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Notes from Limmud 2009

What Have Women Done With Niddah

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

The speaker started by introducing her bias: She's a progressive woman married to an Orthodox man. (This sort of arrangement, she says, needs three things to make it work: Shabbos, kashrus and niddah.) She has an interest in ritual, and wonders has Progressive Judaism thrown too much out?

[Discussion of what niddah means to people. One person mentioned the common belief that a woman in niddah can't touch a Sefer Torah, which the speaker pointed out isn't true.]

Biblical Period

Leviticus 15:19-15:30 ויקרא טו יט-טו ל
When a woman has a discharge, and her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be impure until evening. And every thing that she lies upon during her menstruation shall be impure: every thing also that she sits upon shall be impure. And whosoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be impure until evening. And whosoever touches any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be impure until evening. Whether this be her bed, or anything else she sits on, when he touches it, he shall be impure until evening. If any man lie with her at all, and her menstruum* be upon him, he shall be impure seven days; and every bed he lies on shall be impure. וְאִשָּׁה כִּי־תִהְיֶה זָבָה דָּם יִהְיֶה זֹבָהּ בִּבְשָׂרָהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תִּהְיֶה בְנִדָּתָהּ וְכָל־הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהּ יִטְמָא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁכַּב עָלָיו בְּנִדָּתָהּ יִטְמָא וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו יִטְמָא׃ וְכָל־הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמִשְׁכָּבָהּ יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃ וְכָל־הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּכָל־כְּלִי אֲשֶׁר־תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו יְכַבֵּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃ וְאִם עַל־הַמִּשְׁכָּב הוּא אוֹ עַל־הַכְּלִי אֲשֶׁר־הִוא יֹשֶׁבֶת־עָלָיו בְּנָגְעוֹ־בוֹ יִטְמָא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃ וְאִם שָׁכֹב יִשְׁכַּב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו וְטָמֵא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְכָל־הַמִּשְׁכָּב אֲשֶׁר־יִשְׁכַּב עָלָיו יִטְמָא׃

[* Or, in the KJV, which is where the translation above started out before I meddled with it, "her flowers". *boggle*]

The context of this passage is about a number of forms of causing impurity. Immediately before this is a discussion about impurity caused by seminal emission. Men can become impure more often than women, particularly given that in the Biblical period women would often be pregnant or not well-enough nourished to be menstruating.

Note that "impurity" is a loaded word: In the Biblical worldview, it's not negative; it's just a status. "Impure" (Hebrew טָמֵא) does not mean "unclean".

In the Biblical passage, the restrictions are limited to just seven days, including the time of bleeding. Whatever you touch becomes unclean and needs to be washed; the same happens for a man who's had a seminal emission, until sunset after he bathes.

Leviticus 15:25-15:27 ויקרא טו כה-טו כז
When a woman has had a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or when she has a discharge beyond her period of impurity; all the days of the issue of her impurity shall be as the days of her menstruation: she shall be impure. Every bed she lies on throughout the period of her discharge shall be considered like the bed of her menstruation, as far as she is concerned: and whatever she sits upon shall be impure, like the impurity of her separation. Any person that touches those things shall be impure, and shall wash their clothes, and bathe themselves in water, and be impure until evening. וְאִשָּׁה כִּי־יָזוּב זוֹב דָּמָהּ יָמִים רַבִּים בְּלֹא עֶת־נִדָּתָהּ אוֹ כִי־תָזוּב עַל־נִדָּתָהּ כָּל־יְמֵי זוֹב טֻמְאָתָהּ כִּימֵי נִדָּתָהּ תִּהְיֶה טְמֵאָה הִוא׃ כָּל־הַמִּשְׁכָּב אֲשֶׁר־תִּשְׁכַּב עָלָיו כָּל־יְמֵי זוֹבָהּ כְּמִשְׁכַּב נִדָּתָהּ יִהְיֶה־לָּהּ וְכָל־הַכְּלִי אֲשֶׁר תֵּשֵׁב עָלָיו טָמֵא יִהְיֶה כְּטֻמְאַת נִדָּתָהּ׃ וְכָל־הַנּוֹגֵעַ בָּם יִטְמָא וְכִבֶּס בְּגָדָיו וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם וְטָמֵא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃
Leviticus 15:28-15:30 ויקרא טו כח-טו ל
But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall count seven days to herself, after which she shall be pure. Then, on the eighth day, she shall take for herself two turtledoves, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the Tent of Meeting. The priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and shall make an atonement for her before the LORD for the discharge that had made her impure. וְאִם־טָהֲרָה מִזּוֹבָהּ וְסָפְרָה לָּהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְאַחַר תִּטְהָר׃ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי תִּקַּח־לָהּ שְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי יוֹנָה וְהֵבִיאָה אוֹתָם אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן אֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃ וְעָשָׂה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הָאֶחָד חַטָּאת וְאֶת־הָאֶחָד עֹלָה וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן לִפְנֵי ה׳ מִזּוֹב טֻמְאָתָהּ׃

The first passage talks about a niddah, a natural menstruation. The second is a zavvah, corresponding to the male zav, a men who has an unnormal discharge. There are restrictions on both, as you don't want them interacting with the community. It's something bad which happens to you, hence the need to bring a sin-offering: The ancients were trying to come up with a explanation for why this bad thing has happened to them: they must have done something bad to deserve it.

