Female Purity (Niddah)
In order to understand its development and its centrality in the rabbinic context, menstrual impurity must be seen in the context of the biblical purity system. The purity system of the Bible chiefly involved the Temple, sacrifices and priestly gifts, all of which had to be guarded from ritual impurity. The penalty for polluting the Temple is karet, excision from the people of Israel or a divine decree of death. The Land had to be guarded from moral impurity lest the people of Israel be vomited out of the land as their predecessors had been. Corpse impurity was considered to be the most severe form of ritual impurity (avi avot ha-tumah), requiring sprinkling with waters of purification on the third and seventh days of the seven-day impurity. Death impurity was transferred not only by direct contact but also through the air of the enclosed tent or building or—according to rabbinic law—by overshadowing and grave fluids. The seven-day purification ritual may have been the basis of some of the other sources of ritual impurity deriving from human genital discharges such as menstrual blood, abnormal uterine bleeding and abnormal male genital discharge.
Nearly all laws involving the ritual purity originating in the Bible and expanded upon in the rabbinic period were put in abeyance in the post-Temple period. Among the exceptions are some remnants of death impurity specifically related to priests (such as avoiding graveyards), rabbinically instituted ritual handwashing and, for a certain period of time, the laws relating to the genital discharges of males. For some time after the Temple’s destruction certain groups in the Land of Israel attempted to maintain the level of ritual purity required for the Temple and holy foodstuffs and expanded it to regular food (hullin). This entailed creation of an elite purity group (haverim) which was greatly restricted from contact with normal Jews. Restrictions were instituted regarding praying and studying Torah after a seminal emission before ritual immersion. These ritual remnants were disregarded by the Babylonian Talmud, leaving only menstruation, abnormal uterine bleeding and childbirth as the main functioning categories of ritual impurity. This was apparently due to the fact that sexual intercourse with a woman in the state of menstrual impurity carried with it the penalty of karet, the only infraction of the purity system to do so post-destruction. Menstrual laws remained in force and became more restrictive in the private sphere, chiefly in areas concerning physical separation from one’s spouse and internal examinations.
Chapter 15 of Leviticus serves as the basis for the Jewish menstrual laws. The Hebrew term used for menstruation in Leviticus 15:19, 20, 24, and 33 is niddatah, which has as its root ndh, a word meaning “separation,” usually as a result of impurity. It is connected to the root ndd, meaning “to make distant.” This primary meaning of the root was extended in the biblical corpus to include concepts of sin and impurity. The Aramaic Bible translations (Onkelos [second century c.e.], Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti) translate these verses with the root rhq, “in her separation/distance,” some adding “of her impurity.” Both roots reflect the physical separation of women during menstruation (or abnormal uterine bleeding or the seven or fourteen days immediately postpartum) from physical contact or from certain activities in which they would normally engage at other times. In other parts of the Bible, the term niddah was transferred to include abominable acts, objects (Ezekiel 7:19–20) or status, especially sexual sins (Leviticus 20:21) and idolatry. The use of the term niddah to describe the impurity of the land due to sin is found in Lamentations 1:8 and Ezra 9:11 and as an antonym of holiness in 2 Chronicles 29:5. These usages of the term may have influenced subsequent reactions to the state of menstruation. The term niddah was transformed into a metaphorical expression for sin and impurity in general. These meanings added to the original sense of distancing or separation, creating a new semantic range which influenced the legal and emotional understanding of niddah over the course of generations.
Separation due to menstruation had both public and private aspects. Because of the prohibition on entering the Temple in a state of ritual impurity, this manifestation of female physiology clearly limited cultic contact for women of childbearing years, particularly when seminal impurity of coitus was taken into account. Menstrual impurity was always in addition to semen impurity for a man unless he ejaculated at times other than coitus. This, in turn, served as a factor determining female status in a patriarchal environment. In the private sphere, food or objects which required a ritual state of purity could not be touched by menstruating women without becoming contaminated or made unfit for consumption by priestly and elite purity groups. Touching a menstruating woman or what she sat or lay on yielded impurity until sunset. The act of coitus transferred the entire seven days of impurity to the man, as well as the power to contaminate as a menstruant (Leviticus 15:24). Leviticus 18:19 enjoined the people of Israel to avoid sexual relations with the woman during her niddah. According to Leviticus 20:18 coitus with a menstruant was forbidden and carried the punishment of karet. Halakhic practice is based on a harmonistic reading of Leviticus 12, 15, 18 and 20.
