Ritual washing in Judaism
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In Judaism, ritual washing, or ablution, takes two main forms. A tevilah (טְבִילָה) is a full body immersion in a mikveh, and a netilat yadayim which is the washing of the hands with a cup (see Handwashing in Judaism).
References to ritual washing are found in the Hebrew Bible, and are elaborated in the Mishnah and Talmud. They have been codified in various codes of Jewish law and tradition, such as Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (12th century) and Joseph Karo's Shulchan Aruch (16th century.) These customs are most commonly observed within Orthodox Judaism. In Conservative Judaism, the practices are normative with certain leniencies and exceptions. Ritual washing is not generally performed in Reform Judaism.
The Hebrew Scriptures include various regulations about bathing:
- And whoever he that hath issue (a zav, ejaculant with an unusual discharge) touches without having rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.(Leviticus 15:11)
A subsequent seven clean days are then required, culminating in a ritual and temple offering before the zav is clean of his malady:
- Now in case the one having a running discharge would become clean from his running discharge, he must then count for himself seven days for his purification, and he must wash his garments and bathe his flesh in running water; and he must be clean. And on the eighth day he should take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and he must come to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest.(Leviticus 15:13-14)
And also references to hand-washing:
- I will wash my hands in innocence; so will I compass Thine altar, O LORD (Psalms 26:6)
Late Second Temple period
Philo of Alexandria refers to ritual washing in the context of the Temple and Leviticus, but also speaks of spiritual "washing." At Qumran basins which served as baths have been identified, and among the Dead Sea scrolls texts on maintaining ritual purity reflect the requirements of Leviticus.
Both traditional religious and secular scholars agree that ritual washing in Judaism was derived by the Rabbis of the Talmud from a more extensive set of ritual washing and purity practices in use in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, based on various verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and received traditions. There is disagreement, however, about the origins and meanings of these practices. This article first describes these practices as they exist in contemporary traditional Judaism, then discusses various alternative perspectives on their nature, origins, and meaning.
Traditional Judaism requires certain types of ritual washing. Some of these types do not require a special ritual body of water (and can be done with tap water):
- Netilat yadayim ("Raising [after ritually washing] the hands"), also known as Mayim Rishonim, which is done with a blessing, prior to eating any bread with a meal
- Netilat Yadayim Shacharit ("Raising [after ritually washing] the hands of the morning"), when getting up in the morning after a full night's sleep, or even after a lengthy nap, by pouring a large cup of water over one's hands, alternating three times.
- Netilat yadayim (without a blessing) to remove tuma ("impurity") after:
- Touching objects that convey tumah such as:
- A part of the body customarily covered (private parts, back, arm pits, etc.)
- Inside of nose or ear
- The scalp (but not if one just touched the hair)
- Leather shoes
- A ritually unclean insect or
- Cutting one's hair or nails
- Taking off one's shoes
- Visiting a cemetery
- Sexual intercourse. Some communities observe a requirement for washing one's body (which may be done with tap water) after the above or after otherwise experiencing a seminal emission since these activities make the man baal keri (one who is impure due to ejaculation.)
- Touching objects that convey tumah such as:
- After visiting the bathroom, the ritual washing of one's hands as a symbol of both bodily cleanliness and of removing human impurity – see Netilat yadayim above.
- To remove tumat met ("impurity from death") after participating in a funeral procession or coming within four cubits of a corpse
- During a Passover Seder, netilat yadayim is performed without any blessing being recited, before the eating of a vegetable, called karpas, prior to the main meal.
- Every Kohen present has his hands ritually washed in synagogue by the Levi'im (Levites) before uttering the Priestly Blessing in front of the congregation.
- Some have the custom of washing their hands prior to scribal work
Other occasions require full immersion in a special body of water, such as a spring, stream, or mikveh:
- By a married Jewish woman after her niddah period concludes following menstruation or other uterine bleeding and she wishes to resume conjugal relations with her husband. This requires special preparation.
- The day before ("eve of") Yom Kippur and other Festivals
- By some Orthodox Jews on Friday afternoons (in preparation for Shabbat)
- When converting to Judaism.
