Niddah: Is it Taboo, Stigma and Impurity?
Tosafos on Amud Aleph (“D-Eyn”) makes a distinction between what induces the halakhic state of impurity of Niddah, such as for purposes of maintaining ritual purity in the Temple era for sacrificial meats and foods, and the prohibition against sexual intercourse. One might think they are identical, but they are not, and sometimes one state will not necessarily imply the other. Rav Soloveitchik (Reshimos Shiurim, ibid) notes that the Kuzari (3:49) makes a similar distinction:
וּמַה שֶּׁאֶצְלֵנוּ הַיּוֹם מֵאִסּוּר שְׁכִיבַת הַנִּדָּה וְהַיּוֹלֶדֶת, אֵינוֹ מִפְּנֵי הַטֻּמְאָה אֲבָל הִיא מִצְוָה גְרִידָא מֵאֵת הַבּוֹרֵא, וְכֵן מַה שֶּׁאֶצְלֵנוּ מֵהַרְחָקַת הָאֲכִילָה עִמָּהּ וּלְהִשָּׁמֵר מִקּוּרְבָתָהּ, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם מְנִיעוֹת וּסְיָגוֹת שֶׁלֹּא יִתְגַּלְגֵּל הָעִנְיָן לִשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ.
The prohibition of cohabiting with a woman in her period has nothing to do with impurity, but is an independent divine law. The practice we observe to keep some distance is but a restriction and hedge to prevent becoming aroused and ending up violating the sexual prohibition of Niddah.
This Kuzari and Tosafos indicates that this is not merely a halakhic point, but a philosophical distinction in how we understand the menstrual taboo. In other words, the sexual prohibition is stemming from a Torah law, thus the prohibition of Niddah as put forth by Kuzari is no different than not eating meat and milk or shaatnez, with no additional stigma added. As with many Torah laws, we can conjecture its meaning but not be conclusively sure. The Gemara (Niddah 31b) offers at least one dimension of this prohibition:
תניא היה ר”מ 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
It is taught in a baraisa that Rabbi Meir would say: For what reason does the Torah say that a menstruating woman is prohibited from engaging in intercourse with her husband for seven days? It is because if a woman were permitted to engage in intercourse with her husband all the time, her husband would be too accustomed to her, and would eventually be repulsed by her. Therefore, the Torah says that a menstruating woman shall be ritually impure for seven days, during which she is prohibited from engaging in intercourse with her husband, so that when she becomes pure again she will be dear to her husband as at the time when she entered the wedding canopy with him.
Notwithstanding Tosafos and the Kuzari, it seems other Jewish thinkers see the impurity of Niddah as not merely a technical ritualary requirement, but an indication of something spiritually noxious. For example, Ramban (Bereishis 31:35) comments on Rachel’s excuse to Lavan that she could not get up from the saddle (where she was hiding his teraphim) because “I am in the way of women”, i.e. I am menstruating.” We could simply understand that Rachel was saying she either was feeling too ill to get up, or it might have been hygienically difficult for Lavan to search where she was sitting due to the blood. However, Ramban explains that the ancients (not just Jews) had a spiritual tradition that menstrual blood was harmful and required distancing.
In fact, many cultures throughout the world and time have observed some sort of menstrual taboo, and notably the Ethiopian Jews had menstruating women live in separate quarters, presumably due to this idea (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstruation_hut#:~:text=In%20Ethiopia’s%20Jewish%20community%2C%20when,Jewish%20community%20as%20margam%20gojos. ) How do we understand the Ramban and others who have this tradition?
Bereishis Rabbah (17:8) states:
“Why were women given the mitzvah of niddah? Because they caused the blood of Adam, the original man, to be spilled.” (If Eve had not convinced Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, then mankind would not have been punished with mortality.)
The midrash touches upon the theme of blood in the menstrual cycle and sees it as a penance for Eve having brought mortality into the world. In addition, though this midrash seems to be referring to a punishment or consequence of Eve’s sin, it actually does not mention the pains or suffering of the menstrual experience, rather it refers to the mitzvah of observing the laws of niddah. It would seem the midrash is of the opinion that observing the laws somehow rectifies the introduction of mortality into the world. The question we might then ask is how exactly do the niddah laws address or counter the force of death in the world?
