Female Purity (Niddah) Annotated Bibliography
Abramov, Tehilla, and Malka Touger, The Secret of Jewish Femininity: Insights into the Practice of Taharat HaMishpachah, Southfield, Michigan: 1988.
This book is a translation and reworking by Malka Touger of Abramov’s Hebrew Taharat HaMishpachah teachers’ manual. Seven rabbis from Israel give their support to the book. The details within the book have been examined by some rabbis for their halakhic accuracy. The goal of the book is to encourage halakhically correct practice of niddah laws. There are detailed descriptions of ascertaining that menstruation has ceased (hefsek taharah), the additional examination between sunset and the appearance of three stars (mokh dahuk), checking cloths (edim), examining the checking cloths, the examinations required during the seven clean days (bedikot), rules of distancing from spouse (harhakot) in reference to touching, eating, bedroom arrangements, washing, etc., preparation for immersion, care that no foreign substance intervenes between the water and the woman’s body (hazizah), immersion, calculating when menstruation is to begin (veset), concerning stains, gynecological examinations as well as laws for the bride and groom, childbirth and contraception. Throughout the book emphasis of the need to consult a reliable rabbi in all matters of doubt is reiterated.
Abramov integrates anecdotes from her own and other family purity counselors’ years of experience. All the anecdotes intend to prove the spiritual and physical advantages of properly observing niddah laws and include some heroic accounts. Among the advantages Abramov attributes to proper observance are strong marriages, fertility, spiritual satisfaction, and physical and health advantages for the woman. Her basic premise is that women are created for marriage and family responsibilities which are challenging enough to keep her satisfied. She believes that “men are given more mitzvot because they require more training,” while women “possess a natural, intuitive connection to God’s will.” (p. 32) She claims that observance of niddah laws sustains the marriage and prevents sexual boredom. She also claims that the laws are “in harmony with a woman’s physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological makeup” (p. 55) and also protect her emotionally and physically and give her time for self-rejuvenation and spiritual growth. (p. 64) Abramov attempts to relieve the embarrassment about the necessity of consulting a rabbi in situations of doubt by comparing him to a gynecologist. She claims that a rabbi is trained to give lenient decisions in order to keep a woman in the state of ritual purity as much as possible.
Abramov suggests leaving plenty of time for preparation for immersion and internal examinations without relating to the difficulties, especially if one works outside the home. She does relate to some difficulties in performing the internal examination due to lack of natural lubrication but her suggestions for remedy seem inadequate. She claims that any level of contact makes it more difficult for the man to restrain himself and therefore emphasizes the importance of all of the rules of distancing. Abramov suggests that concerns that marriage will suffer when the harhakot are not practiced, for instance during pregnancy, nursing or after menopause, are misplaced because the distancing laws are not ideal but only a “means to achieving the ideal.” (p. 103) She does not relate to the strain that lack of nonsexual intimacy can cause. She optimistically claims that other forms of communication will suffice. Abramov claims that the rules and standards were created by God when, in fact, they are fences constructed by rabbis to prevent transgression of the prohibition of intercourse in Leviticus 18. In attempting to emphasize the necessity to accept the principles of the purity system on faith, she connects impurity to the absence of life and immersion to the creation of life. She claims that by keeping the laws of niddah, women sanctify time in the same way that men do by performing positive time-bound mitzvot. Abramov claims contraception is permissible only if a rabbi permits it, without taking into account the fact that women are not obligated in procreation. Such actual knowledge would undermine her argument that women are created only to marry and procreate. It should be noted that there are no footnotes and that very few real sources are referred to or quoted. In spite of the fact that all the advice and explanation of laws is designed to enable a couple to resume sexual relations, the book contains no real reference to satisfying sexuality. This is consistent with the ascetic attitude of (ultra-) orthodoxy. The connection Abramov makes between death and menstruation is actually based on the claim in Bereishit Rabbah (vol. 1, p. 160) that Eve spilled Adam’s blood (i.e., committed murder) by disobeying God and giving the fruit to Adam.
Adler, Rachel. “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings.” Response: The Jewish Woman. Reprinted and slightly abridged from The Jewish Catalog; A Do-it-Yourself Kit, edited by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld. Philadelphia: 1973.
In this short article Rachel Adler emphasizes the unceasing cycle of death and rebirth, juxtaposing our rational idea of mortality with our soul’s reflection of the immortal divine. She understands purity as the reaffirmation of the immortal and impurity as our confrontation with mortality. This article is the most poetic analysis of tumah (impurity) and one of the first in the feminist era. Adler considers begetting and birth as the nexus points in which life and death are coupled. At the nexus points, the life fluids, semen, menstrual blood and birthing blood depart from the body or are transferred, making one tamei (impure). She compares niddah (menstruation) to dying, which makes room for new birth. She claims that taharah (purity) is a mask impersonating immortality while tumah is a mask of death. Taharah is a shadow of the taharah of God. She compares the waters of the mikveh to the primal sea, and amniotic fluid to the life sources.
Her analysis of impurity as without physical consequences is somewhat simplistic, at least in normative Judaism if not also in the Bible. She equates semen and menstrual blood as life-giving and yet polluting when they leave the body, without noting the differences in the impurity level and its duration, nor the additional impurity the rabbis attributed to the woman while semen was inside her. She overlooks these critical differences in order to contextualize niddah laws within the rest of the biblical and rabbinic purity system, despite the fact that the purity laws pertaining to men’s genital discharges had essentially been abdicated in the Babylonian Talmud and none of the other categories of impurity carried the potential for the punishment of karet (excision from the Jewish people or divine retribution) unless the Temple were polluted by the action. She turned to secular learning, particularly the anthropology of Mary Douglas concerning the boundaries societies establish to protect themselves from chaos; to literary criticism, in an attempt to reread Leviticus, making pollution the result of encounters with death-like or life-diminishing situations; and to comparative religion, especially the scholarship of Mircea Eliade which defined water as a universal symbol of regeneration and renewal. Mikveh and menstrual impurity were part of “a cyclical process in which all creation endlessly rehearses it to death and rebirth.” Her use of secular sources which did not share orthodoxy’s assumptions was viewed by rabbis as an effective apologetic to encourage mikveh use without engaging in the differences in the belief systems. The short discussion of immersion practices and laws and the referral to halakhically observant rabbis identifies her as Orthodox. Adler weaves a beautiful, poetic and symbolic picture of the purity laws. The purpose of the article was to make sense of her orthodox practice. In the article reviewed below, “In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of the Theology of Purity,” she severely critiques her first article.
The editors’ note raises feminist objection to Adler’s portrayal of the purity system on a number of grounds: 1) why do menstrual laws remain in force when (nearly) all other manifestations of impurity have been in abeyance since the destruction of the Temple; 2) does not the separation of the menstruating woman, especially with the additional seven clean days established in rabbinic Judaism, constitute stigma; and 3) if the emphasis is the life-death nexus inherent in the menstrual cycle, should not both the man and the woman immerse?
Adler’s response, that when niddah became a separate category in the general purity/impurity system it became a pathological means of controlling sexual desire and niddah became the most severe form of impurity, made her justified anger obvious. The non-halakhic avoidance mechanisms which came into practice protected men from being overcome by lust by punitively shunning women. Rabbinic claims that the impurity was spiritual rather than physical are offensive. She describes some of the perverse rabbinic attitudes to niddah as being tainted by outside influence from ascetic sectarian groups like the Essenes or from Christians or Moslems. On this particular point Adler uses the same “foreign influence” model which was used by the rabbi in charge of the Western Wall when women desired to pray as a community at the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh. Rather than understanding a desire for communal spiritual expression on the part of women at Judaism’s holiest accessible site as an internal Jewish development, the motivation for such activity was attributed to the “outside impurity,” i.e. feminism. Here, too, we must see these reactions to women’s bodies, sexuality and the relationship to sacred as internal Jewish developments, repugnant as they may be. Adler’s attempt to reintegrate niddah practices into the larger tum’ah and taharah sytem was exceptionally successful. It enabled women who felt themselves bound by the rabbinic restrictions of niddah practices to connect to a cycle of death and rebirth beautifully and poetically described by Adler. It did not, however, confront the halakhic system developed by rabbis and imposed upon voiceless women.
Adler, Rachel. “In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of the Theology of Purity.” Tikkun vol. 8, No. 1 (1992): 38–41.
In this article Adler recants her position in her previous article, “Tum’ah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” which justified niddah laws through a feminist theology of purity. She includes an analysis of her break with that theology and her transformation to a different theology of purity. Most of the article is a critique on the above-mentioned article. She considers contextualizing menstrual impurity within a framework of impurity centered on the Temple, when nearly all other forms of impurity are in abeyance, as a tactic to neutralize discrimination by emphasizing commonalities rather than distinctions. Since menstrual impurity is focused on avoidance of sexual expression and is embodied only in women, it cannot be gender-neutral. The faithful spouse is similarly limited in his sexual expression but does not embody the impurity of the menstruating woman. Adler sees the niddah laws as a means to limit the woman’s transmission of pollution without in any manner making the woman holier and bringing her closer to God. She interprets the concern of male writers, including the rabbinic sages, to be with the mode by which women were to comport themselves in their impurity. Moreover, she defines the purity system as a class system in which the most impure people are women. The biblical sources which connect the root ndd with adultery, idolatry and murder and use menstrual stains on clothing as an image to shun the desolate Jerusalem were explained away by Adler as prophetic despair at societal impurity. This was based on her belief of a Golden Age when bodily discharges were not a source of stigma, a belief she no longer holds. She now accepts Eilberg-Schwartz’s contention that the stigma that menstrual blood creates “a crucial distinction between men’s and women’s capacities for holiness,” which in turn creates a culture in which men are able to dominate women. Adler now believes that the theological claims in the earlier article (e.g, that impurity was universal, normal and morally neutral) have been disproved by historical precedent, literary analysis, linguistic usage and communal practice.
Rachel Adler considers the theology which she developed in that article a theology of the despised in which the meaning of impurity was inverted and falsely transformed. She struggles with the guilt of articulating an influential “theology of untruths.” She considers the worlds reflected in such purity systems as unjust. She acknowledges the “possibility of salvage” by non-Orthodox women who advocate mikveh usage for situations that threatened their lives or injured them as sexual beings, letting the water symbolize renewed life. Adler claims that purity must make sense in human terms, where women regularly bleed, not in terms of an unembodied God. Human terms are not perfect and sacred may mean inexhaustible as opposed to inerrant, invulnerable and invariable truth. She believes that we become more God-like by becoming more deeply, broadly and comprehensively human. In her book, Engendering Judaism (1999), she emphasizes the need for halakhah, to inform and guide our lives, even for non-Orthodox Jews. Adler phrases these positions in terms of Orthodox and non-Orthodox, identifying herself as non-Orthodox. She gives no guidelines for any purity practices, apparently considering the normative rabbinic positions untenable.