- Taharah, ("Purification"), the ritual washing and cleansing, and immersion in a mikveh according to some customs, of a Jew's body prior to burial.
Prior to ascending the Temple Mount by those Orthodox authorities who permit ascending the Temple mount (and also by the Masorti movement in Israel). For this purpose an ordinary mikveh is not sufficient—it requires a pool of "living water," i.e. a spring, river, or a pool attached to one of these.
According to Conservative Judaism
Some rabbis within Conservative Judaism advise non-married women who choose to engage in sexual activity to also observe niddah and immersion in a mikveh.
Washing the hands
General basis in Jewish law
The Talmud used the requirement of washing the hands in Leviticus 15:11 as a hint for general hand washing law, using asmachta - a talmudical hermeneutics form in which the verse used as a hint rather than an exegesis.
The general Hebrew term for ritual hand washing is netilat yadayim, meaning lifting up of the hands. The term "the washing of hands" after excretion is sometimes referred to as "to wash asher yatzar" referring to the berakhah (blessing) said which starts with these words.
Halakha (Jewish law) requires that the water used for ritual washing be naturally pure, unused, not contain other substances, and not be discoloured. The water also must be poured from a vessel as a human act, on the basis of references in the Bible to this practice, e.g. Elisha pouring water upon the hands of Elijah. Water should be poured on each hand at least twice. A clean dry substance should be used instead if water is unavailable.
Contemporary practice is to pour water on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence; this ritual is now known by the Yiddish term negel vasser, meaning nail water. This Yiddish term is also used for a special cup used for such washing.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם Blessed are you, HaShem our God King of the universe Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us concerning the elevation of hands.
The Babylonian Talmud discusses two types of washing at meals: washing before a meal is described as first waters (the Hebrew term is mayim rishonim), and after a meal is known as last waters (the Hebrew term is mayim aharonim). The first term has generally fallen from contemporary usage; the second term has stuck. The modern term for the former is Ntillat yadayim, washing of hands. Washing before meals is normative in Orthodox Judaism.
The Gemarah of the Babylonian Talmud contains homiletic descriptions of the importance of the practice, including an argument that washing before meals is so important that neglecting it is tantamount to unchastity, and risks divine punishment in the form of sudden destruction or poverty. The discussion of mayim acharonim, washing after meals, contains a suggestion that washing after meals, as a health measure, is the more important of the two washings, on grounds that the salt used as a preservative in food could cause blindness if the eyes were rubbed without washing.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explained that our involvement in the physical act of eating has the potential to diminish our sense of holiness. To counteract this influence, we wash our hands after the meal. The Talmudic Sages spoke of washing away the "salt of Sodom" – a place whose very name is a symbol of selfishness and indifference to others. "This dangerous salt, which can blind our eyes to the needs of others, is rendered harmless through the purifying ritual of mayim acharonim."
Although mayim acharonim was once not widely practiced (for example, until recently it did not appear in many Orthodox Passover Haggadahs) it has undergone something of a revival and has become more widely observed in recent years, particularly for special meals such as the Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Conservative Judaism has supported discontinuing the practice of mayim acharonim on the grounds that the rabbis of the Talmud instituted it as a health measure, and since modern foods no longer contain preservatives so dangerous as to cause blindness upon contact with the eyes, washing the hands after meals is no longer required and can be discontinued by contemporary rabbinic decision.
Only the washing before the meal is generally done outside Orthodox Judaism.
According to the Shulchan Aruch, a person should wash both hands before prayer, based on a tradition requiring ritual purification upon entering the Temple in Jerusalem, in whose absence prayer, in Orthodox Judaism, serves in its place.
Before the Priestly Blessing
In Orthodox Judaism (and, in some cases, in Conservative Judaism), Kohanim, members of the priestly class, offer the Priestly Blessing before the congregation on certain occasions. Before performing their offices, they are required to wash their hands. Judaism traditionally traces this requirement to the Torah:
- And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat; when they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to cause an offering made by fire to smoke unto the LORD.