To begin to find an answer, let us consider that the psychological connection between menstruation and death has already been noted by psychoanalytic theory. The idea of a woman experiencing a flow of blood from her body automatically suggests a wound of sorts. The late Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst trained by Sigmund Freud, who wrote extensively about female psychology, suggests that the pain women experience right before and during their periods are more of an emotional nature than any physical cause. She attributes this pain to be a somatization of the sadness and mourning felt by each menstruant woman for the loss of a potential child that could have been born (Menstruation and Psychoanalysis by Mary Jane Lupton. 1993. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press: 186-187.) The blood is a potent and symbolic reminder of the potentially conceived child’s “death”.
Interestingly, certain American Indian tribes view menstruation itself to be a miniature miscarriage. Without the benefit of modern scientific knowledge, these Indians quite understandably saw a causal link between the regular periods of a fertile non-pregnant woman and the conspicuous absence of blood during pregnancy. They therefore surmised that during pregnancy the menstrual blood coagulated and congealed to form a child, which is ultimately born after nine months. Thus, according to these Indians, a menstrual period is tissue substance from a failed or aborted child. This anthropological insight further corroborates the idea that menstruation is linked to mortality in the Torah and in other societies, because on an emotional level, what people perceive by observation is as relevant as what is the actual biological fact.
As we have noted in Psychology of the Daf Yevamos 85, often that which is associated with death is considered impure. Higher standards around exposure to death impurity are observed within the sacrificial order because Cohanim embody the middah of chessed, and in fact, this is how they are more able to activate atonement and forgiveness. The harsh realities of death and resultant despondency and cynicism about life would disrupt that mode of thought and feeling (Recanti Vayikra 21:1). The Hebrew word for Tumah or impurity is often used in connection with organic objects that seem to have in some way been spoiled or misused. For example, if a kosher animal is found dead it is unkosher for eating as well as tamey. Meaning, that it can render holy foods to be “impure” via contact. However a kosher animal that is slaughtered according to ritual requirements although it also is dead, is not tamey (Mishna Chulin 4:4.) This seems to imply that tamey exists as a result of a ritual misuse or less than ideal manifestation of a decaying organic object. Similarly, we find that all semen that is not absorbed by the vagina and develops into a fetus, also represents a less than ideal manifestation of organic matter (Vayikra 15:16, Gemara Niddah 43a-b, and Rambam, Avos Hatumah 5:1,9.) Additionally, we find that the diseased Zav and the Leper also are labeled as tamey (Mishna Keylim 1:3-4) since they too are experiencing a corruption or malfunction of their bodies with dreadly or loss of reproductive ability. This observation, that tumah is connected with potential life and death, is also made by Kuzari (II:60).
Regardless of what the basis of the Niddah is, many women subjectively feel that they are being rejected. This is understandable, as after all, contact is prohibited and many men, out of fear that they become too aroused, may recoil and excessively distance themselves. This is a difficult area for some religious couples to negotiate; expert and sensitive halakhic guidance should be sought, especially in a situation of past sexual trauma. I will not wade into the halakhic details but I will speak of some general ideas.
In the times of the Temple, any object that a Niddah woman sat or lay upon became an Av Hatumah (a primary source of Tumah, Mishna Zavim 5:6), this must necessitated extreme and difficult measures, especially for families of cohanim that subsisted on Terumah bread and sacred food, which had to be eaten when in a state of ritual purity. Can you imagine dunking your beds, linen, couch, eating utensils and dining room furniture in a mikvah every month? The fact that there is no record of ancient observant Jews having their menstrual wives live in separate dwellings even with all these complications, unlike many other ancient cultures who observed this taboo, is a testament to a strong and specific will to NOT distance or reject a Niddah woman.
Interestingly, the Archeologist Yonatan Adler notes the exclusive preponderance of chalk vessels in Jewish settlements dating as far back as the first century CE. This is an odd and inconvenient technology which was very different from the standard earthenware vessels located in gentile archeological counterparts. It can be explained by the halakha that stone vessels do not become impure. (“The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal”, New Haven, CT 2022, pp. 66-71.) Thus we see an ancient “Kosher Innovations” product designed specifically to overcome the halakhic challenges of impurity during the Temple Era.
