begin today are a time that we traditionally refrain from washing our garments. Wouldn’t this be an appropriate time to focus on spiritually cleansing our hearts from any wrong that we may have committed?