It is customary for Levites to pour the water over the hands of the Kohanim and to assist them in other ways. In many communities, washing the feet before the Priestly Blessing is not practiced in the absence of a Temple in Jerusalem.
The Talmud states God commanded Jews to wash the hands and provides the text of the netilat yadaim blessing still in use.
According to the Shulchan Aruch a person who slept is required to wash upon arising, and says the natilat yadayim blessing.
Full-body immersion (Tvilah)
There are several occasions on which biblical or rabbinical regulations require immersion of the whole body, referred to as tvilah. Depending on the circumstances, such ritual bathing might require immersion in "living water" - either by using a natural stream or by using a mikveh (a specially constructed ritual bath, connected directly to a natural source of water, such as a spring).
This article discusses the requirements of immersion in Rabbinic Judaism and its descendants. Some other branches of Judaism, such as Falasha Judaism, have substantially different practices including the requirement of an actual spring or stream.
Conversion to Judaism
Bodily fluids and skin conditions
The Torah prescribes rituals addressing the skin condition known as tzaraath and unusual genital discharges in a man or women (Zav/Zavah), which required special sacrifices and rituals in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem including immersion in a mikveh. In addition, a period of ritual impurity follows a seminal discharge (keri) and a women's niddah period (menstruation), ending with ritual immersion.
The practice of checking for tzaraath fell out of use with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of sacrificial rites. However, each of the other requirements remains in effect to some extent in Orthodox Judaism and (to a lesser degree) in Conservative Judaism.
Niddah remains fully observed in Orthodox Judaism and normative in Conservative Judaism. Women's ritual immersion prior to resuming sexual relations following their niddah period remains the principal use of contemporary mikvehs.
A woman experiencing uterine blood not part of normal menstruation was classified as a zavah in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem and remained in a state of ritual impurity for 7 days prior to immersion. Today, the law of zavah remains in effect in Orthodox Judaism, in two respects. Due to extreme conditions in Roman Palestine in the time of the Amoraim, women's periods became irregular, and women became unable to determine whether or not their discharges were regular (niddah) or irregular (zavah). As a result, women adapted a stringency combining the niddah and zavah periods, refraining from intercourse and physical contact with their husbands for seven days of the zavah period following menstruation, for a total of approximately 12 days per month, which Orthodox women continue to observe today. The laws of zavah are also applied, as in Biblical times, to uterine blood discharges outside regular menstruation. Such circumstances are often interpreted leniently, however, and rabbinic stratagems have been devised to lessen their severity. Women experiencing irregularities (droplets) are sometimes advised to wear coloured underwear to mitigate the detectability of evidence of zavah status and hence a need to determine that a woman is a zavah.
Men experiencing a seminal discharge, including through regular marital intercourse, were prohibited from entering the Temple in Jerusalem and required to immerse in a mikveh, remaining ritually impure until the evening. The Talmud ascribes to the Great Assembly of Ezra a Rabbinic decree imposing further restrictions on men ritually impure from a seminal discharge, including a prohibition on studying Torah and from participating in services.
Maimonides wrote a responsum lifting the decree of Ezra, based on an opinion in the Talmud stating that it had failed to be observed by a majority of the community and the Jewish people found themselves unable to sustain it. However, Maimonides continued to follow the Keri restrictions as a matter of personal observance. Since then, observance of the rules of Keri and hence regular mikveh use by men fell into disuse in many communities. Hasidic Judaism, however, revived the practice of regular mikveh use, advocating regular daily mikveh use as a way of achieving spiritual purity. The growth of Hasidic Judaism resulted in a revival of mikveh use by men. In addition, some Sephardic and Mizrahi communities continued to observe the rules of keri throughout.
