Taharat HaMishpacha, or Jewish family purity laws, includes the practice of separation between a menstruating woman and her husband. Biblically based in the Torah, these laws, also referred to as niddah, have developed into an intricate and detailed set of laws that prevent a menstruating woman from having sexual relations with her husband both during her menstrual cycle and for a period of seven 'white days' following. Through the development of rabbinic laws and literature, niddah has also expanded to include the ritual of mikveh, the immersion following one's menstrual cycle, and laws applying to women during and after pregnancy. It is important to note, however, that only a small portion of many Jewish communities practice these laws. Most Conservative and Reform Jews do not incorporate this aspect of Judaism into their life; it is mainly Orthodox Jewish families that practice niddah laws.
The practice of Taharat HaMishpacha can be explored and examined from different points of view. Some see niddah as a positive experience that deepens both sexual and nonsexual aspects of a marriage. Others view these laws as negative, in that they degrade and objectify women and alienate a menstruating woman from those around her. However, this subject cannot be reduced to this dichotomy; rabbinic literature, such as the Mishnah, and interpretations of the Torah present an unclear image of these laws. There are no defined answers to the gendered implications of niddah.
The following information attempts to explore this issue and to see what, if any, are the gendered implications of the niddah, and how this aspect of blood in Judaism relates to power and gender.
History of niddah:
Biblical origins and its evolution over time
The laws of niddah were initially based in the Torah. Leviticus 15:19 states,
"When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity for seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening."
Continued in verse 24,
"And if a man lies with her, her impurity is communicated to him; he shall be unclean seven days…"
The time of sexual separation is again found in this book.
"Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness (Lev. 18:19)."
A possible reason for this law is presented in chapter 20,
"If a man lies with a woman in her infirmity and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has exposed her blood flow; both of them shall be cut off from among their people (Lev. 20:18)."
As author Judith Hauptmann points out, however stringent the Torah may sound in these verses, the niddah rules need to be read and understood within the context of the first chapter in Leviticus. This portion addresses the issue of male impurity and cleanliness, called zavah (Hauptmann 148). In fact, Leviticus 15:1-18 states that after a man has man has an emission of semen, "…he shall count off seven days for his cleansing, wash his clothes, and bathe his body in freshwater; then he shall be clean (Lev. 15:13)." This verse even alludes to the idea of the mikveh, or ritual immersion, an idea that is not clearly presented for women in the Torah. This literature leads to an important question: why did the rules of niddah survive, and even develop, over time and not the rules of zavah?
The fact that ritual cleanliness of men is not a significant practice in Orthodox Judaism when compared to niddah, suggests that menstrual blood is somehow inherently impure and out of place, while semen is not (Hauptmann 150). Further, it is also stated that, "She shall remain in a state of blood purification [after childbirth] for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete (Lev. 12:4)." Author Rachael Biale suggests that the laws of niddah had the same intent in antiquity: to exclude an impure person or object from the Temple (Biale 147). This stress on sanctity, Biale explains, shifted away from purification and more towards sexual taboo and restrictions, and this is how the niddah laws developed over time. The destruction of the two Temples, in 586 BCE and 70 CE, "…removed concrete laws and justification of the laws of impurity. This historical change made way for the ascending of the second context and meaning of the laws of niddah in the Bible: sexual prohibition (Biale 147)." Author Blu Greenberg suggests that from the time of the Second Temple through third-century Babylonia, emphasis on separation laws shifted from tum'at niddah (separation for reasons of defilement, impurity, pollution and taboo) to issur niddah (restriction of a sexual relationship) (Greenberg 113). An excerpt from the Mishnah Shabbat illustrates this development. The verse opens with the invitations to 'come and see how purity has increased in Israel (of the rabbinic times). Scholars ask "May a niddah sleep in a bed with her husband, each fully clothed, thus avoiding bodily contact? " Shammai answers that they may, for sleeping together during white days is not prohibited, only intercourse (Greenberg 113). This quotation suggests that separation between and woman and her husband is no longer for reasons of physical pollution and defilement, but symbolic of sexual restrictions.