Allouche-Benayoun, Joelle. “The Rites of Water for the Jewish Women of Algeria: Representations and Meanings.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 199–216. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Allouche-Benayoun analyzes the use of mikveh and hammam (Moorish bath) in the past in Algeria and in present-day France by Algerian immigrants. The mikveh is inextricably bound to sexuality and many of the subjects found it difficult to speak about practices because of the connection with sexuality. She analyzes the ritual and spiritual weight given to mikveh and the connection to health and safety of family members, particularly children conceived after mikveh usage. The availability of modern sanitation facilities in France, different religious sensibilities and a Jewish population from a variety of cultures have resulted in less use of the mikveh except for conversion and a movement of people becoming more religious. As a result traditional parties and ceremonies connected to marriage have fallen into abeyance. Allouche-Benayoun understands mikveh use as a rite of passage and includes some other rites involving water usage.
Anteby, Lisa. “‘There’s Blood in the House’: Negotiating Female Rituals of Purity among Ethiopian Jews in Israel.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 167–186. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Anteby describes how Ethiopian Jews in Israel adjust their home and community environment to accommodate purity rituals for women. The fieldwork was done with a group of women from the Gondar region of Ethiopia who immigrated to Israel in 1991 and were followed for four years. As the Israeli absorption centers were not set up to accommodate separate housing for menstruating women or women who had given birth, the women took over a corner of the hallway in order to create a spatial separation for themselves in their impurity. They avoided physical contact with others, including festivities and communal dining and their food was brought to them by children. Although they were reluctant to say why they separated themselves, using euphemistic terms of illness, they were trying to reconstruct a “hut of curse.” In the Ethiopian highlands menstruating women were isolated in huts for seven days. Afterwards they immersed themselves in a river, cut their nails, washed their clothes, fasted all day and returned to the family hut at sundown. Some informants said that women give birth at home and then move to the huts while others claimed that they gave birth in the huts. Seven days after the birth of a boy and fourteen days after the birth of a girl they moved to the hut of birth where they remained for another thirty-three or sixty-six days depending on the sex of the baby. At the conclusion of this period the women bathed themselves and their babies, shaved their heads, washed their clothes, fasted all day and returned to their home at sunset. Other sources have mentioned a ritual of atonement by women after birth, in which they are symbolically beaten by the priest. It would have been valuable had these customs been compared to halakhic practices because the prevailing view is that Ethiopians were cut off from the rest of Israel at a pre-rabbinic stage and such an analysis would have shed light on historical development. The huts were normally situated at the margins of the village. The women reported both positive and negative aspects of the isolation such as: rest and relaxation, social time, a time of transmission of knowledge (e.g. embroidery) and stories, as well as lack of food, fear and cold. Anteby attributes some of the positive descriptions to idealization of the past and some of the negative descriptions to the attitude of younger immigrants. The women could not cook in the huts except for coffee and roasting grains but food was brought to them with great care to avoid physical contact.
In the next stage of the immigration process Ethiopian Jews were moved into mobile homes which created other obstacles for separation. Some of the women simply slept outside the bedroom but there were still complaints from women as well as men that their homes were “dirty.” Most of the women continued to perform their household tasks including cooking, which constituted a major change from their practices in Ethiopia. Looking at a menstruating woman was contaminating as was the ground on which she walked. These distancing practices are reminiscent of practices in Baraita de-Niddah. As the women normally immersed in a river, i.e. running water, the mikvaot in Israel were considered by them to be unable to purify. It is interesting that they demanded “living water,” the requirement only for the zav in Leviticus 15. It should be noted that no other mode of bathing is mentioned in the Bible and that the earliest archeological evidence for mikvaot is from the Persian period. One wonders whether this had to do with the Ethiopians’ physical surroundings where there was no need to actually construct a mikveh, resulting in a stringent practice when moved to Israel, a country with very few rivers. Most of the women preferred to use the running water of the shower instead of immersing in a mikveh. For those women who did not use sanitary products, their clothes had to be laundered separately from the family’s clothes due to concern about the presence of bloodstains. This practice echoes biblical concerns about transmission of impurity.
The inability to have spatial designation of impurity also led to confusion about counting the days of impurity especially after birth, according to Anteby. The nonverbal communication of purity status and pregnancy (by not going to the menstrual hut) was compromised in Israel yet there was still reluctance to verbalize about these issues. It should be noted that the custom that unmarried women also went to the menstrual hut gives evidence that transmission of impurity by contact was still the major issue in Ethiopian practice, contrary to rabbinic development after the destruction of the Temple where the sexual prohibition was protected by distancing mechanisms. The physical isolation of the menstrual hut guaranteed that there would be no sexual contact. People are also isolated for seven days after contact with a corpse.
The absence of menstrual huts in Israel “creates a new configuration of spatial, verbal, and gender relations among the Jews of Ethiopia.” (p. 179) Women retain some level of social isolation by absenting themselves from social gatherings of women or remaining on the margins of the group at weddings and celebrations. There is an attempt to adjust the apartment to accommodate separation, at least a separate toilet for the menstruating woman. The informants generally did not attend synagogues and even the younger girls attending state religious schools would avoid synagogues during their periods. Many of the informants lamented the absence of modes of isolation which made them have “blood in the house.” Anteby describes the discomfort of Ethiopian Jews with Israeli burial customs, which include carrying the body, because of the resulting impurity. There is also dissatisfaction with the slaughtering process. She claims that Ethiopian Jews create a rhetoric of purity to maintain separate identity in Israel where even Orthodox Jews do not practice the biblical purity regulations. This ethnographic study brings to light the problems encountered by Ethiopian women transforming their purity practices to fit the new environment.
Biale, Rachel. “Niddah: Laws of the Menstruant.” In Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women’s Issues in Halakhic Sources, 147–174. New York: 1984.
Biale refers to the Jewish attitude to menstruation as a taboo. She considers a niddah as one who has been excluded or ostracized. She believes that the destruction of the Temples removed the focal point of the purity laws, thus allowing the second biblical context of menstrual prohibitions, i.e. sexual prohibitions, to develop. This led to a narrowing of the relevance of menstrual laws to the husband and wife with some overlap to community, such as distancing from the synagogue which was perceived as a substitute for the Temple. Biale claims the laws favored procreation. She analyzes Leviticus 15 and gives a summary (pp. 150–151) which does not take into account midras impurity and suggests that intercourse was probably “avoided during abnormal discharge because of fear of contagion.” This is probably an anachronistic claim. She also analyzes Leviticus 12, giving the two common reasons for the doubling of the days of ritual impurity for the woman who gives birth to a girl: 1) disappointment in sex of the child making the law punitive and uncharacteristic of Leviticus; 2) the potential of the girl to menstruate making her birth “doubly bloody.”
Biale emphasizes the difference between normal menstruation and abnormal uterine bleeding and the likelihood of confusion when there is an alteration in the regular menstrual cycle. During the rabbinic period some rabbis developed expertise in distinguishing between normal and abnormal uterine blood but the gradual disappearance of this skill (BT Niddah 20ab) required a different system to deal with doubtful situations. Biale claims that the conflation of niddah with zavah as stated by R. Zera occurred at this stage (BT Niddah 66a). At this point the sexual prohibitions and punishment in Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 and became primary, changing entirely the context of Leviticus 15 in which impurity is neutral unless it is brought to the Temple.
Interestingly, she notes that the use of the root n.d.h. in Ezra and Ezekiel expands the meaning with connotations of defiling the land. She claims that as they were both priests they may have had particular sensitivity to impurity and relates the statement in Leviticus 18:24–25 that sexual sins, including sexual relations with a niddah, pollute the land. According to Leviticus 18 the punishment for transgression of the sexual prohibition is karet, “punishment at the hand of heaven, presumably premature death.” (p. 155) Biale critiques the harmonizing commentary of Ibn Ezra, which claims that Leviticus 18 and 20 relate to intentional act while Leviticus 15 refers to an inadvertent transgression, by mentioning that there is no element of prohibition at all in Leviticus 15. She prefers instead a historical interpretation, i.e. when the Temple existed there was a consciousness of holy space which diminished after the destruction. As a result, she believes that Leviticus 18 and 20 may be a response to the destruction of the first Temple where the laws of niddah are shifted from the cultic context to the marital context. Biale does not relate to the terms H=Holiness (Leviticus 18 and 20) and P=Priestly (Leviticus 15) but she correctly analyzes the situation, making H later than P.
Biale demonstrates that the work a woman normally performs for her husband is permitted while she is niddah except for actions which may invite intimacy, such as washing his hands, face and feet, pouring his wine and making his bed. Actual transmission of impurity was no longer relevant and she supports this with a responsum of Rashi, who claims that impurity such as that caused by the vessels handled by a niddah, a corpse or a dead reptile can only be purified in messianic times. He does emphasize that priests have additional purity concerns and that even between husband and wife there are distancing rules which prohibit direct contact and require separate seating, bedding and dishes. Biale traces the tension concerning the level to which a niddah may beautify herself, with Rabbi Akiva holding a lenient position so that she does not become despicable to her husband (BT Shab. 64b). Distancing regulations are emphasized, as are modern niddah manuals. She also traces the changing regulations concerning timely immersion. In mishnaic times there was an expectation that the woman would immerse as soon as she completed the time of her impurity. R. Joseph Caro (Beit Yosef on Tur Y.D. 193) declares that the immersion on time is in and of itself not a mitzvah but is an obligation only when the husband is in town. Delay in immersion to antagonize the husband is a transgression. It should be noted that in the Middle Ages, Jewish merchants were often away from home for years at a time. Biale quotes Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 3:47), relating to the differences between the halakhic relationship to menstruating women and the Sabian practice to completely isolate niddot. The extreme distancing mentioned by Maimonides concerning the Sabians is reminiscent of some of the extreme statements and Baraita de-Niddah. In tracing the practice of some women to avoid synagogue and contact with holy objects, Biale suggests the general practice may have been more strict in reference to distancing than actual halakhic rulings. She quotes the Shulhan Arukh, O. H. 84: 1 and Rabbi Moses Isserles’s commentary on it, analyzing both the law and the practices. She also relates to the impact Baraita de-Niddah may have had on practice and cites Nahmanides’s quotation of it in his commentary on Genesis 31:5, relating to the impurity of her speech, the prohibition to walk behind her or tread upon her footsteps and the idea that dust upon which she has stepped will have corpse uncleanness. This section is a slightly less thorough analysis than Shaye J. D. Cohen’s article from 1992, reviewed below, but covers much of the same territory. Biale continues with some reactions to the prolonged prohibition of contact and quotes Rabbi Meir’s claim that the separation caused endearment (BT Niddah 31a). She also mentions the likelihood of increased fertility due to resumption of sexual relations around ovulation and the possibility of halakhic infertility for women with short cycles. She does refer to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s (1910–1995) suggestion of reducing the number of clean days to accommodate such women but subsequently there were strong negative reactions to his proposal. Overall, Biale’s work is an excellent introduction to halakhic issues involving women and predated much of the serious scholarship in the area.
Cicurel, Inbal E. “The Rabbinate Versus the Israeli (Jewish) Women: The Mikveh as a Contested Domain.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 3 (2000).