And finally Gemara (Shabbos 64b) records the following dispute:
וְרַב, מַאי שְׁנָא הָנֵי? אָמַר עוּלָּא: כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תִּתְגַּנֶּה עַל בַּעְלָהּ. כִּדְתַנְיָא: ״וְהַדָּוָה בְּנִדָּתָהּ״ — זְקֵנִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים אָמְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא תִּכְחוֹל וְלֹא תִּפְקוֹס וְלֹא תִּתְקַשֵּׁט בְּבִגְדֵי צִבְעוֹנִין, עַד שֶׁבָּא רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא וְלִימֵּד: אִם כֵּן — אַתָּה מְגַנָּהּ עַל בַּעְלָהּ, וְנִמְצָא בַּעְלָהּ מְגָרְשָׁהּ. אֶלָּא מַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר: ״וְהַדָּוָה בְּנִדָּתָהּ״ — בְּנִדָּתָהּ תְּהֵא עַד שֶׁתָּבֹא בַּמַּיִם.
The Gemara asks: And according to Rav, what is different about these, the woolen cap and the wig, that the mishna permitted going out into the courtyard with them? Ulla said: So that she will not become unappealing to her husband. That would be the result if all ornamentation was prohibited. As it was taught in a baraisa with regard to the verse: “And of her that is sick in her menstrual status [niddata]” (Leviticus 15:33), the Elders of the early generations said that this verse comes to teach us that the menstruating woman should be distanced from her husband in all senses, like a person ostracized [menudeh] by the Sages. This includes that she may not paint her eyes blue, and she may not rouge [pokeset] her face, and she may not adorn herself with colorful clothing. Until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: If you do so, you are making her unappealing to her husband, and her husband will consequently divorce her. Therefore, extreme strictures should not be instituted. Rather, what is the meaning of that which the verse states: “And of her that is sick in her menstrual status”? She shall remain prohibited in her menstrual status even after the flow of blood has stopped until she immerses in the water of a ritual bath.
In this Gemara, we see a tension between the two trends, either to distance a Niddah due to her impurity or to soften the halakah and prevent her feeling rejected, with the opinion of Rabbi Akiva prevailing.
From Blessing to Reality
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph references the idea that all land is linked, allowing the act of acquisition of one property to affect the acquisition of another, unlike chattel (movable objects). Sefer Daf al Daf quotes Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu”t 4:11) who asks a question based on this teaching. The verse in Bereishis (28:13) tells us that Hashem promises Yaakov that the land he was sleeping on would one day become his possession:
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ
“The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you and to your descendants.”
The Gemara (Chulin 91b) states:
בראשית כח, יג) הארץ אשר אתה שוכב עליה וגו’ מאי רבותיה אמר רבי יצחק מלמד שקפלה הקב”ה לכל ארץ ישראל והניחה תחת יעקב אבינו שתהא נוחה ליכבש לבניו
The Gemara explains another verse from Jacob’s dream: “And behold, the Lord stood over him and said: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land upon which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed” (Genesis 28:13). The Gemara asks: What is the greatness of this promise, i.e., why is it expressed in this way despite the fact that in a literal sense Jacob was lying on a very small amount of land? Rabbi Yitzḥak says: This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, folded up the entirety of Eretz Yisrael and placed it under Jacob, our patriarch, so that it would be easy for his children to conquer.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger asks, why was it necessary to fold all the land under Yaakov? Based on our gemara in Bava Kama, he could have acquired all the land, just the same, by resting on one part? He answers that while this might be true, it would not satisfy the statement in the verse, “land upon which you are lying,” which implies he was laying on ALL the land that he was to acquire.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger addressed the ‘what’ but not the ‘why.’ Why did Hashem need to have Yaakov rest underneath all of the Land of Israel? Mizrachi (Bereishis 28:13) explains that there is a difference between potential and actual. By actually laying on the entire land, this brought the blessing from potential to actual, making it far easier for Yaakov’s descendants to conquer the Land of Israel.