Rules of postbiblical Halakhah evolved into a much stricter code of niddah; in rabbinic legislation, the women are impure up to fourteen days, as opposed to biblical law of seven 'clean days (Biale 153).' Why did this occur? Some Orthodox Jewish women may perceive these restrictions as a way in which the sexual relationship between wife and husband is deepened and made more sacred. One could also interpret the stricter codes as a way to restrict the woman's sexuality.
he following excerpts are taken from The Mishnah: translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes, trans. Herbert Danby, D.D. Oxford University Press, 1933.
Niddah 1:1 "Shammai says: For all women it is enough for then [that they be deemed unclean only from] their time [of suffering a flow].
2:4 "Women may always be assumed clean in readiness for their husbands. When men have come home from a journey their wives may be assumed clean in readiness for them…"
1:5 "Who is considered an old woman? She over whom three periods have passed [without suffering a flow] about the time of her old age."
3:7 "If she suffered a miscarriage on the fortieth day, she need not take thought for it as for [human] young; if on the forty-first day, she must continue [unclean the days prescribe] both for a male and for a female, and also for the menstruant. R. Ishmail says: If [she suffered a miscarriage] on the forty-first day, she must continue [unclean the days prescribed] for a male and menstruant; but if on the eighty-first day, she must continue[ unclean for the days prescribed] both for a male and for a female., and for a menstruant, since a male is fully fashioned after forty-one days, but a female only after eight-one days…"
5:7 "The Sages spoke in a parable about woman: [She is like] an unripe fig, or a ripening fig, or a fully ripe fig: an unripe fig-while she is yet a child; and a ripening fig-these are the days of her girlhood; and a fully ripe fig-after she is past her girlhood, when her father no more has any rights over her.
9:6 "Seven substances must be rubbed over a [blood]-stain: tasteless spittle, water from boiled grits, urine, nitre, soap, Cimoliam earth, and lion's leaf. If after it was immersed and washed and rubbed off, then it is but some dye.
The Ritual Immersion
The following information about ritual immersion in the mikveh during niddah is taken from On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition, by Blu Greenberg. The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981.
Once a woman enters the preparatory room, she brushes her teeth, rinses her mouth, trims her nails, and removes all makeup and anything else not a part of the body. A complete bath is then taken, followed by a shower to ensure all foreign material is rinsed off of the body. Only the latter is completed if the woman has already showered at home. Once physically clean, the woman wraps herself in a white sheet or towel and is now ready for the mikveh.
A woman must be completely underwater for her immersion in the mikveh water to be considered kosher. After the first dip, the mikveh blessing is recited:
Barukh ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al ha-tevilah.
(Blessed are You O lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.)
Another mikveh blessing:
May it be Your will O Lord, our God and God of our fathers, that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our time; give us our portion in Your Torah, so that we may serve You with awe as we did in days of old. And we shall offer to You the thanks offering of Judea and Jerusalem as was done in years gone by.
After the blessings are complete, the woman completes two more immersions. The mikveh is now complete.
Perceptions of the Mikveh
Relatively few Jewish women, and men for that matter, still immerse themselves in the mikveh; yet it is still considered gufei ha-torah, or essential laws of the Torah (Greenberg 117). It is one of the three mitzvot exclusively for women, the others being nerot, lighting of the candles, and hallah, the consecrating of the bread.
The prohibition of sexual relations, potentially life-giving, and a menstruating woman, the death of a potential life, represents the power and sacrality of both life and death. This suggests that the determined time of both separation and sexual union gives both the woman and man a higher appreciation for the potential of life and the death of that potential. This ritual manifests itself in the monthly mikveh submersion.
Purification instructions in the Torah have evolved over time into more of a spiritual ritual for menstruating women. This practice involves full submersion in a pool of 'living waters' called the mikveh. Before entering the mikveh, the woman showers and cleanses her body thoroughly. It is important to note that this is the only point in this ritual that is directly related physical cleanliness. The woman's experience in the mikveh is a an expression of spirituality and should not be confused with physical uncleanliness. Author of the article, "In defense of Niddah and Mikveh", Bracke Sacks explains,
"We do this (mikveh) because God commanded it. One thing is certain though: we are NOT unclean…The woman is not kept out of the synagogue, nor is she forbidden to carry out most of her activities. Only sexual relationship is prohibited (Greenberg p.35)."
