As a Yoetzet Halacha at Midreshet Nishmat, we assist women dealing with halachic questions relating to Taharat Hamishpacha and women’s health, all year round. The questions we are asked reflect the current experiences and challenges the women face. Below are some words I wrote during one of the (numerous) ‘Sevavim’ – rounds of rockets bombarding the Southern Israeli townships in the vicinity of Sderot.
Written December 2019:
The country begins another – all too familiar – round of violence on the border of Southern Israel and the Gaza strip. The same jarring sounds and deafening booms, the all too familiar tears and of course the familiar fears. We know how it starts – but we never know how, and when, it will end. And when it ends for the media and the rest of the country, it never ends for the residents of the South. It is just a matter of time until another round will begin. For the time being the sirens may have stopped but for the children, the families and the women, the fears, traumas and stress continue.
When such a ’round’ begins, the people of Israel, together with Jews all around the world, are focused on ‘the people of the south’. We are filled with compassion, support and sympathy for the residents who defend our southern border – through simply living there, and going about their everyday lives. We really care.
War used to be fought by soldiers on the battlefield. Nowadays it is the Home Front who are trying so hard to win the psychological war. The residents of Southern Israel have to deal with battles which accompany them on so many fronts. It may be something as mundane as walking to school, leaving the children with a babysitter or even going to the supermarket. They never know when the silence will be pierced by a siren signaling that an attack has begun, and have to run to take cover.
One of the challenges for the residents of Southern Israel that most people are not aware of, is the challenge of keeping Taharat Hamishpacha during a round of hostility and heightened tension.
On Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha anonymous hotline the questions always reflect women’s current experiences and challenges. During the short winter days, we receive women’s calls describing how they lost track of time, and performed their internal check a few minutes after sunset and want to know if they can still start counting the seven clean days. During the Chagim, we receive calls from women who want advice how to best navigate going to the mikveh with a house full of guests. During the summer months, the questions reflect vacations; how to find a kosher mikveh in the Alps, or in rural Canada and when can a natural lake be used as a kosher mikveh. And when there is tension down South we can clearly hear it on the other side of the phone line.
A woman from Ashkelon has just called, and then hurriedly hung up as the sounds of the siren ring in the background, and she runs for cover with her children in her mamad (secure room). A few minutes later, she calls back assuring the Yoetzet that everything is okay as she completes her question and receives Halachic guidance.
A woman calls to ask if it is halachically acceptable to push off going to the mikveh tonight. There have been sirens on and off all day and her mikveh does not have a protected area. She is afraid to leave her family and to drive the 10 minutes to the mikveh. On the other hand, she describes her conflicting feelings because she has been waiting for this for so very long. She misses the supportive touch of her husband, as she tries to calm her young daughter who starts to shake every time a siren goes off. As women, we can feel the yearning to end the time of separation, while sympathizing with the fear of leaving the protection of her house and the closeness to her children during this trying time.
On a deeper level, the questions we receive during a round of tension, reflect the inner challenges women face. A woman who is so diligent with halacha is suddenly in a quandary she has never faced before. She is supposed to go to the mikveh tonight, but in between running to and from the mamad, and with no school for her children, she simply forgot to do her last check on the 7th day. Can she still go to the mikveh tonight?
A woman has been struggling for years with anxiety she experiences regarding menstrual staining, and through therapy she has started taking control of her OCD. But since the rocket landed right outside her son’s kindergarten in the kibbutz she lives in, things have started unravelling. She is finding it difficult to travel to the therapist in the neighbouring kibbutz, and she has to control herself not to constantly call the hotline to abate her fears that she might have felt or seen something that makes her nida.
Meanwhile, a mikveh lady from Netivot has just called wishing to consult with us whether or not she should open the mikveh that night. She knows there will be women who will want to come to immerse, but her mikveh does not have a mamad, and without a secure room what is she to do if a siren goes off while a woman is immersing?
Some couples struggle with intimacy, with the fear of a siren at any time.
Others describe irregularity they are unaccustomed to. It is not a modern revelation that psychological strains can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle. The Gemara in Nida (Daf 38b) talks about a woman who may not menstruate as expected while she is hiding in fear from danger. Already in the time of the Talmud there was awareness that fear and stress could cause unexpected biological reactions.
A Halachic response takes into account the questioner’s full situation, weighing her experience in its totality. However, it is often difficult for a woman to ‘open up’ and share her deep psychological stress with her Rabbi. In this type of situation, the Yoetzet acts as a mediator to transfer these factors that comprise the halachic question. For example, a woman who called to consult the hotline from the emergency room at the hospital. She had been in close contact to an explosion and was suffering from anxiety. She wanted to know if she could touch her husband when he arrived at the hospital despite the fact that she was only meant to go to the mikveh at the end of the week. When the Yoetzet consulted the rabbi with her question, the rabbi stressed how important it was to truly understand the situation of the woman and gather all the necessary information. Was she in physical danger due to her anxiety? Was she being released from hospital? What was the appraisal of the doctor of her situation? The rabbi and the yoetzet discussed the halachic parameters of her question. They also discussed the pikuach nefesh situations that psychological trauma can cause.
The fear and anxiety of the security situation can cause unusual questions to arise that need the psychological state of the woman to be considered when addressing the question. The yoetzet is attuned to the Halacha and the halachic considerations in unusual circumstances and as well as the ramifications of the guidance the woman seeks.
Written January 2024:
Are the questions different this time round? Yes and no.
Women are still struggling to keep their routine Halachic practices during times of anxiety and physical dangers. The questions are familiar from the past.
But this time, women are displaced from their homes. Where is the local mikveh? They are living in squashed hotel rooms with their children. Even when they are able to count the seven clean days and go to the mikveh will they have any privacy in their makeshift living quarters?
This time the hotline shift is flooded with questions from women whose husbands have been called up to reserve duty to defend the country. A woman’ s husband has just been allowed to come home for 24 hours but she hasn’t had time to go to the mikveh while she has been busy looking after her 3 toddlers on her own. Is she allowed to immerse during the day while they are in childcare? Another woman didn’t start the count of the seven clean days but now it looks like her husband will be out earlier than she expected. Is there any way she can start the count earlier even though she has not done internal examinations? And the most difficult of questions, her husband is leaving to go to the Front. She is nida and she wants to know if they can embrace before he departs.
This time the round is much longer because it isn’t a round, it is war. Young couples who were in the middle of fertility testing call to find out whether they should put the process on hold or if there is a way to continue despite the soldier’s absence. Women call for counsel how to deal with the different expectations of intimacy between the combat soldier and the exhausted mother during an ‘after’ (break from the warfront).
This time there is a new group of questioners; the women soldiers who have shifts which don’t allow them to get to the mikveh on time. The woman whose service schedule doesn’t coordinate with her husband’s service schedule calls as they need assistance to navigate immersion with their military obligations.
Some women have specific questions, others are looking for a listening ear or support for their challenging situation. Often, we cry together about the personal difficulties as well as the communal pain and suffering.
But something resonates for me about these questions and the questioners themselves. The inner strength of Jewish women who during this difficult war make time to search out for Halachic guidance, who want to make sure they are doing the right thing and despite the stress and anxiety put in the emotional effort to ask questions. Sometimes the answers do not make their struggle easier. But their questions give me strength and I daven to Hashem that our conversations and the information they receive returns them with renewed strength. We will get through this challenge and G-d willing, we will revisit peaceful days in Israel soon.