Contact with a carcass
According to Leviticus, anyone who comes into contact with or carries any creature that hadn't been deliberately killed by shechita was regarded by the biblical regulations as having made themselves unclean by doing so, and therefore was compelled to immerse their entire body. This regulation is immediately preceded by the rule against eating anything still containing blood, and according to biblical scholars this is also the context of the regulation about not eating non-sacrifices - that the regulation only treats such consumption as unclean if there is a risk of blood still remaining within the carcass. In the version of this regulation in Deuteronomy, eating the bodies of such creatures isn't described as making an individual ritually impure, nor requires the eater to wash their body, but instead such consumption is expressly forbidden, although the creature is allowed to be passed on to a stranger, who is permitted to eat it.
Contact with a corpse
Anyone who came into contact with a human corpse, or grave, was so ritually impure that they had to be sprinkled with the water produced from the red heifer ritual, in order to become ritually pure again; however, the person who carried out the red heifer ritual and who sprinkled the water, was to be treated as having become ritually impure by doing so. According to biblical scholars, this ritual derives from the same origin as the ritual described in Deuteronomy for a group of people to atone for murder by an unknown perpetrator, according to which a heifer is killed at a stream, and hands are washed over it; biblical scholars believe that these are both ultimately cases of sympathetic magic, and similar rituals existed in Greek and Roman mythology. The masoretic text describes the water produced from the red heifer ritual as a sin offering; some English translations discount this detail, because it differs from other sin offerings by not being killed at the altar, although biblical scholars believe that this demonstrates a failure by these translations to understand the meaning of sin offerings.
Treatment of a corpse
No explicit regulations are expressed in the bible concerning the treatment of a corpse itself, although historic rabbinical sources saw an implication that the dead should be thoroughly washed per Ecclesiastes, as children are washed when born; according to Eliezer ben Joel HaLevi, a prominent rishon, argued that the corpse should be cleansed carefully, including the ears and fingers, with nails pared and hair combed, so that the corpse could be laid to rest in the manner that the person had visited the synagogue during life. Washing of corpses was not observed among the Jews living in Persian Babylon, for which they were criticised as dying in filth, without a candle and without a bath; at the time, the non-Jewish Persians were predominantly Zoroastrian, and consequently believed that dead bodies were inherently ritually unclean, and should be exposed to the elements in a Tower of Silence to avoid defiling the earth with them.
In the early periods the body was washed in a standard mikveh, and this is frequently the form of the ritual in the present day, but the traditional washing ceremony, known as tahara, became quite detailed over time. A special building for the corpse-washing existed in the cemetery in 15th century Prague, a practice which obtains in many Jewish communities today; a mikveh is provided at a number of ancient tombs. Female corpses are traditionally cleaned only by other females, and males only by other males.
Between death and the traditional ceremony, the body is placed on the ground, and covered with a sheet, and at the start of the traditional ceremony, the body is lifted from the ground onto a special board or slab (a tahara board), so that it lies facing the door, with a white sheet underneath. The clothes are then removed from the corpse (if they were not removed when the corpse was placed on the ground), and at this point Ezekiel 5:15 is recited by the enactors of the ritual, as it refers to the removal of filthy clothes. Following this, the body is thoroughly rubbed with lukewarm water, with the mouth of the corpse covered so that water does not enter it; the next part of the ritual is the pouring of water over the head, while Ezekiel 36:25 is quoted, since it refers to the sprinkling of water to produce cleanness; and then each limb is washed downwards, while Canticles 5:11 and the following verses, which describe the beauty of elements of the body, are spoken. Finally, nine measures of cold water are poured over the body while it is upright, which is the core element of the ceremony, and it is then dried (according to some customs), and enshrouded; in ancient times the hair and nails were also cut, but by the 19th century the hair was merely combed, and the nails were just cleansed with a special pin, unless their length is excessive. After the ceremony, the taharah board is washed and dried, but is kept facing the same way, as there is a superstition with the belief that turning it the other way will cause another person to die within 3 days. Many communities have replaced the pouring of nine measures by immersion in a specially constructed mikveh.
A more elaborate ceremony, known as the grand washing (rehizah gedolah), is available for the corpses of the more significant individuals; Hillel the Elder is traditionally credited with its invention. According to this latter form of ceremony, the water used for washing was perfumed by rose, myrtle, or aromatic spices; the use of spices was an ancient practice, and the Mishnah especially mentions the washing ceremonies using myrtle.