The Curse explains further,
"The purpose of the ritual is completely spiritual…it hasn't anything to do with physical cleanliness, as we bathe and shower first. If menstrual blood suggests the death of the potential fetus, the mikveh waters suggest a life-giving element (Delaney 35)."
In an article by Blu Greenberg, "In Defense of the "Daughters of Israel", Greenberg expresses her opinions on the mikveh. Although she felt, at times, embarrassed about her visits to the mikveh, as they ultimately were an expression of her sexuality, Greenberg felt a sense of protection and tradition while participating in the ritual of mikveh.
"...niddah was intended to protect women's selves and sexuality; not bad, considering that society was oriented to the female serving the male, sexually and otherwise. Niddah also provided safeguards against women becoming mere sex objects; even when the law could not change social perceptions, at least it minimized those times when this attitude could be acted upon (Greenberg 107)."
However, some Rabbinic opinions do contradict these contemporary views of the mikveh. There are still notions of blood taboo and controversy over purity and impurity. Beyond this basic concept of blood taboo, one excerpt even makes the argument that women should practice niddah for the benefit of their husbands.
"Because a man may become overly familiar with his wife, and thus repelled by her, the Torah said that she should be a niddah for seven clean days [following menses] so that she will be as beloved [to him after niddah] as on the day of her marriage [Niddah 31b]."
Although many Orthodox Jewish women have used the mikveh as a means of personal growth and view the ritual as a positive experience that builds community and stronger personal relationships with a woman's husband, it is difficult to disregard the Torah references to women and the Temple. Nowhere in the Mishnah are women excluded or prohibited from the public domain. However, the Torah's only reference, Leviticus 12:4, states "...she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete." Author Judith Romney Weger also makes the argument that the Mishnah portrays women as objects because the entire issue of menstruation is not even discussed in the chapter of the Division of Women, but rather the Division of Purities. Why is this? "The answer is simple: menstruation in itself has no bearing on the topic of women's personal status but only on that of cultic purity (Weger 163)."
It should also be mentioned that, since the destruction of the Second Temple, the mikveh has primarily been used by women. However, men also use the mikveh to purify themselves before holidays, such as Yom Kippur. It is also the final step when one converts to Judaism. The mikveh is also practiced by Torah scribes for sanctification purposes. However, immersion by men is by choice rather than by rabbinic mandate.
It is easy, when first examining the biblical and rabbinic laws of niddah to assume the negative: through the practice of niddah, women are sexually restricted and are, therefore, put in a subordinating position in relation to men. In this case, blood is defiling. It is considering impure and out-of-place; it is the woman's responsibility to purify herself and prepare herself for sexual relations with her husband. However, as illustrated through previous quotes from Jewish women, some women have taken these laws and restrictions and changed them into a personal, spiritual experience. The mikveh can be as a special ritual that, while not exclusively for women, is a shared practice throughout Orthodox Jewish women's communities. This idea is important and can be applied to other aspects of religions; women can take a ritual and make it their own. Any practice can, therefore, be seen as empowering and can reduce negative gendered implications. Although there are obvious separations between man and woman in Taharat HaMishpacha that cannot and should not be overlooked, women can, through the mikveh submersion, use purification of defiling blood as a means of creating their own power.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Biale, Rachael. Women and Jewish Law. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.
Delaney, Janice. The Curse: A cultural history of menstruation. New York: Dutton Press, c. 1976
Greenberg, Blu. On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition. The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981.
Hauptmann, Judith. Rereading the Rabbis: a woman's voice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, c. 1988.
Neusner, Jacob, ed. The Mishnah: a new translation. New Haven: Yale University Press, c. 1988.
TANAKH: a New Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Jewish Publication Society: 1985.
Wegner, Judith Rommey. Chattel or Person?: the Status of Women in the Mishnah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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