Leviticus 15, the defining chapter in reference to menstrual impurity, covers several topics: vv. 2–15 state the laws concerning a zav, a man with an abnormal genital discharge, often and probably correctly translated as gonorrhea; vv. 16–17 deal with a man who ejaculates semen; v. 18 refers to semen impurity due to coitus; vv. 19–24 state the laws concerning menstrual impurity; vv. 25–30 concern a zava, a woman with a uterine discharge of blood not at the time of her period, or as a result of a prolonged period. Abnormal uterine bleeding may be due to carcinoma, hormonal imbalance, a threatened or incomplete abortion, uterine cysts and many other conditions. The remaining three verses serve as a summary of the above issues and a warning not to pollute the temple. Each of the four main sections in the chapter describes the type of genital discharge. For the male, in the case of the zav, the reference is to mucous-like discharge from a flaccid penis (according to rabbinic interpretation) and to normal ejaculate for other men. In the case of the female, the reference is to a discharge of blood from the uterus with no distinction between the abnormal bleeding of the zava and the normal menstruation of a niddah. Each section also prescribes the length of time the impurity lasts and objects which are subject to that impurity. The zav and the zava must count seven clean days after the abnormal genital discharge ceases. The zav must bathe in “living waters” (a spring or running water). Both must bring a sacrifice. For normal male seminal discharge and contamination by semen during coitus (for both the man and the woman), a purification ritual is stated which includes bathing and waiting until sunset. For normal menstruation, only a waiting period is prescribed in the Bible, though bathing is part of the purification ritual for those who have been contaminated by the menstruating woman or who touched the bed or chair which she contaminated. Such bathing and laundering of clothes is required for the person contaminated by the niddah or the zava.
This chapter has an obvious chiastic structure (A-B-B’-A’) in which the abnormal male discharge (A) is followed by the normal male discharge (B), with v. 18 serving as the intersection point where male and female genitals meet (become one flesh, basar ehad in Genesis 2) in coitus. Normal menstruation serves as B’, while abnormal uterine bleeding, A’, ends the section. Verse 1 opens God’s address while verses 31–33 summarize the chapter and are not included in the chiasmus.
This chiastic structure suggests that there is more in common between these male and female discharges than the fact that the discharges are from the genitals and cause impurity. It is clear from the terminology that in the case of the normal male the text is referring to semen, zera, while in the case of the female the discharge is blood, dam. Leviticus 12 which deals with birth impurity uses the concept of niddah and the laws mentioned in Lev. 15 as a reference point. The text refers to conception as an active female process, “female semination.” Lev. 12:2 may be translated: “A woman who seminates (tazria) and gives birth …” The word which I have translated as “seminated” is tazria, the hif’il or causative form of the root zr’. This is also the root of the word zera, semen, mentioned in Chapter 15. The idea that menstrual blood and fertility are connected is found in several midrashic sources and in the tannaitic material (Niddah 9:11, BT Niddah 64b, Bereshit Rabbah 48:17 vol. 2, p. 484 to Genesis 18:12).
Rather than a taboo system, it is likely that Lev. 15 is in fact a medical or scientific chapter in the Bible dealing with ideas of seed and seed impurity. Uterine blood was seen as female seed, the parallel to male semen. This idea was quite widespread in the Ancient Near East and is clearly stated in the Greek medical texts, in Aristotle, and in later Roman texts. The idea itself is an attempt to explain female physiology on the basis of a male paradigm. Males ejaculate seed. Females menstruate when they are not pregnant but not during pregnancy. Menstrual blood must therefore be the female contribution to conception. This paradigm loses coherency when one tries to correlate female orgasm, conception and menstruation, but it was one fairly logical model of reproduction available in Antiquity and not the only example of rabbinic reliance on a male paradigm for description of female physiology.
The difference in seed impurity between males and females essentially reflects differences in male and female physiology. Male ejaculation is completed quickly and the semen is generally either deposited in a woman’s body or is absorbed by clothing, bed covers or some other material. This would account for the short duration of the impurity—until nightfall. Significantly, semen does not cause midras (lit. “treading”) impurity to chairs and beds, unlike the zav, zava and niddah. Irregular loss of seed or seed-like substance, as in the case of the zav, is more complicated because it is lost not by ejaculation but by slow oozing (similar to female discharges) from a flaccid organ. Abnormal male discharge and normal and abnormal female discharge progress over a period of time and are therefore apt to be found in a variety of places and on types of furniture designated for sitting or lying upon.
The difference between the niddah and the zava is the time factor and the sacrifice. Normal menstruation is considered to end within seven days. This may simply reflect either the choice of a significant number which is found in other rituals (e.g. corpse impurity), or the fact that nearly all women complete their periods within seven days. Abnormal uterine bleeding either comes at a time other than the menstrual period or exceeds the seven days allotted to menstruation by several days. It is unclear when the zav or the zava will complete their discharge; consequently they must simply wait until there is no longer any discharge and then count seven clean days. They then must bring two bird offerings to the priest at the Temple, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering, and he atones for their impurity. No particular cleansing ritual is prescribed in the Bible for the menstruating woman other than waiting the seven days or for the zava other than counting seven clean days. Those who came into contact with her were required to bathe and launder their clothes, but there is no reference to any such requirement on her part. This obligation is learned from the chiastic structure itself. Although the resulting differences between the duration of male seed impurity and female seed impurity limited women’s cultic contact, it seems that both sets of rules were motivated by the same concern for normal seed pollution and abnormal discharges from the reproductive system, rather than by a motive to restrict female sexuality or to exclude women from society. The fact that neither the ejaculating male nor his semen contaminates chairs and beds via midras impurity as the niddah, zava and zav and their discharges do, may be due to the nature of ejaculation and knowledge of the location of the ejaculate. The result, however, privileges normal males and disadvantages all females and males with abnormal discharge.