The zavvah is treated differently: she has to keep separate for seven days after she finishes bleeding. This is the way a woman in niddah is treated today!

After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis argued we have lost the ability to differentiate between niddah and zavvah; hence all discharge is treated like zavvah, i.e. separation for seven days after the end of bleeding.

It says above if you have sex whilst your wife is impure, it will make you impure; but it doesn't there say don't do so. It does, however, say this three chapters later:

Leviticus 18:19 ויקרא יח יט-יח יט
Do not come near a woman during her period of impurity to uncover her nakedness. וְאֶל־אִשָּׁה בְּנִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ לֹא תִקְרַב לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ׃

And even more strongly two chapters later:

Leviticus 20:18 ויקרא כ יח-כ יח
If a man lies with a woman in her infirmity, and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her nakedness and she has exposed her blood flow; both of them shall be cut off from among their people. וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִשְׁכַּב אֶת־אִשָּׁה דָּוָה וְגִלָּה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָהּ אֶת־מְקֹרָהּ הֶעֱרָה וְהִוא גִּלְּתָה אֶת־מְקוֹר דָּמֶיהָ וְנִכְרְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם׃

(דָּוָה means sickness; it's always been assumed it means נִדָה.)

This is a much stronger prohibition; it carries the penalty of spiritual excision. It's interesting that this hasn't been mentioned until now. (Might it represent different textual layers...?)

Post-Temple Period

In the post-Temple period, we're all impure טָמֵא נִדָה [because we've come into contact with the dead, and don't have a red heifer] [eh? I think this must be a mistake for טָמֵא מֵת]. The way the rabbis interpret niddah has to shift. We don't interpret a woman, even when she is in niddah, as any more impure than a man.

There are texts within the rabbinic literature which are very difficult for us today. They are text by women written by men. For example, BT Shabbos 152a:

Though a woman be a pot of filth whose "mouth" is full of blood, yet all chase after her. תנא אשה חמת מלא צואה ופיה מלא דם והכל רצין אחריה׃

So, why did the rabbis carry on the Biblical practice regarding niddah?

Niddah 31b ב לא נידה
R. Meir used to say: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman should be niddah for seven days? Because being in constant contact with her, he might develop a loathing towards her. The Torah, therefore, ordained: Let her be impure for seven days in order that she shall be beloved by her husband as she was on the day of her marriage. היה רבי מאיר אומר מפני מה אמרה תורה נדה לשבעה מפני שרגיל בה וקץ בה אמרה תורה תהא טמאה שבעה ימים כדי שתהא חביבה על בעלה כשעת כניסתה לחופה׃

Hence R. Meir supports niddah (in the Biblical understanding of seven days) as a marital aid. (The extension to treat niddah as zavvah was brought by the women of Jerusalem, who took it upon themselves just in case.)

Niddah 66a א סו נידה
Rav Joseph said in the name of Rav via Rabbi Yehuda: Rabbi enacted in Sadot1: that if a discharge lasted one day, she must wait six days in addition to it; if it lasted two, she must wait six in addition to those; if three, she must wait seven clean days. Rabbi Zeira said the daughters of Israeli took upon themselves a stricture, that even if they see a drop of blood like a mustard seed, they would wait seven clean days. אמר רב יוסף אמר רב יהודה אמר רב התקין רבי בשדות ראתה יום אחד תשב ששה והוא שנים תשב ששה והן שלשה תשב שבעה נקיים׃ אמר רבי זירא בנות ישראל החמירו על עצמן שאפילו רואות טפת דם כחרדל יושבות עליה שבעה נקיים׃

1. Rashi claims in his commentary on this that Sadot was a place where people were not particularly learned and where the women were unable to keep track of their cycles of niddah and zavvah.

Niddah 20b ב כ נידה

Yalta presented blood before Rabbah bar bar Chana, and he declared it impure for her. She then brought it before Rav Yitzchak the son of Rav Yehudah, and he declared it pure for her.1

But how could he do this?2 Is it not taught in a בְּרַייתָא: That which a sage declared impure, his colleague may not declare pure, [that which he declared] forbidden, his colleague may not permit.