Cicurel proposes to explore the symbolism and practices connected to mikveh use in Israel. She wishes to examine it as a “vehicle of male dominance and as a site where female power becomes visible.” She endeavors to show that despite the mikveh’s representing patriarchy and definitions of women as impure, there are women who create alternate, positive definitions for themselves as mikveh-users. Cicurel does not connect some of these positive interpretations to the apologetics created by the neo-Orthodox movement in the mid-nineteenth century which portray women as protectors of family purity with an inherent spirituality. She obtained the material for this ethnographic study through fieldwork in Beersheba, Israel, where she conducted interviews with twenty women with different levels of religious observance at a number of mikvaot.
In her overview of the menstrual laws, there are some inaccuracies; for example, only after immersion “may the woman return to social contact with men.” In fact, social contact during niddah is not forbidden but only intimate and sexual contact with the husband (and, of course, all other men); her definition of karet as death is only one of several rabbinic explanations; the injunction of women to have intercourse immediately after immersion is actually the husband’s obligation. Cicurel notes strategies used by the madrikhot (female niddah counselors) to convince women to comply with niddah laws: 1) the necessity to present a certificate confirming immersion before the wedding; 2) campaigning by madrikhot for niddah observance and easy availability of niddah rulebooks. Among the arguments employed by the counselors are the “honeymoon effect” (BT Niddah 31), supposed medical advantages for compliance (Cicurel does not relate to the inaccuracy of such descriptions), divine arguments such as the presence of the Shekhinah in observant homes, and the necessity of male rabbis to function as experts in examining bloodstains. It is possible that women niddah counselors had not yet begun to practice in Beersheba at the time of the writing of this article but in other cities they have taken over answering some of the standard questions. Cicurel’s claim that the choice of observing niddah laws from among the 613 mitzvot may fit the democratic character of the Israeli state is questionable. She did not relate adequately to the cultural and familial expectations in regard to the laws of niddah. Her claim that there are “two weeks of complete physical separation” is inaccurate, since this depends on the length of the menstrual period. It could be twelve days or more.
Many of the accounts relate to anecdotal evidence of the positive results of observing the niddah laws: husband’s health, health of children, and success in business. Many relate to observance of niddah laws as a protective charm. Interestingly, Cicurel does not relate to the perspective of the spouse when some time after marriage the woman opts to observe niddah. She did not relate to the level of observance within the traditional households, e.g. making Kiddush or blessing the bread at the special Sabbath meal which is usually done by men. If the negative commandments for the Sabbath are not observed, such practices would still indicate Sabbath observance. Similarly, even if rules of modesty are not strictly observed, immersion may simply parallel basic traditional Jewish practice rather than serving as an example of women creating “their own enclaves” within the formal hierarchy of commandments. The accounts of the women experiencing spiritual elevation as a result of immersion do speak to the existence of women’s spirituality. Claims for positive effects as a result of keeping niddah in other aspects of family life, such as business, welfare of soldiers and family members, indicate that some of her informants relate to it in magical terms.
Cicurel analyzes the terms used by her informants to describe observance of niddah laws or absence thereof in terms of reward and punishment as inversions or changes in standard halakhic descriptions. She sees this as women’s initiative to either perpetuate their daughters’ observance or justify their own. She does not relate to the fact that many of these strategies were originally used by male rabbis. She also claims that halakhah “talks about niddah as a means of protecting men and society from women’s impurity.” She does not give a reference for this. In the classical sources avoidance of sexual relations or intimate contact which may lead to sexual relations is specifically connected to avoiding the penalty of karet, which applies equally to men and women if the sexual act is consensual.
While Cicurel does not relate to some halakhic aspects, such as internal examinations to verify the end of the period and the seven clean days, she does refer to the pleasure that some of her informants had in preparing for immersion. It is interesting that there is no account of conflicting demands due to work or family that make it difficult to set aside time for the trip to the mikveh. Many of her informants speak of niddah as a rest from their husbands and while Cicurel suggests that this may be due to not liking sex, she does not address that issue but focuses on the informants’ belief that there is an “injunction to have sexual relations immediately after immersion.” This is not a female obligation but may come under the husband’s duty of providing sexual relations.
The article is repetitive and poorly organized. Several of the halakhic details are inaccurate and the halakhic references are only to secondary literature. Her analysis of the halakhic choices made by her informants is not contextualized into general Jewish practice by traditional families. The most interesting part of the article had to do with a planned transfer of the balaniot, the women’s personal objection to this and their request for intercession by appropriate males.
Cohen, Shaye J. D. “Purity, Piety, and Polemic: Medieval Rabbinic Denunciations of ‘Incorrect’ Purification Practices.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 82–100. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Cohen discusses four medieval polemics concerning incorrect purification practices for women. He believes that although there may be a “large gap between rabbinic legal prescription and lived reality,” “there is only a small gap between rabbinic polemic and lived reality.” The first, which he labels the Tosafist who claims to be representing the view of Rashi (eleventh-century France), is probably actually representing Jewish law and practice in the twelfth century. The complaint is twofold: after cessation of their periods women bathe in warm water and dress in nice clothes, and they neglect to bathe immediately prior to immersion. As a result, the immersion may be invalid because a speck of dirt or piece of skin may intervene between the woman’s body and the water. This claim is backed up by the exaggerated assertion that a child conceived after such an immersion would be a mamzer, even though the Talmud specifically states that such a child is not a bastard (BT Yevamot 49a). A second assertion is that the bathing after the period will come to replace actual immersion. The texts are directed towards women but the actual audience of the text is men who will presumably prevent their wives from behaving in this manner. The second case is Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel (Provence), Raban (~1155–1215), who claims that under the influence of geonic responsa, the Jews of Spain have been misled in reference to immersion. According to the geonic responsa because of the conflation between niddah and zavah, women must immerse in “living water” like the zav. As a result, women feel that they must immerse in a river rather than a mikveh but due to the temperature of the river, many women opt to simply bathe. This is an example of a stringency which has yielded a leniency. In the third case, R. Isaiah ben Mali (the Elder) of Trani, Rid (~1200–1260), related to a practice of the Jews of Byzantium based on comments by R. Hillel in his commentary to Sifra that drawn water is only a rabbinic prohibition for mikvaot but not a biblical prohibition. As a result, the women were incorrectly immersing in drawn water and not in a kosher mikveh. Some communities were willing to accept Rid’s exhortation to use a proper mikveh, while others refused. Cohen speculates that this practice was widespread in Greece a couple of generations before R. Hillel under Karaite influence and that his comments on Sifra were the result of an unsuccessful campaign to change the practice or a desire that they sin in ignorance rather than intentionally. The final polemic is found in Maimonides, who objects to Karaite practices which had proliferated among the Jews, i.e. bathing in drawn water, laxity in accounting of the seven clean days and, even worse, sprinkling instead of immersion. As a result of these widespread practices, Maimonides and nine other sages and judges signed on the decree that women who were not circumspect about immersion, the seven clean days and rejecting the idea of sprinkling, should be divorced and forfeit their marriage settlements. This, of course, allowed any man to divorce his wife without financial penalty. Although Cohen understands that this text means that the seven clean days are not kept at all and that the women revert to the biblical practice of niddah as seven days in total, the part of the responsum which he quotes—“have been careless in the matter of immersion of the niddah in the waters of a mikveh, and in the counting of seven clean days”—does not specify that. There are other ways to miscount the seven days, as the Samaritan and Sadducean women do according to Niddah 4:1–2. It is likely, however, that the Karaite practice was the main influencing factor. This responsum was written in Judeo-Arabic but addresses only women. Cohen analyzes the practice of sprinkling and suggests that it encouraged social relations because of the partner the woman needed to do the sprinkling. In his conclusion, Cohen— using rabbinic (albeit erroneous) sources analyzes the extent of deviation from rabbinic law in each group, and the women’s response to the rabbinic critique of their practices. He speculates that women may have had a stronger link between menstruation and dirt than did the rabbinic authorities.
Cohen, Shaye J. D. “Purity and Piety: The Separation of Menstruant from the Sancta.” In Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut. Philadelphia: 1992.
Cohen traces the legal texts relating to customary practices of women to avoid Synagogue, prayers, benedictions and the like. Shulhan Arukh (O. H. 88) prohibits only ejaculants from contact with a Torah scroll. R. Moses Isserles added in his commentary to this text the prohibition that a niddah in the days of discharge may not enter the synagogue, pray, pronounce God’s name or touch a Hebrew book. He personally holds that all of these practices are allowed. Even where avoidance practices occur, there is a distinction between the days of the flow and the seven clean days. Women who live in areas of the strictest practices should still attend the synagogue on the high holidays. R. Joseph Caro does not debar ejaculants from praying, studying and touching the Torah scroll, since the measure was only an attempt to control their sexuality.
Cohen believes that the transfer of sanctity from the Temple to the synagogue was in reality incomplete but that, in practice, Temple rituals (shofar blowing), decorations and prayers to replace sacrifices evolved so that prayer, Torah study and entrance to the synagogue demanded ritual purity. One wishes that greater evidence concerning ritual and transfer of sanctity could be traced. Tosefta Berakhot 2:12 sets ejaculants apart from all other males and females with the genital discharge to prohibit reading Torah and studying Torah. Although sexual restraint was the issue, one wonders whether the two-week priestly shifts in the Temple led to great concern with semen ejaculation by the young priests and that this was a way of keeping them in line.
Cohen claims that the identification of the synagogue with the Temple increased, including the use of appellations such as “holy place” or “house of God,” but does not trace how the impurity issues transferred. He claims that the influence of Baraita de-Niddah and its reiteration in Yiddish piety books (n. 23) is the source of the stringencies. Interestingly, the stringencies had some element of transfer to the spouse (perhaps from being under the same roof). The examples he gives do not substantiate his claims that “her impurity is dangerous to those around her”—only that the transfer of impurity impacts on status and the sacred (e.g. synagogue and religious ritual). Cohen considers Baraita de-Niddah to be from the land of Israel from the six or seventh century (p. 108) but he also brings geonic material from tenth-century Babylonia preventing niddot from entering the synagogue. Sephardic communities did not accept these restrictions and Maimonides and Caro did not mention them, whereas Ashkenazic communities did accept them. Cohen’s reason to claim that everyone is impure “since they cannot bring an atonement sacrifice to the Temple” is incorrect. Menstruants and ejaculants do not need sacrifices. Corpse impurity is the overriding issue but sprinkling with the water mixed with ashes of the red heifer is critical. (p. 110) Cohen claims women internalized the fear of menstruation attested to in Baraita de-Niddah. This would imply they had access to it, directly or indirectly through Yiddish or sermons, that is, he is not taking into account the male factor in the process. It is also possible that women went along with it because synagogue experience depends to some extent on visual and auditory stimulation which may be compromised in women’s galleries. It also may have been easier to care for children at home and menstruation was a good excuse. Although Cohen attributes the tenacity of the distancing stringencies to folk piety, he does not describe the influence of men in the process of getting women to be pious in this manner. He is certainly correct that these practices reflect the marginality of women.
