The term niddah is used in Jewish tradition in relation to menstruation. It implies “a menstruating woman,” “menstruation,” “menstrual blood,” “bleeding period,” “menstrual impurity,” “laws related to menstruation,” etc. The root of the term is ndd or ndh, which means wandering or exclusion, related most certainly to the exclusion of the menstruant from ordinary social activities. The ritual laws regarding menstruation are found in Leviticus (Lev 15:19–31; 18:19; 20:18). They were discussed and developed centuries later in the Mishnah and in the Babylonian Talmud (in a limited way also in the Palestinian Talmud), in Tractate Niddah of the Order Tohorot (“Purities”).
Baraita is the term used in rabbinic literature to designate texts, usually from the tannaitic period (Palestine, first to third centuries c.e.), which for various reasons were not included in the Mishnah, the major rabbinic literary production of the time. Therefore, if we accept the common title of this work which deals with menstruation at its face value (the prefix “de” in Aramaic means “of”), it should be considered to be more or less contemporary with the Mishnah. In fact, this may not be the case.
A rabbinic text about niddah, distinct from the Talmudic and Mishnaic tractates, is mentioned in the works of various authors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The first to refer to such a text by calling it Baraita de-Niddah seems to be Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (1180–1250), in his book Or Zarua. According to Isaac ben Moses, his master, Eliezer ben Joel ha-Levi of Bonn (1140–1225), known as Ravyah, saw this text. We also have the testimony of the master himself, but in his words we hear of a Baraita, not a Baraita de-Niddah, which he claims to have seen in writings of the Geonim, those rabbis active in Babylonia (current day Iraq) from the seventh to the eleventh centuries c.e. About five decades later we hear again of a similar title from Moses ben Nahman, known as Ramban or Nahmanides (1194–1270). While explaining a discussion between Rachel and her father Laban in Genesis 31:35, Nahmanides adds this:
As our Masters said in the Baraita of the tractate of Niddah, “A disciple must not greet a niddah. Rabbi Nehemiah said that even what goes out of her mouth is impure. Rabbi Yohanan says that one must not walk after a niddah and crush the earth on which she walked, as it is impure like a corpse. It is also forbidden to profit from whatever she makes with her hands.”
These and other quotations which seem to be related to this mysterious Baraita appeared again in various medieval works. However, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that an entire text presented as the Baraita de-Niddah was available to scholars.
In 1890, using a manuscript he had found in Italy, Chaim Horowitz, a prolific student and editor of rabbinic sources, published in Frankfurt a booklet he entitled Baraita de-Niddah. According to Horowitz, the text was handwritten in the sixteenth century, on the last pages of a Palestinian Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) printed in Italy a few decades earlier. Following a long introduction, a text of about 33,000 characters (approximately six thousand words) was now available to students of rabbinic literature. The text is divided into three chapters, the first and second again divided into seven subdivisions and the third into five subdivisions. The manuscript ended abruptly, but Horowitz reconstructed a suggested ending based on other sources. He accompanied his text with hundreds of erudite footnotes and also printed along with it several short versions of texts that seem to be related to this long text. Most of these versions were copied from well-known printed works; one was from a thirteenth-century manuscript preserved in Parma to this day. This last version, the longest among all the additional texts, is still approximately only one twelfth the length of the longest, first version. Unfortunately, the manuscript from which Horowitz copied the long version was later lost, most probably during the Holocaust or in transfers of library collections following World War II. Nevertheless, using other fragments that we have and to which Horowitz had no access, it is possible to show that his transcription was extremely meticulous and that his printed version is, on the whole, trustworthy.
The two manuscripts used by Horowitz contained the most important versions of the Baraita de-Niddah, even though we know today of additional manuscripts unavailable to him. We will distinguish from now on between the long version, which we will call BdN/a, and the shorter one, from Parma, to which we will refer as BdN/b.
All the paragraphs that constitute BdN/b exist in BdN/a, most often with minor changes. Moreover, except for one instance, they appear in the same order, even though in BdN/a many additional paragraphs may separate them. The quotations cited by Nahmanides are found, with slight changes, in both versions.
Additional important quotations are found in at least four major medieval works: Likkutei ha-Pardes, Ha-Rokeah, Sha’arei Dura and Kol-Bo. This most probably attests to the fact that at least some sections of the BdN/a and BdN/b were known in the French, German and Provencal Jewish cultures of the Middle Ages. Other quotations of texts which seem to be from the Baraita de-Niddah exist in various manuscripts. The most interesting is a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century fragment that was found in the Cairo Genizah, and which is, textually speaking, very similar to BdN/a.