He had at first declared it impure for her, when she told him that "[Rabbi bar bar Chana] always declared 'pure' for me on [blood] like this, but this time he had a pain in his eye". Then he retracted and declared it pure for her.

But is she reliable? Yes, it is taught in a בְּרַייתָא: A woman is trusted to say, "I saw blood like this, but I lost it." They enquired: a [blood] like this Sage so-and-so declared pure. Come and hear: A women is trusted to say, "I saw blood like this, but I lost it."

This [case, i.e. in the בְּרַייתָא] is different because [the blood] is not in front of her. Come and hear: For Yalta presented blood before Rabbah bar bar Chana, and he declared it pure for her. But how could he do this? Is it not taught in a בְּרַייתָא: If a sage declared [something] "impure", his colleague may not declare it "pure", etc. And we had said: [Rav Yitzchak] declared it impure for her, for when she told him that he [Rabbah bar bar Chanah] would always declare "pure" for her on [blood] like this, but this time he had a pain in his eye, then he retracted and declared it pure for her. Consequently: She is believed. Rav Yitzchak bar Yehudah relied on his own tradition.

ילתא אייתא דמא לקמיה דרבה בר בר חנה וטמי לה הדר אייתא לקמיה דרב יצחק בריה דרב יהודה ודכי לה׃

והיכי עביד הכי והתניא חכם שטימא אין חברו רשאי לטהר אסר אין חבירו רשאי להתיר

מעיקרא טמויי הוה מטמי לה כיון דאמר ליה דכל יומא הוה מדכי לי כי האי גונא והאידנא הוא דחש בעיניה דכי לה׃

ומי מהימני אין והתניא נאמנת אשה לומר כזה ראיתי ואבדתיו׃ איבעיא להו כזה טיהר איש פלוני חכם מהו תא שמע נאמנת אשה לומר כזה ראיתי ואבדתיו

שאני התם דליתיה לקמה׃ תא שמע דילתא אייתא דמא לקמיה דרבה בר בר חנה וטמי לה לקמיה דרב יצחק בריה דרב יהודה ודכי לה׃ והיכי עביד הכי והתניא חכם שטימא אין חבירו רשאי לטהר וכו׳ ואמרינן טמויי הוה מטמי לה כיון דאמרה ליה דכל יומא מדכי לה כי האי גונא והאידנא הוא דחש בעיניה הדר דכי לה אלמא מהימנא לה רב יצחק בר יהודה אגמריה סמך׃

1. On the one hand, women are trusted to do the checking themselves... on the other, some women went to rabbis... or, in this case, played them off against each other.

2. The problem the Gemara has is how one rabbi could contradict the other, not that Yalta played them off against each other! They don't question her behaviour!

A commentator ties this "pain in the eye" into another mishna:

Yalta's argument presents an allusion to Misha Negaim 2:3 according to which "a priest who is blind in one eye or the light of whose eyes is dim may not inspect leprous lesions, for it is written 'as far as appears in the eyes of the priest' [Lev. 13:12]." With this allusion Yalta is presented as suggesting that the inspection of women's genital blood is modelled on the priestly inspection of leprous lesions. [...] Just as in the context of inspection of leprous lesions, so equally in the context of the inspection of women's genital blood: the inspecting rabbi should have perfect eyesight, which, according to Yalta, Rabbah bar bar Channah did not have on this particular occasion. The sugyah catapults Yalta rhetorically into an argumentative position in which she is familiar with mishnaic halachah or halachic midrash, and can replicate rabbinic knowledge. But she is presented also as making a creative halachic argument, which is strong enough to convince Rav Yitzchak.

—Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva 2000 Menstrual Purity, Stanford U.P., p. 121)

Yalta is managing the system from within: She's trying to get what she wants, but from within the system. She's been described as a trickster, a halachic guerilla, a halachic interpreter. She's an interesting character: there's six or seven other stories about her. She's one of the most frequently named women in the Talmud.

Yalta's model is one which Orthodox women use today. Though it's not the only one women use today. Blu Greenberg wrote:

Why do I observe niddah and go to the mikveh? It would be less than honest of me to say anything other than I do so because I am commanded

—Greenberg, Blu January 1980 "Integrating Mikveh and Modernity" in Sh'ma, p. 37

There are other ways of interpreting it, but that's the bottom line.

The first major transformation was from the Biblical to the rabbinic. The Biblical text was unloaded; some of the rabbinic texts were very negative, others more positive towards women taking on responsibility.

The second major shift of how niddah was understood came with modernity. (There were lots of interesting responsa in the Middle Ages about this, but it's really a continuation of what we see in the Gemara.)