There is one other aspect of the pollution which we must consider: its transmission. According to verses 17–18, normal coitus yields impurity until sundown for both the man and the woman, i.e. his seed impurity is transferred to her. Ejaculation as a result of masturbation or nocturnal emission has the same consequences for the man himself. If a niddah has intercourse with someone during the seven days, whether or not she is actually still menstruating, she transmits to that person the entire seven day period of her seed impurity. Here, too, there is a difference in that the man who becomes niddah still retains his “normal” male state because he does not cause midras impurity as the female niddah does. This law may have functioned as a deterrent to sexual contact during menstruation. It must be emphasized that being in a state of ritual impurity was not in itself sinful because menstruation and ejaculation are part of normal physiology. The sin mentioned in Leviticus 15:31 is the act of polluting of God’s cultic space by one’s presence while ritually impure. The requirement for a sin offering for abnormal discharge may be explained by biblical and rabbinic theology which often attributed illness to divine retribution for sins (Miriam’s leprosy Num. 12). It is likely, therefore, that the sin offering was required to atone for the actual sin which caused the abnormal condition.
The Holiness Code relates to menstrual impurity in a very different manner. Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sexual intercourse with a niddah. Leviticus 20:18 mentions the punishment of karet if one has coitus during menstruation. An ordinary Israelite came infrequently to the Temple and could have dealt with his ritual impurity on an ad hoc basis. Being in a state of purity had profound ritualistic and important economic ramifications for a priest and those concerns may have influenced the redaction of the holiness code.
Uterine bleeding at a time when the woman’s period was not due, or prolonged uterine bleeding for several days beyond her period, placed her in a separate category of zava. Leviticus 15:26–27 uses normal menstruation as the reference point; when describing the means of pollution by contact with her bed or chair it states “like the bed (chair) of her menstruation.” Once the discharge ceases, she must count seven clean days. There is no reference to bathing and no prohibition of coitus with a zava stated in the text, although this may have been assumed. It is likely that the sin offering atones for the sin which has been punished by the abnormal discharge.
The rabbinic period transformed the biblical practices and remade them into a new, normative Judaism. The uncertainties about the text were clarified, generally by extending, transferring, or comparing the meaning in one verse to another by means of certain legal hermeneutical methods. Such transformation took place in all areas of biblical practice and many new legal issues developed at this time. The fact that this transformation took place in a period of strong Hellenistic influence, not only in terms of bathing practices but also in terms of the low status of women in that culture, is very significant. Several of the important innovations of the rabbinic period are mentioned below.
Among the first assumptions made about menstrual laws in the tannaitic sources was that bathing was required of the woman to purify herself. This was done, no doubt, as a parallel to the requirements for purification for those who had contact with her. The most common place in the land of Israel to do this bathing was in a ritual pool (mikveh) capable of holding a certain volume of water (forty seah, whose equivalent is between 455 to 922 liters according to various methods of calculations). Immersion of the entire body at one time was required. The pool had to be filled with water which was collected naturally, that is, the water could not be drawn and poured into the pool. The pool could be constructed in such a manner as to collect rain, spring water or water from a river. Tractate Mikva’ot delineates the laws of these pools. Some of these were constructed, while others were caves in which water collected naturally, but became stagnant during the six-month dry season. However, as long as the quantity of water remained sufficient, it still purified the woman, proving that the ritual impurity is indeed ritual and not physical.
During the tannaitic era the biblical waiting period of seven days for normal menstruation remained in force. Several details were added to the concept of niddah, including the concept of fixed periods (by body signs or set times to know the start of her menstrual period), sexual separation from one’s spouse for a twelve hour period before menstruation was to begin, the idea that uterine blood in the vagina pollutes, checking vaginally with cloths to ascertain the beginning and end of menstruation, the requirement of women in the priestly households to check vaginally for possible blood before and after eating the priestly tithes, a clarification of the colors of impure blood, the category of blood stains, and the status of irregular bleeding due to birth, pregnancy, nursing, abortion, menopause, famine, etc. Restrictions were also put on hymeneal blood. Although there is some question regarding the frequency of menstruation in Antiquity due to pregnancies, prolonged nursing and border-line nutrition, the extensive discussions and regulations demonstrate that the sages were not only excellent observers of this phenomenon, but also that at least some women and perhaps many menstruated regularly.
The minimum time between one menstrual period and the next was established in the tannaitic period. It was set at eleven days with the term “halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai,” that is, a law which is not biblically derived but whose legal status is nearly equivalent to such a law. This concept of eleven days as a minimum between one menstrual period and the next combined with the seven days of niddah is called pithei niddah, the beginnings of the menstrual reckoning. This meant that a woman was niddah for seven days. If she then saw blood during the next eleven days (days 8–18), it was considered in the category of abnormal bleeding, ziva, which would put her into the category of zava. Another crucial clarification during this period was the meaning of “many days” in Leviticus 15:25 concerning the woman with abnormal uterine discharge. The sages interpreted the phrase as three consecutive days, which meant that if a woman saw blood for three consecutive days during the eleven days, she became the zava gedolah (major zava) referred to in the Torah and must wait the seven clean days. If, however, she saw blood for only one day or two consecutive days, she was considered a minor zava, and required only to sit one clean day for each day she saw blood. The zava gedolah would then wait seven clean days and the next blood she saw would be considered her next period. The seven days of niddah would then begin again, followed by the eleven days between periods. A woman with a normal cycle would fit easily into this pattern because the eleven days were a minimum. Anyone having any kind of irregular bleeding, however, would be obligated to make such calculations until she had seven clean days. Then she could start with the normal seven and eleven day system. This system required careful reckoning of one’s menstrual cycle.
Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (latter half of the second and beginning of the third century c.e.), considered to be the redactor of the Mishnah, made a statement which started a trend of legal development resulting in the elimination of the category of normal menstruation and its replacement by the category of abnormal bleeding, ziva. His statement reflects the possible confusion in keeping track of one’s period, especially in light of the new system of pithei niddah. If a woman erred in her menstrual history, she might end up having sexual relations at a forbidden time. If this was done intentionally, the couple incurred the punishment of karet; if done unintentionally, they were obligated to bring a sin offering. Atonement by sacrifice, however, could not be made after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 c.e. Great efforts were therefore made to prevent inadvertent sins of this nature. BT Niddah 66a gives us Rabbi’s statement: “R. Joseph citing Rav Judah who had it from Rav stated: Rabbi ordained at Sadot: If a woman observed a discharge on one day she must wait six days in addition to it. If she observed discharges on two days she must wait six days in addition to these. If she observed a discharge on three days she must wait seven clean days.”
This statement by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi essentially removed all menstruating women from the regular menstrual category and placed them in the abnormal status of zava because most normal periods last at least three days. Apparently his concern was that given the complex clarifications needed to decide when one is niddah and when one may be a zava, one might come to make a mistake with grievous consequences. Initially the decree had limited effect; it seems to have been local, and may have been limited to situations where doubt was involved and the local population was not sufficiently learned to decide in such situations (Rashi). Certainly it was not a general decree for all of Israel but it was the first step in that direction. In the first two examples, Rabbi’s statement deals with a woman who may be a minor zava or may be a niddah. She is treated in the first case as a niddah, with a seven day period of impurity, rather than one day of impurity for the day of bleeding which is the rule for a minor zava. In the second example she is treated as a niddah and a minor zava in case the first day was actually in her ziva period (the eleven days between menstrual periods). In the third situation, she is treated as a complete zava. All three rulings take the more stringent position.
Subsequent statements by other sages make it absolutely certain that it was understood to be a general decree. The remaining statements on this development are from the amoraim, the sages who created the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmudim. Amoraim could not dispute tannaitic rulings without tannaitic support but they created fences around the Torah to prevent inadvertent sins. We find a decisive statement made by the amora Rav Huna in JT Berakhot (5:1, 8d): “Rav Huna said: One who sees a drop of blood like [the size of a] mustard seed sits and keeps [because of it] seven clean days. Afterwards he stood to pray.” The statement was made as an example of an undisputed law from which one could then turn to prayer. Such a law would clear one’s mind because there were no arguments about it, thereby allowing one to focus totally on prayer. Rav Huna’s statement is much more radical than the tannaitic version quoted above. According to him, all women who see uterine blood are in the category of the complete zava, regardless of the size of the blood stain and despite the normalcy of menstruation or having seen such blood only one or two days.
A different formulation is found in BT Niddah 66a: “R. Zera stated: The daughters of Israel have imposed upon themselves the restriction that even where they observe only a drop of blood of the size of a mustard seed they wait on account of it seven clean days” R. Zera’s statement attributed to the daughters of Israel also totally eliminated the category of niddah, and placed all uterine bleeding in the category of abnormal bleeding, ziva. This is the only halakhic statement in the entire talmudic corpus made in the name of the daughters of Israel. It should be noted that Rav Huna, a generation older than R. Zera, did not make his version of the statement in the name of the daughters of Israel. This may indicate that the attribution is an addition to the text and a convenient target for blame.
In the following generation, Rav Papa quotes this statement (BT Niddah 66a) in a discussion on abortion about a woman who labored for two days and then aborted. She was considered a woman who gave birth as a zava. Rava disagreed with Rav Papa and in another discussion (BT Berakhot 31a, which parallels the Rav Huna section mentioned above) did not accept the universality of the decree. His colleague, Abaye, quotes it as an example of established halakhah about which there is no dispute.
These sages, Rav Huna, Abaye, R. Zera and Rav Papa, all lived within two generations of one another, indicating that this decree was universally accepted very quickly. There were probably objections to the decree since it went far beyond the biblical requirements for the menstruating woman and significantly reduced the possibilities of normative halakhic sexual contact. There may also have been concern for fertility because some sages thought that conception is most likely near the time of one’s period and another opinion set the time for conception near immersion (BT Niddah 31b). It is likely that the issue of fertility was settled quickly by observation of its enhancement in the majority of the population. The time for immersion was very close to ovulation if we assume a twenty-eight or thirty day cycle and a period lasting about five days. The seven clean days would then set the time for immersion at the night after the twelfth day’s sunset. Unfortunately for those women with consistently shorter cycles, such an extension of sexual abstention doomed them to halakhic infertility (‘akarut hilkhatit). This extended period of abstention coincidentally allowed a woman to practice a form of rhythm birth control by delaying her immersion in the mikveh for just a few days. In order to explain how the reduction of sexual contact became normative, we must assume that this was an era of asceticism, possibly related to mourning for the continued state of exile and the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent loss of means of atonement for sin. It is also likely that power struggles between the priestly class and the rabbinic sages became focused on purity issues. By “raising” the purity observance of non-priests, the rabbinic sages usurped the elite priestly status, centering the Crown of Torah-Learning (Keter Torah), the Crown of Governance (Keter Malkhut) and the modified Priestly Crown (Keter Kehuna) in the House of the Patriarchs and their adherents, the haverim.