Although the early existence of both long and short versions of the Baraita is well attested, it seems that, on the whole, BdN/b was more widely spread than BdN/a. If we try to distinguish between regions, it might be suggested that BdN/b was known in Franco-Germanic circles, while BdN/a was known in Italy and in North Africa.
A legend about the birth of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (lived in the second century c.e., but re-located by various legends at least a century earlier), relating his beauty and knowledge to his mother’s precautions while leaving the ritual bath, is attached to several versions of the Baraita, most notably to the most widely spread version, found in the book Sha’arei Dura. Although the story appears neither in BdN/a nor in BdN/b, it seems to have some genuine connections to the Baraita de-Niddah. In any case, it most certainly was thus perceived by many medieval readers.
The exact nature of relations between BdN/a and b is still unclear. It does not seem that one is simply an abridged or an enlarged version of the other. Meanwhile, and for the purpose of this introduction, we will center our discussions on BdN/a: at the very least, because of its significant length compared to BdN/b and all other existing versions.
The long version of the work (BdN/a) discusses at length what may happen to descendants of couples who are not meticulous regarding the laws of niddah, as well as the rewards for those who are meticulous. Again and again, the Baraita tries to persuade its readers that strict observance of these laws will ensure their having clever, healthy and beautiful sons, while negligence may result in offspring deficient in body and spirit. It also includes some aggadic midrashim unknown from other sources, some of which are of great interest. Other sections of this text are more “practical,” at least in the opinion of its author(s). They discuss ways by which the impurity of the niddah can be transmitted, for example by her breath, nails, hair, saliva, touch, clothes, food, etc. In many domains, the Baraita is more severe than the canonical Talmudic literature. The Baraita demands fourteen days of abstinence, starting with the beginning of each period, while the Talmud speaks of ten to twelve days. The Baraita demands two days of abstinence before the arrival of the period, while the Talmud apparently demands one day. The Baraita advocates keeping menstruants far from objects used by the family, and out of synagogues and study houses. In contrast, almost nothing of this kind exists in the Talmud. The Baraita offers elaborate tests for defining the exact nature of bloodstains, using ingredients such as mustard, cinnamon, eggs, and even a dead rodent. (A few similar tests are also suggested in order to check the nature of male sperm.) The Baraita tries to relate itself to an ancient authority by claiming links to the more severe teachings of Bet Shammai and against Bet Hillel, the school generally endorsed by Talmudic literature. One should nevertheless bear in mind that although the Baraita can be said to be more severe on certain issues than the canonical Talmudic literature, on the whole, halakhic prescriptions constitute only a small part of the entire text.
At first reading the text seems to be similar to classical Midrash, but a more careful examination shows some peculiar characteristics. Although the text is almost entirely in Hebrew, with only sporadic terms in Aramaic, this Hebrew is a very strange one, with its peculiar verbal forms and syntax. Even though the text we have was undoubtedly heavily corrupted in transmission, not all these peculiarities can be blamed on scribes’ errors. The author(s) seem(s) to be strong in geography, but very weak, not only in grammar, but also in history. Although all the forty-some sages mentioned are from Palestine and none are from Babylonia, the text often presents discussions between sages who lived centuries apart, in some cases the more ancient commenting on the sayings of the more recent ones. This might be related to ignorance, but more likely to an ahistoric approach of the author(s), to which all sages are contemporaries. A few paragraphs in BdN/a and b, and even more so, the paragraphs about the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, seem to be related to ideas found among Hasidei Ashkenaz and in Heikhalot literature. This can be a result of their manipulation of the text, or an additional element useful for the search of the Baraita’s origins.