Cook, Leslie A. “Body Language: Women’s Rituals of Purification in the Bible and Mishna.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 40–59. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
The notes on contributors indicate that Cook has three degrees from Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago, an Orthodox institution. Cook separates herself from what she views as a popular feminist position, i.e. that women are in a subservient position, and identifies Eilberg-Schwartz as holding a feminist position when he claims that women’s blood contaminates while men’s blood creates covenant. Cook claims that niddah and other biblical purity regulations are “symbolic representation of the idea that the world is a harmonious system of differences established through a series of divine acts of separation,” while the Mishnah attempts to replace the Temple sacrificial system and provide a new path to communication with God by empowering the individual Jew (both male and female) as priest.
The article includes analysis of the Creation stories and the structural division of Leviticus. Cook holds that there is literary unity of the Pentateuch due to a final Priestly redaction. She considers the legal portions to be about ritual practice while the narrative sections show the worldview of the Priestly redactors. The difference between God and human beings is sexual differentiation and procreation (and death) for humans while God creates. She considers Leviticus: 8–15 a purity code while Leviticus 18–27 is a holiness code. The holiness code relates to things that for the human being are volitional, a moral category representing similarity, while sin lies in making a wrong choice. Purity, on the other hand, is non-volitional (birth, death, menstruation, etc.), and not a moral category and is a representation of difference.
The discussion on chiasm (p. 49ff) is inadequate to understand the references. Cook needed to provide chapter and verse in order to make her division comprehensible. Women 3a apparently refers to Leviticus 12, while 3b apparently refers to Leviticus 15:1–18, which seems an artificial breakdown because she excludes the niddah and zavah in 15:19–30, putting them in a separate category to create the chiasm. Lepers rather than some divine revelation or act formed the chiastic center. She seems to use ideas of Tikva Frymer-Kemsky (concerning corporeality vs. divine) and Mary Douglas (blood, out of context on p. 52, as impurity) without reference. There are several misrepresentations of concepts for apologetic purposes and some inaccurate references. For example, she states: “In the vocabulary of ritual impurity, blood itself is not tameh (impure). It is, rather, forbidden except in certain specified ritual contexts (p. 52).” This is not true in reference to menstrual blood or abnormal uterine bleeding as we see in Mishnah Niddah 7:1. In her attempt to contextualize blood, Cook’s omission of menstrual blood is somewhat problematic because her article is geared towards women’s rituals of purification.
Cook claims that the agenda of the rabbis in the Mishnah is to create a new system to correspond to and to replace the old system centered around the Temple and priestly class. She considers self-examination of women as the structural equivalent of the priest and “responsible for her own determination of status” (p. 56). This ignores the fact that the innovation of internal examinations by the rabbis created a definite stringency when compared to biblical niddah practices. The placement of Tractate Niddah in the Order of Tehorot presents a difficulty for Cook because it emphasizes the ritual as opposed to the social aspects of the menstrual laws. Cook emphasizes that the three traditional commandments for women (M Shabbat 2:6) have an additional meaning: niddah allows women to become arbiters of their ritual status (paralleling priestly function); hallah (separating the dough) parallels the priest; candle-lighting parallels the menorah in the temple. Cook claims that the home replaced the temple and therefore women, like men, had opportunities to replace the priestly caste. She does not at all relate to the social contextualization of these laws, which speaks strongly against her ritual contextualization.
Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. “Menstrual Blood, Semen, and Discharge: The Fluid Symbolism of the Human Body.” In The Savage in Judaism: An Anthropology of Israelite Religion and Ancient Judaism, 177–194. Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1990.
Eilberg-Schwartz attempts to analyze semen and menstrual blood on the basis of the convergence of three separate symbolic systems: male/female, life/death, control/lack of control, with the first of each pair being given a positive valence. This is a continuation of his study on the significance of the blood of circumcision, i.e. male covenantal blood is associated with life, fertility and control. Menstrual blood (and to some extent the blood of birth), on the other hand, is associated with death, loss of potential life and lack of control. He attempts to relate his systems of symbolism to Mary Douglas’s theories in her book Purity and Danger and provides some critique of her work, e.g. her failure to address why only certain fluids contaminate. Eilberg-Schwartz claims that “women’s blood is contaminating, while men’s blood has the power to create covenant.” On this point Eilberg-Schwartz re-creates Douglas’s error: he does not take into account the difference between menstrual and birthing blood on the one hand and blood of purification on the other. Blood of purification does not contaminate the woman or her husband but she must still remain distant from the Temple and holy objects.
Eilberg-Schwartz’s theory is exceptionally interesting and provocative. He associates menstrual blood with kinship law violations and claims that “[g]ender and fluid symbolism work together to articulate larger cultural themes.” (p. 182) Analyzing menstrual blood in the context of other genital discharges has significantly different results than analyzing it in context of blood of circumcision. Unfortunately several of his legal details are incorrect, at least from the point of view of rabbinic halakhah. For example, he does not distinguish between bodily fluids such as urine and saliva from a contaminated person, which do cause impurity, and such fluids from a ritually pure person which do not cause impurity. In his analysis of Leviticus 18:21–23 his claim that “[i]ntercourse with a woman during her period is no better than sex with a cow,” is not only somewhat offensive in its formulation but also anachronistic. Only after understanding the relationship of the menstrual cycle to ovulation can it be claimed reliably that sexual relations during menstruation are non-procreative. Based on observable animal physiology, one could conclude that blood indicates estrus and fertility. He is also anachronistic when he claims that other genital discharges may be unclean due to contagion. He acknowledges that despite the fact that procreative activities belong to the side of life, they are nevertheless contaminating. This creates a crack in his symbolic system which he does not successfully mend. His attempt to integrate gender and control as factors which complete the picture because no single theory is adequate is somewhat problematic in that it creates a very complicated and multifaceted system. Eilberg-Schwartz claims that bodily fluids over which we have a level of control, e.g. urine and saliva, are not contaminating because of the level of control. They do, however, contaminate at a biblical level when they belong to a niddah, zavah or zav—no matter what level of control is exercised over them (Maimonides, Avot ha-Tumah 10:10). He compares the blood of circumcision, which is controlled, to sacrificial blood, which is also controlled and used as an atonement factor for the zav, zavah, and woman who gives birth. He claims that this remedies the lack of control in their impurity by introducing the controlling factor of sacrificial blood even though contamination is connected with death and death of a sacrifice is involved. He claims that Douglas was correct that “body symbolism reflects the structure of Israelite society” but claims that it is not Israel’s relation to Gentile societies which is being represented but relations within Israel. He also claims that Douglas is incorrect in her understanding that the rules merely symbolize gender difference whereas Eilberg-Schwartz claims they are partly constitutive of gender relations. Under Foucault’s influence, he claims that the connection between impurity and lack of control “is a technique of cultural domination.” (p. 191) He expands upon the idea that the priestly regulations which connect males with fertility and control, and females with death and disorder, suppress women. Eilberg-Schwartz connects these techniques to the power which religious culture has to intrude into daily life. He presents a well-argued but somewhat faulty anthropological analysis of Israelite religion.
Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. “Yalta’s Ruse: Resistance against Rabbinic Menstrual Authority in Talmudic Literature.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 60–81. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
This article appears to be an earlier version of Fonrobert’s Chapter 4 in Menstrual Purity reviewed below. The chief difficulty with the article is Fonrobert’s eagerness to see Yalta either as one of the few named women in the Talmud or as the voice of the counter-discourse in the rabbinic discussions of women’s blood—in either case a heroine. Fonrobert cannot envision the possibility that Yalta may be responding not to her own desire but to her husband’s, or that she needs a lenient ruling because of her marital situation. Fonrobert does not analyze the story completely. According to the anonymous Talmud, Yalta’s staining was an ongoing occurrence which could disrupt marital relations. Fonrobert attempts to show how this story relates to the mishnah dealing with the woman who brought the bloodstain to Rabbi Akiva (who pushed her to disclose enough information to give a lenient ruling) and to the reliability of women to inform rabbis about their bloodstains even if the actual checking cloths are lost. Her reading of the Yalta story is very positive and opens up gender analysis as a means of interpretation of the Talmudic discourse. It is, however, not the only possible reading.
Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender. Stanford, California: 2000.
Fonrobert attempts to frame rabbinic menstrual laws in their cultural context and concentrates on the discourse rather than the practice of menstrual laws. She locates herself as a feminist textual scholar and clearly states the questions generated by gender discourse which direct her research. By focusing on the rabbinic texts of late antiquity, Fonrobert does not enter the contemporary debate which tends to classify niddah practices polemically as patriarchal, misogynist impositions on women or which apologetically emphasizes the alleged spiritual, physical and emotional advantages of the laws, although she does not hesitate to critique them. She begins with a discussion of the term niddah, which she claims held ritual purity valence in Leviticus 15, and referred to sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20, as well as most commonly in rabbinic literature. She claims that the discussions in Tractate Niddah which relate to ritual purity are theoretical discussions, while the primary classification of niddah is in terms of sexual prohibitions. There are several inaccuracies in her description. The transmission of ritual impurity by a niddah has not ceased despite the fact that all other forms of genital impurity are overridden by the fact that everyone is impure due to corpse impurity. (p. 21) Handwashing rituals are still widely practiced. Her description does not take into account the Pharasaic framework of Tractate Niddah which opens with the innovations of Hillel regarding retroactive impurity and the internal examinations. Although Hillel lived in the time of the Temple, his innovations became normative halakhah even after the destruction of the Temple, both as a means to avoid inadvertent transgression of sexual prohibitions and also as a means of maintaining a purity status for consumption of hullin in a state of ritual purity. Fonrobert chooses not to enter into that aspect of the discourse which centers on the House of the Patriarch and members of the table fellowship because she does not have sufficient confidence in “our ability to read the Mishnah as a document that tells us anything about the historical reality of the practices of the Pharisees, or even the rabbis subsequently.” (p. 226 n. 24) This casts doubt on her basic assumption that such discussions are merely theoretical. There is strong evidence both anecdotal and in terms of halakhic development that at least in the House of the Patriarch and in table fellowship, ritual im/purity laws were practiced. Her claim that the term impure (teme’ah) is obfuscated because of its biblical connotation of transmission of impurity and the rabbinic usage of unavailability for sexual purposes needs further clarification. The biblical concept of transmission of ritual impurity was never officially canceled although in the Babylonian Talmud those laws relating to semen impurity no longer prevented Torah study, prayer and leading prayers as they had in the tannaitic period and in the Palestinian Talmud. It is highly unlikely that the terminology for niddah impurity would be changed because of the desire to maintain a fence to prevent inadvertent sexual contact; the other available term, forbidden (asura), would have had the same connotations and was also used in other contexts such as the suspected adulteress (sotah), one prohibited by the incest laws, etc. Fonrobert analyzes JT Ketubbot 2:5, 26c in which Shmu’el wanted to sleep with his wife but was put off by her claim that she was impure; the following day, however, she claimed to be pure. Her response to his question, that yesterday she did not have the same strength as today, demonstrates the use of this terminology as a means of refusing to have sexual relations. Any other formulation of the refusal would simply put too much power into the hands of the women. By using the weighted words of the rabbinic purity system to say no, she was subverting the system to her own ends. This was apparently a not unfamiliar means of refusal. According to Rav, her words constituted a plausible reason. Fonrobert’s discussion of taharat ha-mishpaha (p. 29) is very similar to Meacham’s in Women and Water (1999), as are several other points she makes, but the latest book mentioned in her bibliography is from 1998. This must be attributed to the fact that her book was probably submitted for publication before Wasserfall’s book was readily available. She closes the first chapter with the question did “Jewish women in late antiquity construct their Jewish identity primarily through the observance of niddah,” paralleling the centrality of circumcision for men against the Hellenistic and Pauline approaches to corporeality. Fonrobert claims that such questions cannot be answered with certainty. Here one must question whether Jewish women in late antiquity who were systematically excluded from the bet ha-midrash could have constructed their identity around niddah laws when all niddah practices were constructed for them by males.