No history is given for any of the decrees. Further motivation for this radical shift may have been a weakening in the traditions of blood checking. According to Mishnah Niddah 2:6, there were five colors of impure blood. There were eleven days in which that blood might be considered ziva. Blood stains had to be of a given size. The color of blood changed as it dried and the color and texture of the fabric influenced the way it appeared. Thus the sages to whom such blood samples were brought for examination of the blood had to be experts. Several sources indicate that sages stopped checking blood or at least certain kinds of blood; some no longer taught the younger sages through an apprenticeship (BT Niddah 20b). If the number of competent sages decreased, other modes of dealing with doubt had to be employed. The most efficient means would be to eliminate the distinctions between the categories. Because of the severity of the transgression, any development which sought to maintain this system would have to be in the direction which eliminated the less stringent category and expanded the more stringent one. The decree brought by R. Zera in the name of the daughters of Israel suited that need.
A basic difference of opinion exists between the famous rabbinic sages Shammai and Hillel with reference to the beginning of a woman’s menstrual impurity. In Mishnah Niddah 1:1 (Mishnah Eduyyot 1:1) Shammai claims that a woman becomes ritually impure only when she sees blood. Hillel, contrary to the normally lenient legal position of his school, claims that when the woman sees menstrual blood she is ritually impure retroactively to the time when she last made an internal examination in which she ascertained that she was not menstruating. The sages rejected his stringent view and compromised between Hillel and Shammai. They limited retroactive impurity to twenty-four hours but it could be shortened if the woman did an internal examination within the twenty-four hour period. Women were enjoined to examine themselves internally before they had sexual relations. This activity may have caused concern to the man that she might be impure, the doubt causing him to forgo sexual connection. The sages therefore decided that if the woman had a regular, established period, both the man and woman examine themselves after coitus. It was unlikely that the set period would deviate but if there was blood they would have to bring a sin offering. Women who did not have a set period continued to be obligated to examine themselves before coitus. Women dealing with ritually pure objects and foodstuffs (including hullin consumed in purity), such as tithes (which were in effect long after the destruction of the Temple), were obligated to examine themselves internally both in the morning to make certain that the objects and foodstuffs touched in the previous evening and night were indeed pure, and again in the evening to ensure the purity of what she touched during the day. Women of the priestly families were allowed to eat certain sacrifices and gifts to the priests but in addition to the times mentioned above, they had to examine themselves internally before and after eating tithes and sacrifices in order that they ate in purity and that the leftovers could be consumed by others.
The basis of internal examinations lies in rabbinic interpretations of Leviticus 15:19. The sages interpreted the verse, “A woman who has a discharge, blood will be her discharge in her flesh …” The word bivsarah, “in her flesh,” creates the difficulty: if the blood makes her impure while it is still within her, that is, from when it leaves the uterus and before it leaves the vagina, then internal examinations are needed to verify the presence or absence of blood. It seems, however, that the simple meaning of the word is to emphasize the difference of a woman’s discharge, blood, which is not ejaculated from her body as a man’s semen is. The word basar, flesh, is the euphemism for genitalia used at the beginning of Leviticus 15. The word could, therefore, mean external genitals, the vulva. There are examples of the attached preposition (b-) in the Bible with the meaning “on” as opposed to “in.” The fact that the verse could have been read in those contexts which would not necessitate internal examinations but was not interpreted that way says much about the asceticism of the culture. Once the halakhic midrash, Sifra, understood the verse to mean that uterine blood found in the vagina is impure, then the repercussion of internal examinations or some other mode of distancing a man from impurity had to be put into place. Despite the fact that women consider their vaginas their most private parts, men have access to that internal part of their bodies during coitus. It must be noted that other sources of impurity, including semen in the urethra or a dead fetus in the birth canal, do not cause impurity until they are outside the body. Only menstrual blood was put into this more stringent category.
Women who had regular, established periods were not subject to the retroactive impurity but they were obligated to separate from their spouses for twelve hours before their periods were due to begin. This was to ensure that if the blood had left the uterus but was still in the vagina, the couple would not inadvertently transgress the law stated in Leviticus 20:18, incurring the punishment karet for having coitus during the niddah period.
Connected to the idea of retroactive impurity is another rabbinic innovation, the notion of blood stains. Fresh blood which was seen constituted a “sighting” or re’iyyah. It was clear that it was just issuing from the woman if she saw the blood. If, however, a woman saw dry blood stains on her garments, the time when the blood issued from her body is not clear. Consequently, objects or foodstuffs with which the woman had been in contact would have been contaminated.