Horowitz hesitated about the authenticity of the Baraita, as well as its origins. He was probably aware of the words of Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:47), who declared practices very similar to those found in the Baraita as non-Jewish. While contemplating the possibility that the Baraita is a Karaite forgery intended to attack rabbinic Judaism, Horowitz finally opted for a rabbinic origin, and concluded that it was composed around the fourth century, in Palestine. He based this dating especially on the correct insight that all sages mentioned are Palestinians, and that the latest among them is Rabbi Tanhuma of the fourth century. Although this fact is interesting, the language and the content of the Baraita seem to be a strong proof that it is a later composition. As previously said, the text is first mentioned in the twelfth century. It seems it was included, at the very latest, in a work of the eleventh century: it is possible that the words of the Ravya about the writing of the Geonim he had seen refer to Sefer ha-Mikzo’ot, a book that was certainly composed before the twelfth century. It seems reasonable, but not certain, to suggest that the Baraita was composed in Palestine (which might explain its lack of Aramaic and its absolute fidelity to Palestinian Sages), or at least by an author (or authors) with strong admiration for Palestinian Sages, maybe from other centers of Hebrew scholarship such as Italy, during the late second part of the first millennium CE. Only a further study might enable proving or disproving this assumption, and hopefully provide a more precise dating.
Although it is sometimes claimed by scholars who occasionally refer to the Baraita that it had an influence on attitudes of medieval authors regarding the laws of niddah, one can hardly prove such an assertion. It seems that except perhaps for some short quotations from it, this work was not accessible to many authors. Its direct impact was therefore, at best, limited. It is possible though to suggest that one comment regarding the Baraita, included in the book Or Zarua (I, 360), did influence later authors to take a severe approach in anything related to niddah, even if they had never seen the text itself:
“My Master … told me that … in the Baraita de-Niddah … he saw many severe practices. In short, every strict practice that a man may keep in regard to the niddah he should keep, and he will be blessed for that.”
The quotation of the Baraita by Nahmanides mentioned earlier was also included in the widely-distributed sixteenth-century Yiddish work Ze’enah u-Re’enah. The concepts about menstruation found in this quotation became known to the innumerable Jewish women who regularly read this work. On a more direct level, the Baraita played a significant part in the attempts of pious women, to this day, to avoid seeing “impure” animals immediately after immersion, claiming such exposure might have a negative influence on their future fetus. The spread of this belief and custom is largely due to the success of the fourteenth-century book Sha’arei Dura, which, as stated above, contains a short segment of the Baraita as well as the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha.
It is hard to know whether the Baraita contributed to the practice of keeping fourteen days of abstinence after the arrival of the period. Although this practice was known in some European and North African circles, it is unlikely that it was observed by a large number of Jews, as it would have had a devastating impact on birth rates. Also, those who still observed it probably had other textual sources to rely upon in order to justify their practice. It is also possible that the Baraita had some influence on the reduction in the frequency of the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) in synagogues, spreading the notion that if a female member of a priestly family were menstruating, the blessing might be counterproductive.
Goldman, Michael James. “Baraita de-Niddah.” Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 4. Jerusalem: 1972, 194; Jastrow, Marcus and Louis Ginzberg.
“Baraita de-Niddah.” Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 2. New York : 1901–1906, 519.
Although these two short articles may be lacking in some aspects, they do provide some useful basic information on the Baraita de-Niddah.
Horowitz, Chaim M. Tosefta Atikta: Baraita de-Niddah (Hebrew). Frankfurt: 1890.
This is the classical edition of the BdN, on which most, if not all current quotations are based. It can be found in major academic libraries of Judaica. One should disregard the harsh and unjustified criticism by Horowitz’s contemporaries: it is, and will remain, a wealth of extremely valuable information on the work, as well as the only source of its long version. The introduction and the comments may be hard to use even for Hebrew readers, unless experienced in the use of nineteenth-century editions of rabbinic texts.
Marienberg, Evyatar. Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation. Paris: 2003, 293–301.
This book contains a short appendix about the Baraita de-Niddah. It provides the Hebrew version as well as a French translation and a short analysis of the most widely-spread version of the BdN, the one found in the fourteenth-century book Sha’arei Dura.
Marienberg, Evyatar. La Baraita de-Niddah: Un texte juif pseudo-talmudique sur les lois religieuses au sujet de la menstruation, traduit de l’hébreu et présenté: 2006/7 (forthcoming).
This modern critical edition of the Baraita de-Niddah includes, in addition to an introduction, analysis and stemma, also a complete translation of the text in French.
Seiff, Joanne E. “Interpretation of Purity Law in the Baraita de Masechet Niddah.” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina, 2001.
Joanne Seiff’s thesis consists of a synopsis (not a translation) of each paragraph of the Baraita de-Niddah. For those who cannot read Hebrew or French, and who would like to know more about the content of the BdN, this work is very useful.