The second chapter deals with conceptions of women’s corporeality in rabbinic literature, that is, how the corporeal specificity is turned into discourse. Claims made in reference to women’s bodies can also be made in reference to men’s bodies, since the same process was undergone, but this is not addressed. Fonrobert examines the chiastic structure in Leviticus 15 but for some reason chooses 15:2 (referring to the man with the abnormal genital discharge [zav]) rather than 15:16 (referring to the man with normal ejaculation) to compare with 15:19, which refers to the woman with the normal menstrual discharge. Her choice seems to indicate a basic misunderstanding of the chiastic parallels. Her claim in note 8 (p. 232) that the notion of health is not a biblical notion is hard to sustain given that the purity status of the leper was discussed immediately before chapter 15. In fact, it is very likely that the chapters dealing with leprosy and genital discharges are medical chapters integrated into the purity system. Her claim that the menstruating woman has elements in common with the man and woman with abnormal discharges was not clarified with details but relates specifically to midras impurity (of beds, chairs, and saddles) upon which the oozing discharge of these three may be found, as opposed to the leniency for normal ejaculation which does not encompass midras impurity (possibly an inherent privileging of normal male sexual function). It is likely that the significance of an analysis of only one side of a gendered system will not give a true picture of the construction of the system and the import of rabbinic discourse. There is no doubt that the construction of the male body, e.g. as regards masturbation, by the rabbis had very negative repercussions for men. Fonrobert attempts to create a parallel between semen discharge causing impurity to the woman during coitus and menstrual discharge transmitting impurity to the man during coitus, without creating a parallel between menstrual blood as female seed and semen as male seed. Her analysis of Leviticus 18 as androcentric is correct but her claim that a prohibition of coitus by the zav could not have been made in that androcentric framework is incorrect. For example, the text could have stated “a man with an abnormal genital discharge may not have coitus.” That, however, would have taken from him normative sexual expression and denied him male privilege. Fonrobert’s discussion (pp. 48–49) on the preposition “from” (me-) for male discharges and “in” (be-) for female discharges could be sharpened by including the meaning “on” for the preposition be- as such usage is found in the Bible. This would mean that the term “bivsara” could have been interpreted “on her flesh,” that is, externally on the vulva. From the female point of view this is intuitively correct. Women are concerned about menstrual flow only when it exits the body and therefore it is unlikely that they would have initiated a system of internal examinations. Despite the fact that the vagina is probably considered the most private part of a woman, it is accessible to the male. This would be particularly significant just prior to the beginning of the period or at the end of the seven days when she still might have some menstrual blood in her vagina. The rabbinic discourse on this preposition is guaranteeing only minor male impurity at coitus. Fonrobert did not mention the discussion on the difficulties of the Sages’ terminology in T. Meacham and J. Kien. “Hidden Difficulties in the Sages’ Terminology for Women’s Bodies.” (Koroth 13 [1998–1999]), probably due to the proximity of her publication.
In the third chapter Fonrobert emphasizes the counter-discourse of women’s bodies as architectural constructs (which she sees as the dominant discourse in rabbinic culture). This counter-discourse is identified as the attempt by Shmuel (BT Niddah 57a), the anonymous Talmud at the start of the Tractate, and Rabba (BT Niddah 4b) to attribute sentience to the woman’s body by having them recognize menstrual flow by sensation. According to Fonrobert this makes the woman’s body a subject rather than an object. She misses the possible parallel that the rabbis were making to the normative male body: men have a sensation of imminent ejaculation just prior to ejaculation which notifies them of impending ejaculation. This allows a priest who has such a sensation while he is eating terumah to squeeze his penis and thereby prevent ejaculation until he swallows the terumah, thus preventing pollution of the terumah. There is no question that the sages objectified human bodies—female and male. Fonrobert explores the topic only in relation to the female body while a genuine gender study would ask those relevant questions concerning the male body as well. The objectification by the Sages of the male body is easily identified. BT Niddah 13ab, for example, connects masturbation to murder, adultery and idol worship—a negation of male physiology. The discussion on the possibility of the internal examinations of the penis with a sliver of wood to determine whether the discharge of the zav seals the urethral opening completely is dismissed but still arises in discussions. Fonrobert also misses the fact that the result of the dominant discourse is to put on the woman both the obligation of internal examinations and the decision about the status of the checking cloth. Only in cases of her personal doubt is a woman obligated to consult a male expert. This is not to say that the internal examinations are not in some manner an objectification of the woman’s body, but that Fonrobert’s claim that the sentient body is only part of the counter-discourse without relating to what became normative halakhah is to misrepresent that discourse. Fonrobert does not relate to the physiological difficulties of Hillel’s and Shamai’s positions. She does mention Dean-Jones’s different descriptions of Greek understandings of menstruation but she does not analyze how Shamai or Hillel would have to envision the uterus, cervix and vagina. The reality difficulty for Shamai consists in the five centimeters (two inches) separating the cervical opening from the vaginal orifice. Either he does not accept the midrash on bivsara or understands that the mouth of the uterus is the vaginal orifice, because he does not account for the time it would take blood to move from the cervical os to the vaginal orifice. Hillel also must have had an unrealistic conception of the vaginal walls if he believed that they could retain uterine blood for several days. Fonrobert reiterates the theoretical aspect of ritual im/purity without taking into account the possibility that the ashes of the red heifer could still have been used for several generations after the destruction of the Temple, a practice for which we have some evidence, and the possibility of the Pharasaic table fellowship.
Chapter 4 deals with the colors of blood and bloodstains. Fonrobert attempts to demonstrate that the innovations by the Sages in terms of establishing colors of blood as pure or impure is based on the biblical distinctions the priest was required to make in reference to skin diseases as opposed to Greek medicine. She does not relate to the biblical dictum “between blood and blood, between law and law and between plague and plague” (Deuteronomy 17: 8), as referring to the necessity of distinguishing between various types of blood. She also sees the desire to articulate color in words as an attempt to disembody women from menstruation, their bodily function. The rabbis as inheritors of priestly status became the experts on menstruation. She does not accept the claim of Rachel Biale (Women and Jewish Law, 1984, previously suggested by T. Meacham, “Development in the Laws of Niddah.” In Women in Jewish Culture: Tradition and Transformation. 1981, and subsequently in Meacham’s dissertation of 1989), namely, that a decline in the number of rabbis with expertise in examining blood was part of the reason for the conflation of the niddah with the zava laws. Rather, Fonrobert sees a vibrant tradition of blood checking by rabbis to the present day, in which rabbis function as “gynecologists”—the authoritative interpreters of women’s bodies. She does this without noting that it is the women who must decide whether they should consult with the rabbinic expert. Fonrobert focuses on the story of Yalta, presumably the wife of Rav Nahman bar Yaakov, who is seen as manipulating the rabbinic decision concerning her bloodstain. Fonrobert does not relate to the fact that the text (BT Niddah 20b) states that this is a frequent occurrence, since Yalta says “each (or every) day he would declare it pure.” She also makes the assumption that it is Yalta’s sexual desire that motivates her to manipulate the decision. It is also possible to imagine she was sent by Rav Nahman to get the right decision or that she needed this decision in order to prevent abuse by her husband or to prevent him from using this as a cause for divorce, or even that the decision resulted from the willingness of the brotherhood of rabbis to be lenient towards a fellow rabbi. Fonrobert’s reading, compelling as it may seem, is only one of many possible readings.
In chapter 5 Fonrobert reviews feminist critiques of Greco-Roman gynecology and examines whether there is a real rabbinic gynecology or only episodic passages dealing with the female body. She focuses on examinations—both internal to determine the source of blood (uterine, cervical or vaginal) and external examinations for two pubic hairs or breast development. She claims (p. 137) that “a woman’s body requires examination when a change of her legal status occurs, such as when she passes from minority to adulthood.” This is true only in very limited situations, e.g. repudiation of a marriage arranged by a guardian (me’un), haliza for both boy and girl, independent acceptance of kiddushin by a girl, sale of real estate (and possibly slaves), kiddushin on the part of a boy, yibbum for a boy and divorce for a boy. She later states that most of the discussions are around yibbum but the other situations mentioned above, especially me’un, constitute a large part of the discussion. Her discussion on the examination of girls who have reached their perek, which she incorrectly interprets as menarche rather than the sprouting of two pubic hairs, concerns taharot rather than marital issues, despite the fact that she previously claimed these to be theoretical discussions. The sources dealing with this topic speak most strongly against such claims because the economics of table fellowship are involved. She is apparently unaware of the detailed halakhic work, Sefer ha-Bagrut ve-Sefer ha-Shanim, edited by T. Meacham (tr. Miriam Frenkel) and published in 1998, although she has other works from 1998 in her bibliography. These treatises from the geonic period and slightly later deal with the transition from minority to legal majority. The texts themselves and the discussion of them in the expansive introduction deal with examination of girls, the trustworthiness of women in making such examinations and the overriding authority of the males who must do the examination in certain situations. Her claim that Abaye’s nursemaid’s authority was not accepted as part of the collective authority may be a correct reading of the situation; a more benign reading could see later authorities quoting R. Natan’s version as the earlier one and the one more likely to carry more weight. Here again, it must be emphasized that Fonrobert is making a feminist critique rather than a gender analysis of rabbinic authority. Male bodies are also deeply objectified in the rabbinic discourse and a true gender analysis would have to relate to that. There is a difference, however, in that the process of men objectifying male bodies may differ significantly from the process of objectifying female bodies either by privileging normal male physiology or by treating one or the other in a punitive matter.
Fonrobert’s final chapter is an excellent critique of the so-called feminist Christian scholars who relate to Jesus as the liberator of women from the oppression of biblical (and rabbinic) purity regulations without relating to the Church Fathers’ idealization of the state of virginity and the repercussions this has on women’s bodies and sexuality. She gives a particularly strong analysis of the story of Jesus’s healing of the woman with a twelve-year uterine flow and its polemical misuse. She attempts to uncover the voices of newly converted Christian women practicing menstrual restrictions who are being discouraged from such practices by the male voice in the Didascalia Apostolorum. Unfortunately, only the understanding of the author, who apparently conflates ritual impurity with sexual restrictions, comes through and not the voices of the women practitioners. All attribution of motivation or significance of the practice to the women is conjectural and it does not include the motivation and the significance of the practices to their male partners. Didascalia sees immersion after menstruation as competition with baptism, which not only enables conversion but is understood by Christians as a means of atonement. Immersion after menstruation according to the author of Didascalia has no atonement capacity and women who immersed because of biblical purity regulations remain in their uncleanness, which he apparently understands as sin, since he states “and as one unclean you shall be condemned.”