Concern for possible transgression of the menstrual laws finds expression in the laws governing hymeneal blood. Chapter 10 of Tractate Niddah deals with questions about the possibility that hymeneal blood may actually be menstrual blood or contaminated with menstrual blood. Despite the fact that Tosefta Niddah (Niddah 9:10) and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmudim (JT Niddah 4:1 51b, BT Niddah 65b) have statements which differentiate between hymeneal blood, which is ritually pure, and menstrual blood, these distinctions were not sufficient to be acted upon. The sages made three different categories of women who were virgins: those who had not reached the stage of physiological development where they could be expected to begin to menstruate, those who had attained sufficient physiological development but had not yet begun to menstruate, and those who had already begun to menstruate. Laws governing coitus were most lenient for the first category because there was the least chance that there would be contamination of the hymeneal blood with menstrual blood. It should be noted that what might have been considered hymeneal blood in the case of the minor bride may in fact have been due to vaginal tearing, since prior to puberty the girl does not have sufficient hormonal stimulation for proliferation of vaginal mucosa for lubrication.
The tanna R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus expanded the restriction of Shammai (limiting sexual connection to the first act of intercourse only) for the mature bride to all brides and put them in the category of niddah. The reason given in JT Berakhot 2:6 for his version is that there can be no hymeneal blood without menstrual blood mixed with it. In the amoraic period both Rav and Shmuel stated that the groom “completes the first act of intercourse and separates” for seven clean days (BT Niddah 65b and current halakhic practice). This position was connected to an anonymous rabbinic statement in which the rabbis voted and concluded with that position. The original idea was stated in reference to a groom who was mourning and therefore was restricted also in sexual enjoyment (BT Ketubbot 4a) but this was expanded to all situations. There were differences between Babylonia and Erez Israel in regard to this law. In Erez Israel the hymen was apparently removed manually and therefore the sages did not legislate general rules. Individual sages made personal restrictions in Erez Israel while in Babylonia the restrictions were legislated for all.
In the geonic period (ca 750–1050), the notion that hymeneal blood may be mixed with ziva blood arose. Medieval authorities accepted the separation as halakhah but there were different customs as to when the counting of the seven clean days could begin. Spanish authorities allowed the count to begin as soon as the flow of hymeneal blood ceased. French, Provencal and Ashkenazic authorities required an additional three days until the semen was expelled. This was in order that the seven clean days be clean from semen impurity as well as suspected blood impurity. Normative halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Law) accepted the more stringent position and added yet another day before the counting could start. Despite the various customs, the fact remains that the category of virginal blood, which was originally considered pure, disappeared. Post-coital hymeneal bleeding was transferred into the category of impure menstrual blood which had an entirely different and much more stringent set of rules.
The sages created a new category of blood which did not exist in the biblical corpus. It was called dam himmud, “the blood of desire,” and it was thought that such uterine blood might appear if a woman thought of her husband in sexual terms or if the wedding date were set. The discussions concerning this blood are found in BT Niddah 66a and 20b and BT Yevamot 18b. Not only was a mature woman who had already menstruated included in this category, but also the minor girl who had never menstruated. This stringent law enjoined that the bride to be must keep seven clean days from the time the wedding date was set lest she be stimulated by the marriage arrangements and thereby discharge a small amount of blood. It is quite clear that the Talmud constructed this category from a male paradigm. It would not be unusual for a male to be sexually excited in anticipation of his forthcoming marriage and perhaps have a nocturnal emission, or an erection in which there was a slight discharge of semen, or would even masturbate to ejaculation. It is far less likely that the excitement of setting a wedding date would yield a hormonal imbalance which would suddenly cause the woman to discharge a bit of uterine blood. The reference is not to a period but slight discharge of blood and hence it is particularly unlikely in a prepubescent girl.
Chapter 12 of Leviticus describes a category of blood found after birth which is considered ritually pure. Immediately after birth of a male child, the woman is impure for seven days as in her menstrual impurity. That blood is compared to niddah, menstrual impurity. For thirty-three days after the seven days of impurity, any blood the woman sees is considered dam tohar, blood of purification. The woman is forbidden to come to the Temple during this time but she is considered pure by the rabbinic sages in reference to sexual relations. In contrast, Karaites, Samaritans and other sectarians considered blood seen during that time as impure as well. After the fourteen days of niddah impurity after the birth of a female child, any blood the woman sees is considered blood of purification. She is forbidden to go to the Temple but is pure for her spouse. It is possible that the doubling of days is due to the fact that the infant girl may have a discharge of uterine blood as a result of the hormone withdrawal at birth from her mother’s pregnant state. This occurs in a certain percentage of infants and the discharge of blood or, more commonly, blood-stained mucus, is nearly always for three days on the fifth, sixth and seventh days after birth. In that case the infant would be seeing uterine blood at a time which is not at the time of her period because menarche is due only some twelve years hence. As a result, the infant is considered a zava, a female with abnormal uterine bleeding. Her mother then would be subject to the laws of one who has birth impurity for the first seven days but also one who has contact with the discharges of a zava. She could not become pure until the baby girl counted seven clean days (days 8–14) after which her saliva while nursing would not transfer zava impurity. According to Niddah 5:3, however, the seven day niddah period must precede the ziva period even for a minor.
These laws continued through the tannaitic and amoraic periods. During those periods several situations of doubt were clarified in a stringent direction. An example is the miscarriage of a fetus prior to a stage of development where its sex can be determined. In such a case the stringencies of a male birth, i.e. thirty-three days of blood of purification, and the stringencies of a female birth, fourteen days of impurity, are imposed upon the woman. She then has fourteen days of niddah impurity and only twenty-six days of blood of purification (totaling the forty-day minimum time).