The biblical regulations of Yom Kippur require the officiating Jewish High Priest to bathe himself in water after sending off the scapegoat to Azazel, and a similar requirement was imposed on the person who led the scapegoat away, and the person who burned the sacrifices during the rituals of the day. The Mishnah states that the High Priest had to immerse himself five times, and his hands and feet had to be washed ten times.
Ritual immersion by men
In modern Orthodox Judaism, there is a widespread minhag for the laity including men to immerse themselves on the day prior to Yom Kippur and often do so before the three pilgrimage festivals, and before Rosh Hashanah; some Haredi Jews additionally immerse themselves at least before a Shabbat, and some Hasidic Jews do so daily before morning prayers.
Reason for contemporary observance
Both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism currently have multiple views on the reason for contemporary observance of ritual washing and immersion obligation.
In Orthodox Judaism, opinion is generally split between a view that maintains that those Biblical rules related to ritual purity that are possible to observe in the absence of a Temple and a Red heifer remain in force and Jews remain Biblically obligated to observe such of them as they can, and a view that Biblical ritual impurity requirements apply only in the presence of a Temple in Jerusalem and the current rules represent only rabbinic ordinances, practices decreed by the Rabbis in memory of the Temple.
In December 2006, Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued three responsa on the subject of Niddah. All three ruled the traditional requirements of ritual washing remained in effect for Conservative Jews (with some leniencies and liberalization of interpretation), but disagreed on the reasoning for continuing this practices as well as on the validity of specific leniencies. Two of the opinions reflect reasoning similar to the respective Orthodox views (Biblical requirements or rabbinic ordinances enacted in remembrance of the Temple.) A third opinion expressed the view that Conservative Judaism should disconnect ritual purity practices from the Temple in Jerusalem or its memory, and offered a new approach based on what it called the concept of holiness rather than the concept of purity. Thus, Conservative ideology, under its philosophy of pluralism, supports a range of views on this subject, from views similar to the Orthodox view to views expressing a need for a contemporary reorientation. Most Conservative Jews do not observe the laws of niddah.
Contemporary historical and scholarly commentary
According to the editors of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, the phrase netilat yadaim referring to washing of the hands, literally "lifting of the hands", is derived either from Psalm 134:2, or from the Greek word natla (αντλίον in Hebrew נַטְלָה), in reference to the jar of water used. The Jewish Encyclopedia states that many historic Jewish writers, and particularly the Pharisees, took it to mean that water had to be poured out onto uplifted hands, and that they could not be considered clean until water had reached the wrist. This is commented on by the Synoptic Gospels, which state that these groups didn't eat until they had washed their hands to the wrist, but the Gospels castigates them for this, arguing that it was only followed as an ostentatious tradition, ignoring religious obligations, and that washing the hands was worthless without inward religious obligations also being adhered to, and insignificant if the inward obligations, such as giving all of one's possessions to the poor, were followed.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the historic requirement for priests to first wash their hands, together with the classical rabbinical belief that non-priest were also required to wash their hands before taking part in a holy act, such as prayer, was adhered to very strongly, to the extent that Christianity adopted the practice, and provided worshippers with fountains and basins of water in Churches, in a similar manner to the "Molten Sea" in the Jerusalem Temple functioning as a laver. Although Christianity did not adopt the requirement for priests to wash feet before worship, in Islam the practice was extended to the congregation and expanded into wudu.
According to Peake's Commentary on the Bible, Biblical scholars regard the requirement of Kohanim washing their hands prior to the Priestly Blessing as an example of the taboo against the profane making contact with the sacred, and similar practices are present in other religions of the period and region. The Jewish Encyclopedia relates that according to Herodotus the Egyptian priests were required to wash themselves twice a day and twice a night in cold water, and according to Hesiod the Greeks were forbidden from pouring out the black wine to any deity in the morning, unless they had first washed their hands.