Overall, Fonrobert’s book is important because of the questions it raises but not necessarily for the answers it gives. It cannot be considered a study of gender because it relates only to the construction of female gender, which cannot be analyzed in isolation. One gets a sense that Fonrobert parachuted into the texts relating to women rather than contextualizing them with the biblical and rabbinic texts that objectified male bodies. In her eagerness to uncover the counter-discourse, Fonrobert idealized Yalta and overstated her participation in the halakhic discourse. Internal examinations and the science of bloodstains were rabbinic innovations designed to grant rabbinic experts control over the purity status of women’s bodies, but the examinations themselves and the checking cloths had to be mediated by women. We cannot know to what extent women participated in the rabbinic construction of purity by examining themselves and bringing the cloths to the rabbis to enable them to use their so-called expertise (Fonrobert never actually relates to the limitations on their science). Nor can we attribute motivation to them. Fonrobert ignores spousal pressure and marital dynamics as motivating factors for women’s participation (or lack thereof) in the rabbinic purity system. She consistently attempts to limit rabbinic legislation to the realm of preventing sexual transgressions rather than envisioning an entire purity system that was functional for at least the rabbinic elite and their family circles. She also neglects to take into account that in a faithful monogamous marriage, men are bound by the menstrual restrictions even if they do not menstruate. Male frustration probably created an emotionally weighted impact on the description of menstruating women. Fonrobert’s excellent critique of several feminist scholars of rabbinics (Wegner, Baskin, Hauptman, Ilan, Adler, Kraemer) is a welcome balance to their overstated or apologetic positions. Her use of feminist scholarship of Greco-Roman gynecological literature is enlightening. We can only appreciate Fonrobert’s use of gender methodology in her study (albeit insufficiently applied) and hope that it will have an impact on future studies.
Goldstein, Elyse. “Blood and Water: The Stuff of Life.” In ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through Our Feminist Lens. Toronto: 1998, 89–132.
Goldstein, a Reform rabbi who heads an adult education program in Toronto, has written a number of articles on menstruation. She relies on Mary Douglas for her anthropological analysis of boundaries, correcting them slightly to apply them to Leviticus. She analyzes Leviticus chapter 15 and Leviticus chapter 12 and attempts to reappropriate the sections dealing with menstruation and birth in a way which is meaningful and positive for women. Although she cannot be relied upon for accuracy in some halakhic details, she has put forth several very important ideas. The first is her change of the morning blessing “who has made me according to his will” to “who has made me a woman” to be said at the start of menstruation. Such a blessing is actually found in a prayerbook written in Italy, as part of a woman’s morning blessings. She suggests referring to menstruation as “a time of power” to emphasize the need for time and space for women to neutralize themselves and perhaps to create a female space. She notes the original contextualization of menstrual impurity into a larger purity system and the disappearance of nearly all other elements of that system—making women an embodiment of impurity. She is comfortable connecting menstruation to a life-death continuum and considers it a sign of a woman’s covenant not unlike blood of circumcision. Perhaps her most important contribution is suggesting that the mikveh be used not only for monthly immersion but for rebirth, spiritual cleansing, transformation and as a therapeutic means for “rape, incest, marital infidelity and reconciliation, infertility, loss of pregnancy, menopause, invasive surgery, milestone birthdays, and of mourning, crisis points and life-changing situations.” Using Adler’s language of the possibility of “salvage” for mikveh, Goldstein emphasizes immersion as uniquely female. Although many men also immerse, sometimes regularly, or before the Sabbath or holidays and sometimes occasionally, making mikveh not exclusively female, her point is well taken. Some parts of this article were taken from her article in Lilith Magazine, “Taking Back the Waters” (No. 15, Summer 1986) and “The Mikveh as Spiritual Therapy” in Journal of Reform Judaism (Winter/Spring 1995).
Greenberg, Blu. “In Defense of the ‘Daughters of Israel’: Observations on Niddah and Mikveh.” In On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition, Philadelphia: 1981, 105–123.
Greenberg does not believe that most women who observe menstrual laws relate to them as taboos but feels that they could be defended as a mode of protecting women’s selves and sexuality, preventing women from becoming sex objects, and preventing overfamiliarity leading to repulsion on the part of the husband. In her discussion of the laws, Greenberg objects to contemporary translations of the root tm’ (tameia) as uncleanness or impurity because they carry unnecessary negative connotations. Similarly, she objects to determining seven “clean” days and prefers “whites” as being faithful to the Hebrew word without negative connotations. She only casually mentions the conflation of biblical menstrual laws with the much stricter laws concerning abnormal uterine bleeding which have become normative menstrual practice. She mistakenly equates mikveh with “living water” of Leviticus 15:13 but clarifies the distinction between drawn water and naturally collected water necessary for a proper mikveh. Greenberg describes mikveh layouts, the mikveh lady, preparation prior to immersion, the examination by the mikveh lady, immersion and the blessings. The prayer for speedily rebuilding the Temple is not a universal custom. She connects this petition to the fact that niddah and mikveh are almost the only remnants of the purity system since the destruction of the Temple.
In the section on the historical development of menstrual laws, Greenberg (apparently under the influence of early Adler) relates to menstrual laws in the context of other forms of impurity and death and in the context of laws governing sexual relations, so-called “family purity” (taharat ha-mishpahah). After the destruction of the Temple, the purity system essentially transmuted into prohibitions of sexual relations (issurei niddah) though Tractate Niddah is situated in Seder Tohorot. The fences constructed by the Sages reinforced ideas of transmission of impurity via physical contact, reducing opportunity for physical intimacy and increasing the transgressions to which being cut off from the Jewish people (karet) applied. A particularly interesting point made by Greenberg is that “actions that were circumscribed biblically for reasons of defilement, such as touching the husband’s bed, were now, in third-century Babylon, circumscribed for reasons of sexual arousal.” Although this section is quite short she brings several interesting sources including Zohar Parshat Shemot (Exodus) which considers menstrual impurity the strongest impurity in the world and cohabitation with a niddah as driving away the Divine Presence, so that children conceived in such a state remain impure throughout their lives. Nahmanides on Leviticus considers that the glance of menstrual woman poisons the air and the dust upon which she walks is like dust defiled by a corpse. Greenberg relates to the interdiction of a niddah entering a synagogue in medieval Spain as Christian and Islamic influence, but in fact such ideas were already found in the much earlier Jewish composition Baraita de-Niddah. She mentions the neo-orthodox apologetics concerning menstrual practices.
Greenberg believes that more rabbinic energy has been expended in prohibiting sexual relations during niddah separation than in encouraging a positive sexuality after niddah separation. Because the menstrual laws are so rigorous and they cannot be observed unilaterally, commitment to halakhah is necessary. She feels that menstrual laws facilitate spousal communication and strengthen marital bonds. Perhaps the most important part of Greenberg’s article is the list of six suggestions: 1) reeducate the community concerning women’s mitzvot; 2) emphasize the holiness of sex rather than its uncleanness; 3) graft onto niddah observance women’s health requirements such as pelvic examination, Pap smear and breast examination; 4) the possible return to the biblical seven days of niddah at least for certain times in a couple’s lives; 5) make clear the distinction that hymeneal blood is not menstrual blood; and 6) allow more flexibility in terms of contact and nonsexual intimacy during the niddah period.
Hauptman, Judith. “Niddah.” In Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice. Boulder, CO: 1998, 147–176.
Hauptman’s chapter on niddah is part of an entire book devoted to reading the rabbis in a positive light, i.e. seeing halakhic formation and development as an improvement on the biblical position of women. Although many scholars disagree with her premises and consider her work apologetic, her Talmudic ability is solid. Her main efforts in this chapter are an attempt to demonstrate the following: 1) internal self-examinations are limited by the rabbis to cases of ritual purity and food preparation; 2) Rabbi Akiva’s leniencies in reference to bloodstains; 3) the move to stringencies concerning the conflation of niddah and ziva is amoraic and is a development beyond the tannaitic positions. In addition, she relates to the chiastic structure of Leviticus 15, behaviors during niddah, niddah observance in order to favor the production of male children, the bizarre “case” of the woman who began to menstruate during intercourse, and immersion for purification. Hauptman demonstrates that the early amoraim limit internal examinations but does not note that the examinations themselves are not mentioned in the Bible and therefore seem to be rabbinic innovations. Her presentation leads the reader to believe that the rabbis improved the biblical situation. The same holds true for her discussion about bloodstains. She does note (p. 168) that there was an earlier tannaitic tendency to stringency, followed by what she considers a rebellion in the case of R. Akiva and others in favor of leniency followed by middle and late amoraic reversion to stringency. She starts her history with Shamai and Hillel without noting that we have no source prior to Hillel which mentions or demands examinations which are interpreted as internal examinations by the Talmudic texts. As far as we know he is the source of such demands. Granted that the entire rabbinic process is concerned with defining boundaries—and because there is male access to the vagina—legislation can be made concerning uterine blood in the vagina. We have no biblical evidence for any concerns with blood in the vagina or with bloodstains. We must therefore see that at least some rabbis legislated in a stringent manner relative to the scriptures, e.g. Hillel concerning internal examinations. Other rabbis, however, tended towards leniency even when defining the boundaries. The fact that she overlooks rabbinic innovations to a large extent defeats her argument, as she is only relating to tendencies within rabbinic circles as opposed to the direction of change from Bible to Talmud which she describes as one of stringencies to leniencies. Although she contextualizes the sources, her claim that the statement of Rebbe (Rabbi Judah the Patriarch) and R. Zeira referred to irregular ziva bleeding and the seven clean days connected with them, cannot be substantiated by the language of “seven clean days.” Conflating the laws is exactly what allows the seven clean days to be applied to any uterine bleeding. Additionally, the language, “they became strict with themselves” (hehmiru al azman) would then refer only to the size of one stain rather than to a refocus of the entire framework of niddah/ziva laws. All commentators explain the expansion to seven clean days as referring to niddah, rather than referring to zivah and additionally applying it to niddah, as she claims. She would then be left with only one statement (“Said Rav Pappa to Rava and Abaye: Now that the rabbis have made all niddot into doubtful zavot …” [Hauptman’s translation of BT Niddah 67b]), which only refers to the conflation of laws but does not legislate it. She correctly claims that it was not women who made this legislation despite the fact that it is attributed to them. Her analysis of the chiastic structure in Leviticus 15 compares niddah (=normal female) to zav (=abnormal male) rather than to the man who ejaculates (=normal male). Correct chiastic comparison would have allowed her to see that the normal male is privileged when compared to the “oozers” in the details of the purity system.