The issue of blood of purification became problematic in the talmudic period. Some sages were uncomfortable with the idea that a couple could resume sexual relations while the woman was still seeing uterine blood. How could she be certain that the blood after seven days was not really an accumulation of menstrual blood? We find a discussion of this issue in BT Niddah 35b where one sage claims that there are two different chambers in the uterus, one for menstrual blood and one for blood of purification. The other sage says it is simply a matter of time but there is no essential difference in the blood itself. It came down to a matter of cessation of the niddah aspect of the birth impurity. If the woman actually stopped bleeding after the seven or fourteen days and then saw blood within the thirty-three or sixty-six days, the latter could be considered blood of purification. This may be based on the male model of clearing out the urethra by urinating after an ejaculation in order for immersion to be effective.
This issue found expression in different ways. Some communities, in France for example, allowed sexual contact during the period of dam tohar. Other communities waited seven clean days after the seven or fourteen days of birth impurity as if the woman were a complete zava. Still others instated a new custom of waiting the entire forty days after the birth of a male or eighty days after the birth of a female before immersion and resumption of sexual relations.
Sifra, the legal exegesis on the book of Leviticus from the tannaitic period, distinguishes between a minor zava, who saw uterine blood for one or two days beyond the seven-day limit or at a time when she should not have been menstruating, and the major zava, who saw uterine blood for three consecutive days in those situations. When a woman begins to have contractions and sees blood prior to a birth, she becomes niddah. All the restrictions in reference to contact with a niddah apply until she gives birth, at which time the birth regulations apply. This has had a major impact on the level of contact a laboring woman can have with her spouse and whether fathers are allowed in delivery rooms. Blood which is connected to labor contractions retains the status of niddah blood unless the contractions cease. If a woman in labor saw blood for three consecutive days and then the contractions ceased for twenty-four hours while she continued to see blood, that blood is considered to be abnormal uterine blood (ziva). Her status as a zava overrides her status as a birthing woman and the category of blood of purification. She must count seven clean days before ritual purification.
In the late Middle Ages, widely distributed books in Ashkenaz contained several extreme formulations of menstrual laws, apparently influenced by the book Baraita de-Niddah. The authorship of this book is uncertain. It does contain early material which was not accepted as normative in earlier periods. Among the prohibitions are the idea that the dust of the menstruant’s feet causes impurity to others, that people may not benefit from her handiwork, that she pollutes food and utensils, that she may not go to synagogue, that she may not make blessings even on the sabbath candles, and that if she is married to a priest, he may not make the priestly blessing on the Holidays. Some of the descriptions of the negative powers of the menstruating woman are reminiscent of Pliny’s descriptions of crop damage, staining of mirrors and causing ill health. These notions entered the normative legal works and influenced behavior, particularly among the less educated who were not knowledgeable in rabbinic literature. Menstrual impurity took on mystical significance which reinforced stringent menstrual practices to protect the godhead and also spiritualized sexual reunion. Various positions were espoused by different kabbalists, some seeing physical menstruation as encouraging of the sitra ahra while others used it as a description of cosmic rhythms.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century another term became popular as the designation for menstrual laws: the Hebrew taharat ha-mishpahah, which means “purity of the family” or “family purity.” The term “family purity” is euphemistic and somewhat misleading since the topic is, in fact, ritual impurity. Originally a similar term was used to refer to the soundness of the family, to indicate that there was no genealogical defect such as bastardy or non-kosher priests. The particular term and its usage in reference to menstrual laws seems to have derived from German through Yiddish: “reinheit das familiens lebens.” It was probably generated by the Neo-Orthodox movement as a response to the Reform movement’s rejection of some of the normative menstrual laws, particularly use of the mikveh. The Reform movement claimed that ritual immersion was instituted at a time when public bathing facilities were the norm, but was no longer valid with the advent of home bathtubs and greater concern for personal hygiene. This argument had previously been made by the Karaites in Egypt and was uprooted by the vigorous objection of Maimonides in the twelfth century. An intense interchange on the topic erupted between Orthodox and Reform rabbis. As part of the Neo-Orthodox response, an apologetic philosophy of the elevated state of modern Jewish womanhood emerged along with the sanctity of her commandment to keep the family pure.
During the rise of Reform Judaism in the mid-nineteenth century, many of the commandments connected with physiology were categorized as primitive. The most obvious of these was circumcision but in the era of private plumbing, ritual bathing also fell by the wayside. Later, the Reform movement, in tune with the feminist movement, used menstrual laws as an example of negative, sexist Orthodox attitudes towards female physiology. Most recently, there have been Reform women rabbis who have advocated use of the mikveh as a spiritually cleansing process following unsuccessful relationships, abortions (spontaneous and induced), divorce, childbirth, and sometimes even menstruation.
The Conservative movement, in its desire to remain faithful to halakhah but be in tune with changing mores, finds itself at cross purposes with menstrual laws. The halakhic stance is that there may be room to reduce the waiting period from twelve days (five for the actual period and seven clean days) to eleven days. However, most rabbis simply avoid the topic in their premarital counseling because they themselves are uncomfortable with it or feel that most couples would be uncomfortable with the idea. On the other hand, among many young couples connected to the Jewish Theological Seminary observance of menstrual laws in some form seems to be on the rise. The observance may be based on the biblical law, that is, only seven days of menstruation rather than menstruation plus seven clean days.