According to the 1906 Jewish encyclopedia, The Letter of Aristeas states that creators of the Septuagint washed their hands in the sea each morning before prayer; Josephus states that this custom was the reason for the traditional location of synagogues near water. Biblical scholars regard this custom as an imitation by the laity of the behaviour of the priests. A baraita offers, as justification for the ritual of hand-washing after waking, the belief that a spirit of impurity rests upon each person during the night, and will not leave until the person's hands are washed, and the Zohar argues that body is open to demonic possession during sleep because the soul temporarily leaves the body during it; the kabbalah argues that death awaits anyone who walks more than four yards from their bed without ablution. According to , the cup containing the water has to be able to carry a certain amount of water, and it should have two handles.
According to Peake's commentary on the Bible, the Priestly Code specifies that individuals were washed before they could become members of the Jewish priesthood, and similarly requires Levites to be cleansed before they assume their work. Peake's commentary states that although Biblical rules regarding ritual purification following bodily discharges clearly have sanitory uses, they ultimately originated from the taboos against contact with blood and semen, due to the belief that these contained life, more than any other bodily fluid, or any other aspect of the body.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in Waters of Life connects the laws of impurity to the narrative in the beginning of Genesis. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve had brought death into the world by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Kaplan points out that most of the laws of impurity relate to some form of death (or in the case of niddah the loss of a potential life). One who comes into contact with one of the forms of death must then immerse in water which is described in Genesis as flowing out of the Garden of Eden (the source of life) in order to cleanse oneself of this contact with death (and by extension of sin).
- Jutta Leonhardt Jewish worship in Philo of Alexandria Page 270 - 2001 3 Ritual washing Washing is used for ritual purification in the context of the Temple worship. In Som. I 81 Philo quotes Lev 22 6 f, which states that no one is permitted to eat from holy things "unless the body is washed with water" ..."
- The Qumran community - Page 92 Michael Anthony Knibb - 1987 -"10-13, and among the many cisterns at Qumran two basins have been identif1ed which served as baths and were perhaps used for ... Unclean, unclean shall he be as long as he rejects the precepts of God: the language is drawn from Lev."
- Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim 181
- Berlin, Adele, ed. (2011). "Cleanliness". The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
The Shulkhan Arukh (Orach Chayim 4:18, 158-165) lists occasions when hands should be washed; upon arising each morning, after urination and defecation, after taking off one's shoes, or touching any part of the body customarily covered, after visiting a cemetery, after undressing, before and after meals, after marital relations, and after coming into contact with lice.
- Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim 473:6
- Berachot 53b
- Shabbat 62b
- Sotah 4b
- Yoma 83b
- Morrison, Chanan; Kook, Abraham Isaac Kook (2006). Gold from the Land of Israel: A New Light on the Weekly Torah Portion - From the Writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook'. Urim Publications. p. 43. ISBN 965-7108-92-6.
- Exodus 30:19
- Berakhot 60b
- Rabbi Maurice Lamm. "The Mikveh's Significance in Traditional Conversion". My Jewish Learning.
- Leviticus 14:8-9
- Leviticus 15:5-10
- Leviticus 17:15
- Peake's commentary on the Bible
- Deuteronomy 14:21
- Numbers 19:19
- Numbers 19:7-8
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Sophocles, Ajax, 664
- Virgil, Aeneid, 2:217
- Jewish Encyclopedia
- masoretic text of Numbers 19:9
- Ecclesiastes 5:15
- Sefer Hasidim 560
- Genesis Rabbah 38:5
- Sefer haMaharil
- 2 Chronicles 16:14
- Beitzah 6a; Berachot 8:1
- Leviticus 16:24, 16:26, 16:28
- Yoma 3:3
- Mark 7:3
- Mark 7:5-9
- Luke 7:37-41
- Exodus 30:18
- 2 Chronicles 4:2-6
- Herodotus, 2:37
- Hesiod, Works and Days, 722
- Aristeas 305
- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:10:23
- Baraita in Shabbat 109a
- Exodus 29:1-4
- Numbers 8:15
- Aryeh Kaplan, Waters of Life