Hauptman claims that not only the additional prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 account for the survival of niddah laws but also cross-cultural mores for menstrual separation (p. 150). The latter reason is weak compared to the stringent tendencies within the rabbinic culture, particularly the rabbinic elite (table fellowship) and the House of the Patriarch. She also claims that no fences were erected around the prohibition of sex with a niddah (p. 150), yet she herself quotes BT Ketubot 61a prohibiting mixing wine, making the bed and washing the man’s hands, face and feet, calling it “any kind of activity which would lead to sexual arousal” (p. 161). This certainly qualifies as a rabbinic fence.
It is surprising that Hauptman chooses to use weighted language concerning maternal mortality in her translation of M Shabbat 2:6: “women who are not careful about niddah deserve to die in childbirth” (p. 160) when the Mishnah actually says, “For three transgressions women die while giving birth …”
Hauptman’s claim that rulings concerning a woman becoming niddah during intercourse are didactic and theoretical but not practical (165–166) is certainly not valid with reference to the poskim and authors of modern niddah manuals. As ridiculous as the situation may be given that a woman cannot actually feel an internal dribble of uterine blood because of the moist vaginal surface at the same temperature, they held it as a model of practice. Hauptman’s claim that “The requirement of cumbersome self-examinations is limited to the issue of the preparation of ritually pure food,” (p. 168) does not take into account Niddah 1:7 and several mishnayot in chapter 2 which demand internal examinations before and after intercourse, only some of which are connected to women dealing with tohorot. Observance of niddah laws even today requires internal examinations for hefsek tahara to mark the end of menstruation and requires internal examinations on the seven clean days.
Hauptman notes that the additional days added to niddah observance resulting in limitation of time for permitted sexuality affect men as well as women in a monogamous society (p. 169) and are an important antidote to the feminist claims that the laws are anti-women. However, she does not relate male and female relationship to the embodiment of impurity in the female body, particularly when male purity regulations have been abandoned. Despite her textual facility, by not sufficiently presenting a historical perspective, Hauptman provides an apologetics for the rabbis.
Jacobs, Janet Liebman. “About Return to the Sacred: Ritual Purification among Crypto-Jews in the Diaspora.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 217–231. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Jacobs gives a short history of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula and the result of the Inquisition on Jewish practices within the family. Relying heavily on the work of Renée Levine-Melammed, she traces remnants of ritual purification practices among crypto-Jews. She notes the significance of Purim and Esther’s heroic conduct as a model and solace for crypto-Jewish women. Although most of the article is derivative of the secondary scholarship, Jacobs does interview some women descended from crypto-Jews and analyzes their relationship to the mikveh.
Koren, Sharon. “Mystical Rationales for the Laws of Niddah.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 101–121. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Koren gives a very well referenced overview of the ideas of menstruation, purification and Divine reunification in Kabbalistic terms. This is an excellent short introduction to some Kabbalistic conceptions of ritual impurity due to menstruation. Human observance of niddah laws promotes Divine unity because human practice can influence God and promote Divine harmony. The Shekhinah is the feminine aspect of the male God who reunites with the godhead in a monthly or weekly cycle. Because the penis is considered to have been engraved with the first letter of God’s name (yod) at circumcision, special care must be taken by men not to place it in an impure place, i.e. not have intercourse with a niddah. Koren relates to the ideas of Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla (1248–c. 1325), Menahem ben Benjamin Recanti (late thirteen–early fourteenth centuries), Ra’aya Meheimna and Joseph Hamadan (active end of thirteenth and beginning of fourteenth centuries). According to mystical thought, violation of niddah laws “empowered the sitra ‘ahra and led to the exile of the Shekhinah.” Koren does not relate to the inherently sexist ideas and the privileging of the male hierarchy in mystical thought.
Marmon, Naomi. “Reflection on Contemporary Mikveh Practice.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 231–254. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Marmon interviewed forty-six women in Boston and New Jersey who practice niddah observance. She relates to their spectrum of adherence to different levels of observance and their personal justification for their observance. Many of the standard reasons given in books promoting niddah observance are given by these women (halakhah, private time, different kind of communication with spouse, renewal of relationship, health benefits, etc.) but many are also critical of certain aspects or of the practice as a whole because of the negative impact it has on them and their relationship with their spouses.
Work and family obligations made going to the mikveh inconvenient for over half the women, while others complained about the preparation time, the internal examinations, the element of keeping their trips to the mikveh private, sexual pressure to accommodate the timing, the emotional distance and tension during periods of separation, issues of support and comfort thwarted by prohibitions on physical contact and issues of non-sexual intimacy. The value of this article lies in the complaints of the practitioners, who are the only ones who can critique the practice from the inside. It provides a healthy balance to the handbooks noting only the benefits of niddah observance.
Meacham (leBeit Yoreh), Tirzah. “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws,” and “Appendix.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 23–39, 255–261. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
This is an earlier version of the Tractate Niddah article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which omits the role of the House of the Patriarch in the development towards more stringent positions (see Purity). The Appendix deals with the elimination of niddah observance in favor of ziva stringencies, retroactive impurity, internal examinations, varieties of blood, virginal blood, blood of desire and blood of purification. These were separated from the body of the article because of their technical nature.
Meacham (leBeit Yoreh), Tirzah. “A One-Day-Old Infant May Be Rendered Impure as a Menstruant.” Korot 10 (1993–1994): 74–82.
Meacham analyzes the rabbinic sources which relate to the possibility of neonatal menstruation. As a result of stimulation of the fetus’s uterus by the mother’s circulating hormones, some changes in the endometrium are caused which resemble the situation on days 16–18 of the menstrual cycle. The hormone supply is abruptly cut off at birth and within a few days the hormones break down and are excreted by the newborn. Although there is some disagreement as to whether this process is similar to menstruation or diapedesis bleeding, there is visible bleeding in three to fifteen percent of all infants and hidden bleeding in twenty-five to seventy percent of all infants. The latter can be detected only by sophisticated tests and cannot be observed by the naked eye. It is likely that in many cases no bleeding is detected because it is mixed with excreta and not noticed or there is a different reaction to the hormonal stimulus or the endometrium regresses without any bleeding. When there is bleeding, one investigator says that it always begins in the first week, generally on the fifth day and lasts for three days. This would put such bleeding in the correct time span for the phrase “many days” in Leviticus 15:25. The Mishnah in Niddah 5:3 which states that the infant girl can be niddah from the day of her birth may be establishing the earliest possible time for blood to appear rather than the norm of when it actually does appear. Mishnah Niddah 4: 1–2 states that the daughters of the Samaritans are niddot from their cradle, as are the Sadducean women if they follow Sadducean practices. Infants can be included under menstrual laws on the basis of a midrash in Torat Kohanim which sees the conjunction ve in the word ve-ishah (and a woman) in Leviticus 15:29 as unnecessary and therefore available for exegesis. Several other references to the phenomenon are found in rabbinic literature. Meacham attempts to demonstrate that the doubling of the days of impurity for the mother of a girl mentioned in Leviticus 12 may reflect neonatal uterine bleeding. If there was a uterine discharge of blood after birth, most commonly on days five to seven, the girl could be considered a zava because she is “seeing blood” at a time that is not her period (which could be expected only in another twelve or so years). This would mean that her mother, who is in contact with her liquid discharges, would be impure as a result of that contact for seven days after the cessation of bleeding on day seven (Maimonides, Avot ha-Tuma 10:10), i.e. through day fourteen. Meacham attributes the sixty-six days of blood of purification for the woman who gave birth to a girl as a simple doubling of the thirty-three days of blood of purification for the woman who gave birth to a boy.
Meacham, Tirzah. “Dam Himud—Blood of Desire.” Korot 11 (1995): 82–89.
Meacham attempts to demonstrate that the category of blood mentioned in BT Niddah 66a, blood of desire (dam himud), is a rabbinic construction based on a male paradigm. It is discussed in the context of delaying a marriage for seven days after the agreement to marry has been reached. There was concern that the bride-to-be would discharge uterine blood as a result of her desire for the groom. It is likely that a man anticipating his marriage and sexual relations would ejaculate semen either as a nocturnal emission or through masturbation. It is far less likely that a woman would discharge blood as a sign of her desire. This is particularly true for a minor bride whose hormones have not sufficiently stimulated her uterus even for menstruation. In her dissertation, “Mishnah Tractate Niddah with Introduction—A Critical Edition with Notes on Variants, Commentary, Redaction and Chapters in Legal History and Realia” (Hebrew), Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989, Meacham suggests that menstruation was considered female seed in the Bible and rabbinic literature. Two other references to blood of desire are found in BT Niddah 20b, one of which might refer to a small quantity of blood sometimes found at ovulation. Ovulation is often a peak of desire for women and the text which deals with a woman missing her husband might refer to that.
Meiselman, Moshe. “Taharat ha-Mishpahah.” In Jewish Woman in Jewish Law. New York: 1978, 125–129.
Meiselman opens his article with a quotation from the Rabad (Abraham ben David of Posquières, c. 1125–1198) defining marriage as a gift which comes with laws and restrictions. He does not discuss details of menstrual practice but refers to several Orthodox books on menstrual laws. He relates to a number of benefits of observance of menstrual laws including: the endearment of the partner because of separation, elimination of sexual monotony, development of self-discipline and strengthening the marital relationship because of the need to communicate without sex.
Meiselman claims that niddah laws are not meant to make a woman feel taboo or unclean but rather to feel valued as a person rather than a sex object. He suggests that negative reactions to such laws should be countered by education rather than abrogation. He quotes an Israeli physician who claims that Jewish women suffer less from cancer of the cervix and attributes possible genito-urinary tract complications to nonobservance. It should be noted that the research concerning cervical cancer was found to be scientifically unreliable after the publication of this article. Meiselman claims that menstrual laws should be observed because of the divine commandment rather than possible medical benefits.
Perez, Danielle Storper, and Florence Heymann. “Rabbis, Physicians, and the Women’s/Female Body: The Appropriate Distance.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 122–140. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Perez and Heymann attempt to understand the interplay among rabbis, women and physicians regarding women’s menstrual irregularities and menstrual practices. They claim the halakhic texts “reveal the coincidence of the rabbinic and clinical view of the female body,” but that the views’ ultimate purpose is control of women.(p. 123) They quickly review the problems set out by Joseph Dov Soloveitchik concerning the use of responsa literature as a historical source. Although this article has several important insights, they are presented in a disjointed manner which makes it difficult to follow. For example, there is a long quote from a responsum of the Maharsham (Mordecai b. Moses Shvadron, 1835–1911) concerning a woman apparently afflicted with uterine or cervical polyps which resulted in frequent and abnormal bleeding, which is supposed to demonstrate (without sufficient analysis on their part) the evaluation on the part of rabbis of medical opinions. They make the claim that “the manner in which women view and experience their own bodies” is “written between the lines.” In the text which was quoted it is difficult to understand their reference. There seems to be an almost random quoting of various responsa without an analysis or connection to the previous or following section. Interspersed are general descriptions, sometimes not attributed to sources or scholarship on the topic. One of their sources mentions the woman receiving advice from older women on the halakhic issue and although that source could yield fruitful discussion, it is not pursued. They mention that rabbinic sources and ethical literature depict menstruation as a punishment and reminder of Eve’s sin whereas Tkhines tie observance of menstrual laws to fertility. This is one of the many examples where contrary issues (menstruation vs. observation of menstrual laws) are bound together in an incoherent manner.