Modernity also opened new options for Jewish female sexuality. Jewish women began to have the possibility of being sexual subjects, rather than elevated objects of male desire. With these new possibilities came an enormous Jewish silence. No longer limited to the role of Temptress, Jewish women looked to their tradition for a more broadly defined sexual wisdom, but found little directoin.

Some women became "free thinkers" [...] But the majority of Jewish women just quietly stopped going to the mikveh, stopped covering their hair, calves and arms, and looked to secular culture to advise them about sexuality.

—Litman, Jane Rachel 1997 "Sexuality and Ritual Purity", pp. 188–196 in Lifecycles v.2 (ed. Orenstein and Litman), Jewish Lights Pulication; Woodstock, Vermont; p. 192)

Many women who had a positive attitude towards Niddah had it from Rachel Adler's 1976 article, the core of which is:

Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumah is evil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory.

—Adler, Rachel 1976 "Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings", pp. 63–71 in Elizabeth Koltun (ed.) The Jewish Woman, New Perspectives Shocken Books, New York; p. 64

Rachel Adler was writing this as a Modern Orthodox woman and an academic. She no longer is, by her own admission. The speaker has had lots of people quote it at her. But Adler herself later rejected it; she feels it has been abused and used to justify a system that is misogynist at its core. She had ignored too much and justified too much in it.

Twenty years later, as a feminist Reform theologian, I continue to be faced wth an essay I wrote, an essay that continues to be quoted, cited and reproduced, promulgating opinions and prescribing actions that I now cannot in good conscience endorse. [...]

The only rationale the sources did not offer was the rationale that motivates all sincere piety, the one held out to men: that observing the commandments would make one holier and bring one closer to God.

—Rachel Adler, 1993, in "In Your Blood, Live: Revisions of a Theology of Purity", pp. 38-41 in Tikkun Vol. 8. no. 1.

For Adler the system is no longer positive or useful, but what she wrote made it positive and useful for millions of other Jewish women! Which is Judaism all over. The article took on a life of its own.

The Progressive World

Women are now not managing within the system of niddah, but starting to transform it. What are they going to take from it that's going to be good for them, or are they going to just ignore it?

The women who inspired Adler most are the ones, men and women, who applied it to other situations, using mikveh and not niddah; for example, as a rite of transformation after rape or divorce, but also for more positive things: ordination, marriage and other celebrations.

The mikveh is a very powerful ritual. It's a quiet space. It's the womb of the Jewish people: מַיִים חַיִים.

"Some women in our congregation use the mikveh monthly," says Canor Jaime Shpall of Scottsdale [one of the five Reform congregations in the USA to have a mikveh], "but not in the Orthodox fashion. It's a change of status—not from impure to pure, but from the 'missed chance' to 'hope'. Many hope that immersing in the 'magic waters' will help them get pregnant." At 38, Cantor Shpall is immersing monthly with that in mind.

—Sue Fishkoff, Autumn 2008 "Reimagining the Mikveh" in Reform Judaism Online.

This is a little troubling, for a Reform community to buy into magic! But ritual is a powerful way of dealing with what goes on in life. If something is helpful to someone, the speaker would not dismiss it.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2010-02-22 11:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
In which case I will never ever go to a Mikvah again in order not to get pregnant.

Now more serious. I am actually surprised that someone like you goes to a Niddah talk. I went to a Niddah talk at Moishe House maybe a year ago. It was more about how women feel about it nowadays. Somebody said that the bloody discharge was something men were frightened of and that is why they wanted women to keep away in case it might be infectious or something. I guess that was the main reason.

Date: 2010-02-23 07:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Now more serious. I am actually surprised that someone like you goes to a Niddah talk.

I wasn't quite the only man there, but there were only one or two others.

Date: 2010-02-23 11:58 am (UTC)
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
From: [personal profile] liv
My experience is that a lot of Progressive women like the idea of mikveh and possibly even properly keeping niddah in theory. They often don't have access to mikveh at all, because non-Orthodox people have a much less pressing need to live in densely populated Jewish areas and because building a mikveh isn't a priority for a small prog community. Or, if they do live near a mikveh, they perceive (rightly or wrongly, I don't know) that they can't use it due to judgemental attitudes about not being Orthodox. For example, they may be living with a partner they're not married to, or their husband may not be Jewish, or there may be some doubt about their Jewish status (or that of their nth great-grandmother). In other words, at the moment mikveh is one of those things that's incredibly tied up with Orthodox institutions and to some extent Orthodox identity.

Date: 2010-02-23 03:00 pm (UTC)
ext_411969: (Default)
From: [identity profile] aviva-m.livejournal.com
The question would be in my eyes, do we believe as Progressive Jews in the existence of ritual purity and inpurity (which would effect then what? The soul? The body?), I struggle with that concept.
Or is it rather a psychological ritual? This would turn it into a very optional and individual thing.


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