Hannah Wegner Tam’s article on niddah, “My Body for Myself”, really resonated with me. She expressed her difficulties with the laws of niddah. In so doing, she gave voice to some of the frustrations shared by many women. It was incredibly brave of her to speak out about her experiences.
But her blog post is really about two separate issues: 1. The halacha itself 2. The way the halacha is taught.
The halacha itself, and our authority to change the halacha (or lack thereof) is part of a wider religious debate that’s beyond the scope of a blog post.
But how we teach the halacha is a subject of vital importance, with a relatively simple solution: Teach women the laws in depth, thereby empowering them to make informed decisions on how they observe niddah.
For example, Hannah says she was told she could not be taught to learn the different colors so she could decide for herself which stains are/are not problematic. But in fact, women can be taught that knowledge. The Eden Center, for example, offers exactly such a course to women. Now, imagine a world where as standard kallah classes, each woman was given a color chart (perhaps with photos of real stains) that she could use to measure the color of her own stains. That doesn’t mean there would never be a reason to bring underwear to a yoetzet or a rabbi. Sometimes the boundaries between different colors can be unclear. But it means that bringing underwear to a halachic authority would be an extra step for liminal cases, rather than the standard course of action.
As a matter of fact, while we’re on the subject of bedikot, most women are taught that they need two a day. That is the clearly stated lechatchila position in the Shulkhan Aruch. However, the position taught to women is often more stringent than the Shulkhan Aruch, because while they are taught the lechatchila halacha, they are not made aware of the bedieved options that are mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch.
Take, for example, Deena Zimmerman’s excellent book, “A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life” which I myself have used as a guide in my own niddah practice. It says:
“Ideally she should perform two exams a day…however, if the exams are painful, uncomfortable, or cause her to feel like she is irritating herself, she should consult a rabbi as to how to reduce the number. If on any day she missed an exam for any reason…she should continue to check the next day as usual. If she forgot both exams on one day, she should consult a rabbi on what to do further.”
Compare this to the language of the Shulchan Aruch:
“During all of her seven blood-free days a woman should, ideally, do internal examinations twice a day, once in the morning and once just before the onset of halachic twilight. But, if she did not do any internal examinations over the course of the entire seven blood-free days except once – irregardless of whether that single internal examination was done of the first day, the seventh day, or on any of the other day – because of the fact that she did an internal examination on the day before the seven days began (ie. the hefsek tahara) this (internal examination that she does during the seven blood-free days) suffices for her. But, if she didn’t do any internal examinations during the entire seven days but only did an internal examination on the eighth day and found it to be clean from blood, she can only begin counting from the eighth day (ie. the eighth day becomes the first day). There are authorities who say that a woman must do an internal examination on the first and seventh day, and one should not be lenient.” (Yoreh Deah Kuf Tzadi Vav, Daled)
But how many women are taught this? Instead, women are taught that if they struggle with bedikot -either because it hurts, or because the bedikot regularly have problematic stains -they should consult a rabbi.
The problem with this is that a) many women don’t want to consult a rabbi or even a yoetzet because of the highly personal nature of the topic and b) when you say “consult a rabbi”, women feel like they are asking for a special leniency, and wonder if they really “need” it. But, when you say, “Technically, bedieved, here is a lenient option that is valid according to the Shulkhan Aruch, but should only be used in extenuating circumstances, like regular staining on bedikot or pain during bedikot”, you give women the knowledge and empower them to decide for themselves what extenuating circumstances are.
Similarly, Hannah says that she felt guilty getting an earlier hefsek tahara. This is no coincidence: Guilt forms a primary part of how the laws of niddah are taught today. But in fact, getting a hefsek tahara as early as possible is allowed.* According to many opinions, this is the case even if one see stains on the hefsek tahara, as long as the stains are not red. If one knows how to tell the different colors apart, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
In cases where one is struggling to conceive, one can get a clean hefsek, even if one is still spotting intermittently, such that they’re worried they might see staining after the hefsek, and simply wear colored underwear/pads after the hefsek, so that they can ignore the stains. While doing this, they also minimize the number of bedikot, in accordance with the lenient bedieved options offered by the Shulchan Aruch. This method is laid out by Rav Bigman in his book, “Halachic Infertility”.
But how was Hannah supposed to know this information when it’s often not taught? Imagine a world in which women were taught about halachic infertility -and the halachic ways to overcome the situation -before they got married, instead of being told vaguely to consult a rabbi.
Hannah wonders if one of the halachic answers she was given would have been different had the rabbi not known she was trying to conceive. The answer is: Maybe. But that’s ok. Pru urvu, the mitzvah of procreation, is a halachic value that can sometimes push off certain rabbinic requirements surrounding niddah. For example, Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that in a case where waiting the minimum 4 or 5 days will prevent a woman from getting pregnant by causing her to miss her ovulation window, the woman need not wait, but can get a hefsek tahara as soon as she is physically able to do so, provided she is careful to not have intercourse for the 3 days before she gets her period.** (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah, Bet, Pey Daled) This is because the rabbinic enactment of waiting a certain number of days doesn’t apply in cases where it interferes with pru urvu, which is a major Jewish precept.
But of course, pru urvu is not the only halachic value that can sometimes push off rabbinic laws. Kavod Habriut – human dignity -and shalom bayit -peace in the home – are each values with their own halachic weight, and those values are oddly absent from the niddah conversation. What are the prices brought to bear on human dignity and peace in the home when a couple cannot even eat at the same table without a special niddah marker between them, and have to remember not to pass the salt to each other?
Both the marker and the no passing are written clearly in Shulkhan Aruch. (Yoreh Deah 195) But even if we believe that the halacha cannot be changed, the discussion cannot ignore the price that is paid by that decision. The decision not to change the laws is also driven by a halachic value -the value of mesorah, tradition. But it is not a neutral decision. It is not value-free.
Often, this debate is termed as one of two sides: The objective halacha, and the pain of women. But the pain of women has halachic valence. And this valence must be taken into account in how we talk about -and most importantly, in how we teach women -about niddah.
*Definitions of “as early as possible” vary depending on whether or not the woman waits a minimum of 4/5 days, which is standard practice in many Sefardi/Ashkenazi communities, respectively.
**The 4/5 day wait stems from concerns that semen, which is ritually impure, could still be inside the body for a few days if a woman had sex right before her period, which would prevent a woman from counting a “clean” day towards becoming ritually pure.