Sered, Susan Starr, with Romi Kaplan and Samuel Cooper. “Talking about Mikveh Parties, or Discourses of Gender, Hierarchy, and Social Control.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 145–165. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Although the majority of the analysis seems to be Sered’s, the interaction at the parties which was observed by Kaplan and Cooper seems to have prevented halakhic inaccuracies often found in ethnographic studies. The authors discuss the role of the main players in the mikveh parties (mother-in-law and aunts, head balanit [mikveh lady], her assistants, rabbis and the bride) and analyze them in terms of gender (males having textual authority), age (greater age generally meaning more authority) and ethnicity (Middle Eastern Jews having a lower status than Ashkenazic Jews). The complex interaction between the parties involved is described: the mother-in-law and aunts representing community, traditional incorporation of the bride into her husband’s family including compliance with the mother-in-law, and the public aspects of marriage; the head balanit, representing Ashkenazic religious authority, who sees herself as an ally of the bride, encouraging modesty and the private aspect of marriage; her assistants, representing Middle Eastern Jews who have become ultra-Orthodox with Ashkenazic authority; the elderly Moroccan Rabbi, representing similar ethnicity and giving a halakhic reason for the parties; the neighborhood Ashkenazic Rabbi, representing more authority and giving “custom” as the reason for the parties (i.e. letting the women feel good about the observance of the mitzvah); the young Moroccan rabbi who gives no validity to the practice either as halakhah or custom; and the bride at the low end of all hierarchies, representing fertility, which must be controlled, often resenting participation in the parties, which are sometimes forced upon her, feeling herself the victim of her mother-in-law’s scrutiny and disliking public aspects of what she desires to be private. An analysis of the ethnic embarrassment of the Middle Eastern Jews, the racism of the balanit and the attempt of the rabbinate to limit the parties would have been a welcome addition to this article.
Schneider, Susan Weidman. Jewish and Female: Choices and Changes in Our Lives Today. New York: 1984, 203–213.
Weidman Schneider includes the discussion on niddah in a chapter which relates to sexuality, sexual ethics, vulnerability, reproduction, contraception, body image, health and illness. She surveys the opinions in some of the literature available on the topic, including Gila Berkowitz (in Total Immersion), Rachel Adler, Blu Greenberg, Mierle Ukeles, Faye Ginsburg, Karen Erickson Paige and others. After a rapid survey of menstrual laws, she relates to the ideas various people have put forward such as blood taboo, hygiene, means of suppressing women, feminist revival etc. and debunks the myth that menstruating women can make a Torah scroll impure. She attempts to uncover whether mikveh and niddah practices originate in primitive blood taboos and reflect male fear and loathing of women or whether they are a mode of reasserting women’s independence from sex-object status. She quotes Mortimer Ostow, then chair of the Department of Pastoral Psychology at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), who feels that the sight of women on the bimah will encourage “perverse sexual fantasies linking menstrual blood with excreta,” and who argues that men may worry that women’s contact with the Torah will contaminate it. Although official policy concerning women at JTS has changed and women are ordained as rabbis, such ideas still influence not only Conservative Jews. The Lubavicher Rebbe (Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, 1902–1994) took a totally different tack in 1980 at an international gathering of Lubavich women, telling them to make observance of menstrual laws top priority. Within twenty-four hours they had mounted a campaign to carry out the rebbe’s orders. The author cites the accusation leveled at the Jerusalem Religious Council by Haika Grosman, then a Knesset member, that women were being psychologically damaged by the unscientific publications claiming that observation of niddah laws have health benefits for children and women. Weidman Schneider cites claims by women in the journal Sh’ma that such laws have damaged women’s views of their bodies (Laura Geller) and may have been used to oppress women but that they can be reclaimed (Judith Humber). She praises the fact that the laws relating to women’s bodies are finally being discussed by women.
Tendler, Moshe David. Pardes Rimonim: A Manual for the Jewish Family. Hoboken, NJ: 1988.
According Rabbi Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and professor of biology and medical ethics at Yeshiva University, those who keep the laws of niddah do so because it is a divine decree. Human insights into the reasons for this commandment include: the emotional bond between the husband and wife stays fresh (BT Niddah 32a); the laws promote dignity and respect by giving marital (onah) obligations to the husband, they promote moderation and there are health advantages (e.g. a claim is made for a lesser incidence of cervical cancer). Even though this book was published in 1988 the cervical cancer statistics are from the 1960s and have been discredited on scientific grounds. On other hand there are some indications that Tendler is probably correct in maintaining that promiscuity and frequency of sex would increase the possibility of cervical cancer.
The illustration on page 9 of his book of the reproductive organs is so disembodied for the sake of modesty as to be unclear. Tendler’s brief overview is informative but also misleading as he does not reference his claim that the Sages knew about ovulation and the fallopian tubes (although Maimonides certainly knew of the existence of fallopian tubes, he did not attribute any known function to the ovaries). Ovulation is a discovery much later in the history of science than the Sages. Tendler claims influencing the cycle by hormonal pills (i.e. birth control pills) is a “major disruption of the menstrual cycle” and that particular care must be taken in reference to spotting. His strong stance against contraception is clear. Any uterine blood, including from the interior of the cervix, causes niddah so that even post-hysterectomy niddut is possible. Tendler explains differences in blood colors and how questions concerning stains can be submitted to a rabbi. His claim that menstrual laws as currently practiced are not subject to abrogation of any sort (such as a return to the biblical practice of seven days in total) reflects the “all or nothing” policy of orthodoxy which deters some people from religious observance. Tendler gives a quick overview of how one goes about determining the start of menstruation, the establishment of fixed periods or irregular periods. He also reviews the examination to mark the end of menstruation (hefsek taharah) and, contrary to Tehilla Abramov, who considers the transitional examination from before sunset until after sunset (mokh dahuk) as mandatory, Tendler presents the practice as not absolutely critical. He relates to personal conduct during the niddah period, especially warning women not to use their status as impure beings as a weapon (i.e. not to use their niddah status to tease men or to prolong their niddah status by delaying immersion) while men are instructed to act accordingly (i.e. not to force women who are niddot to have sexual relations) (p. 24). He reviews unusual circumstances such as intermenstrual bleeding, bleeding due to intercourse and bleeding due to non-menstrual causes and the halakhic difficulties involved. He discusses mikveh requirements and alternatives such as spring fed lakes, streams and oceans. He surveys the preparation for immersion, especially on the Sabbath. It is interesting to note that he records leniencies which Abramov did not, e.g. unsupervised immersion, probably because of his status as a rabbi.
Tendler also discusses the wedding date of a couple about to be married (if hormonal pills are used to regulate the date, their use must be stopped at the cycle before the wedding, due to the potential of staining), hymeneal bleeding which results in niddah and whether niddah status pertains if full penetration has not occurred. Again one senses in this work some male concerns not found in books written by women. He addresses the potential for some uterine bleeding during pregnancy resulting in niddah status and the likelihood of sexual frustration if immersion is prohibited for medical reasons for long period of time. The role of the husband during childbirth is limited to emotional support as no physical contact between the couple is allowed, and the husband is forbidden to watch the birth itself even in a mirror. Despite the presence of others such as medical professionals, the full distancing regulations apply during the birthing process, which for many women is problematic. He also relates to staining and resumption of niddah during nursing and to gynecological procedures which though mechanical may introduce a state of niddah if the instrument inserted into the uterus is 0.7 inches (1.8 cm) or more in diameter. This notion is based on the Talmudic idea that the uterus cannot be opened without some bleeding. A Pap smear may cause bleeding from the external cervix and hence does not cause niddah. Cauterization of the cervix due to cervical erosion sometimes causes bleeding due to trauma and should be performed after the woman has gone to the mikveh. A pelvic examination does not cause uterine bleeding. An endometrial biopsy of the uterus causes uterine bleeding but it is due to a mechanical injury and such bleeding is not considered niddah, although many poskim would not accept this position because of possible confusion with menstruation. Post-coital semen testing does not cause niddah and although Tendler does not suggest that the man should provide a semen sample, he does object to highly invasive procedures on women in fertility workups without previously determining whether the male has viable sperm. Special gynecological procedures such as colopscopy (using a special magnifying instrument which usually penetrates the cervical canal) and dilation and curettage cause niddah. Other procedures generally used in fertility workups do not cause niddah according to Tendler. Other rabbis definitely feel that hysterosalpinogram (HSG) causes niddah. Tendler’s discussions on niddah are integrated into the family life cycle, including circumcision, infant care, population control and more far-reaching topics. Although he mentions consulting a rabbi in certain situations, as a rabbi himself he has greater liberty to make general halakhic statements.
Wasserfall, Rahel R., ed. Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
The book opens with an overview of menstrual practice and contextualization of menstrual blood into Jewish blood. Although Wasserfall’s halakhic distinctions are not entirely accurate, her overview is solid. She introduces the essays in both the legal section dealing with historical context and the ethnographic and anthropological section. Overall the book is a good balance of law, legal development, biblical, talmudic and rabbinic analysis, sociology and ethnographic studies.
Wasserfall, Rahel R. “Community, Fertility, and Sexuality: Identity Formation among Moroccan Jewish Immigrants.” In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, edited by Rahel R. Wasserfall, 187–197. Lebanon, NH and London: 1999.
Wasserfall examines the relationship between the Moroccan community (represented by a group of ten women which must include the mother-in-law-to-be) and the potential fertility and sexuality of the bride-to-be at the ritual of the green and white ribbons in the week prior to immersion in a mikveh and the wedding. The green ribbon knotted into her hair by her mother marks the end of the bride-to-be’s menstruation. At the ritual of the ribbons (bidian, “the beginning”), the future mother-in-law exchanges the green ribbon symbolizing fertility with a white ribbon symbolizing purity and the Jewish communal obligation to maintain the ritual purity laws. The green ribbon is given to the groom to guard until the wedding as a sign of his manliness. The future mother-in-law prepares a mixture of honey, wet henna (which is red in color), butter and a half-cooked egg (symbolizing the beginning of the bride’s transformation into a sexual and hopefully fertile woman) wrapped in a cloth. She tries to hurt the bride by pushing the mixture onto her head. Wasserfall understands this to be symbolic of the sexual transformation and of the ideal power relationship between the mother-in-law and bride after the wedding.
Wasserfall claims that the bride exchanges her fertility (sexuality) for religious laws (niddah observance) by accepting the white ribbon, while the groom exchanges religious law for his potential fertility by accepting the green ribbon. This apparently integrates both into full communal membership with both sexuality/fertility aspects and religious obligation. Wasserfall includes an analysis of the power dynamics and public/private aspects of marriage symbolized by this ritual. Although she mentions that in Morocco many brides married prior to menarche, she does not describe changes in the ritual as a result of the early age of marriage. She does not analyze why training of the bride concerning ritual purity laws was in the hands of the mother-in-law when some of the brides began to menstruate prior to the wedding. The informants understood that lack of compliance with menstrual laws would produce a mamzer, an idea rejected by normative halakhah.