Normative Orthodox practice (which must not be confused with affiliation to an Orthodox synagogue) would include separating from one’s spouse sexually twelve hours before the expected arrival of the period; checking internally before sundown on the final day of one’s period to ascertain that it has stopped completely; checking daily thereafter while counting the seven clean days; and finally, shampooing, bathing, trimming nails, removing any dead skin, removing cosmetics, jewelry and contact lenses, combing out tangles (or for some groups removing all hair) including underarm and pubic hair, flossing and brushing teeth and cleaning nose and ear canals before presenting oneself to the female mikveh attendant, the balanit, for inspection. She checks to ensure that nothing intervenes between the body and the water, and possibly checks that it is the correct day for immersion. The balanit makes sure the blessing is recited and that the entire body including the hair is completely submerged. Certain conditions such as false teeth, scabs and casts, create problems for which a rabbi must be consulted. Irregular periods are treated slightly differently in terms of separation. The woman checking the immersion or a female niddah counselor may be able to answer some of the questions that arise but a rabbi is frequently called for a decision. Immersion on Friday evening requires slightly different conditions in order to prevent Sabbath transgressions. Immersion for women must be done in the evening and at a ritually approved mikveh. Bathing in rivers is mentioned in the Talmud. Jewish families in rural areas often constructed their own private mikva’ot. Some mikva’ot have closed-circuit television so that a woman might avoid encountering a relative. Others are quite open about having friends or relatives accompany the woman.
The atmosphere in the mikveh is also determined by the woman in charge of the mikveh, the balanit. Often, it is she who sets the tone of the encounter, perhaps by being rough in the examination or abrasive in her demeanor. She may also make the mikveh a warm and welcoming place, allowing the women to immerse several times for the sake of a special blessing (segula) or other customs, and she may send the woman off with a blessing. Power struggles over control of holy space, usually initiated by the rabbinate, have reduced the number of ritual baths which allow bridal parties and have limited attendance at the remaining baths.
In Israel, observance of the menstrual laws is nearly universal among those who are affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue. In the Diaspora it serves as a dividing line between the Orthodox and everyone else. In Israel, other groups, particularly traditional Sefardi families, even though not always Sabbath-observant, still maintain observance of menstrual laws, sometimes out of worry for the purported physical repercussions to children born of non-observance or to themselves during childbirth, but perhaps also from concern about the possibility of incurring the punishment of karet. Mishnah Shabbat 2:6 mentions lack of care in observance of the menstrual laws as a reason women die in childbirth. Handbooks for niddah observance are not uniform in their approach but have specific target audiences. Some are straightforward rulebooks with all the required information for correct halakhic practice and highlight only problematic situations where a posek should be consulted. Others attempt to convince the reader of the benefits of halakhic observance of niddah laws for the woman, her spouse, their children and the people of Israel. Still others threaten those who have improper practices or non-compliance with the likelihood of producing children who are physically or morally defective and the possibility of untimely death of the children or the couple.
In the last decade, orthodox rabbis have established a new two-year training program in the relevant texts and practical laws for female niddah counselors. Most women are more comfortable asking other women rather than male rabbis about menstrual problems, the effect of nursing, fertility issues, examination methods and staining on their niddah status. Many of these questions are routine and can easily be answered. For more complicated issues such as the status of particular blood stains on pads or underclothing, these counselors are trained to refer the women to a posek. Some feminist critics maintain that, because of their rabbinic advisors, the advice of such niddah counselors always tends towards stringency.
Advocates of menstrual law observance emphasize potential positive aspects such as the sense of honeymoon when sexual relations are allowed, the opportunity to develop non-sexual aspects of the relationship and modes of communication, and time for oneself without worry about sexuality. Efforts to imbue menstrual observance with spirituality include reinterpretation of biblical texts and symbols to emphasize red/blood/life-giving potential and the mystical relationship to reunification. Petitions both in Yiddish (Tkhines) and Hebrew (tehinnot) have been composed to aid in fulfillment of the menstrual laws and to make use of the fulfillment of the commandment as an auspicious time for personal petitions, particularly for fertility.
There is also great objection to certain aspects of the menstrual laws even among the observant. The construction of fences preventing any kind of physical contact between the couple during the niddah period obliterates the lines between intimacy and sexuality, often having a negative impact on the woman’s sense of her body and self-esteem and the couple’s sexuality. This holds not only for labor and birth when a woman may be in particular need of her spouse’s physical support, but also during the monthly separation. An Israeli documentary film, Tehora (Anat Zuria, 2002), focuses on the problematic issues of niddah observance, e.g. non-sexual intimacy, the lack of a culture of positive sexuality, the negative body image of the niddah, and the mid-cycle spotting of women who have borne several children. There is far less confusion today between menstruation and abnormal uterine bleeding, leading some observant couples to question or reject the conflation of the categories by R. Zera. It is likely that far more people would be willing to maintain sexual abstinence for seven days followed by immersion than adhere to the present system as it stands.