What does Mizrachi mean? I believe he is speaking of the idea that though Hashem may give a blessing and that thing will eventually come true, it does not mean it will be easy. We believe Moshiach will come one day soon, but has it, and will it, come easy? We believe that one’s shidduch (Sotah 2a) and parnassah (Beitzah 16a, Kiddushin 82a) come from God, but does that mean it will come easily? We must recognize that many of God’s blessings, even if promised, come in their own time and way, sometimes quickly and sometimes more slowly, sometimes we have to work hard for them, and other times, with little effort.
The Devil Made Me Do it
Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the halakhic distinctions of an Ox that was set aside for a Shelamim sacrifice and gores another ox. This is a technically complicated legal discussion, but please bear with me, as it will lead to an interesting moral and psychological observation.
Since according to one opinion, the Shelamim sacrifice is considered to be still a possession of the owner, and when a regular ox gores, half the damages is paid out of the value of the damaging ox, then half of the damage must come from the ox that gored. However, since the fats belong to the altar, part of the Shelamim is owned by Hekdesh (the Temple) and not by the owner. Therefore, the Gemara contemplates if the owner of the offending ox can claim shared liability, since he is a co-owner of the ox with Hekdesh, and only pay half of the half. Rabbi Nassan is known to have the opinion that when there is a claim against two damaging agents, such as when an ox pushes another ox into a pit, each owner of the damaging party is fully responsible (pit and goring ox). Thus if one cannot pay, the other is liable for the full amount. (The goring ox is liable only up to its worth, but the owner of the pit is liable for the full value of the dead animal. Thus, according to Rabbi Nassan’s principle of complete liability to both parties, much more than 50% of the payment may fall upon the owner of the pit.) Here too, should the owner of the ox be fully liable since Hekdesh is never liable for goring (an ox fully owned by Hekdesh never pays for damages by special rule), and the half damage comes out of the full value of the flesh which belongs to the owner, or only half of the half, since the fats are part of the animal and share the liability but Hekdesh does not pay. The Gemara suggests that since it is one body of the ox, even Rabbi Nassan will agree that one cannot argue the body of the animal did it without the involvement of the fats. Thus, half of the half-damages is on the owner of the ox to pay, and the other half of the half is on Hekdesh (the fats portion of the animal) and is exempted from payment. Ultimately, the Gemara says, it is one body and the entire body is held liable equally and uniformly, unlike an ox which pushes an ox into a pit, where the owner of the pushing ox and the owner of the pit share full liability. Since there are separate bodies, if the ox doesn’t cover the value, all of it will fall on the owner of the pit and not just 50%.
This got me thinking about how we often split our sense of liability when we get angry or commit indiscretions. We like to say, “You made me do it”, or “the devil made me do it”. Even the Gemara (Sotah 3a) tells us:
רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אָמַר: אֵין אָדָם עוֹבֵר עֲבֵירָה אֶלָּא אִם כֵּן נִכְנַס בּוֹ רוּחַ שְׁטוּת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ״, ״תִּשְׁטֶה״ כְּתִיב.
Reish Lakish says: A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetut] enters him, as it is stated: “If any man’s wife goes aside [tisteh]” (Numbers 5:12). The word tisteh is written with the Hebrew letter shin, affording an alternative reading of tishteh, which is related to the term for folly, the word shetus.
This is indeed true psychologically, where we can become so possessed by an urge or impulse it feels as if an outside agent is compelling our behavior. The ancients believed they can be possessed by an evil spirit or a demon. Of course, we are so much smarter and “advanced” in the modern age, so we don’t believe in such things, (ha ha, don’t we?). We rename them as “chemical imbalances” or “addictions”, which are scientifically cloaked meaningless terms that are as unproven as voodoo. The bottom line is, we may at times find ourselves under the sway of the powerful forces of our personal demons. It may even be fair to say that this lightens our moral burden. But in the legal world, it is “all one body” and liability is shared. We might have certain excuses but we must make restitution to those whom we damaged.