Tazria: The Priestess of Life – On the Meaning of Niddah

By Jewish law, after a woman menstruates, she must count seven days and immerse in a mikve before she can have relations with her partner. The implications of nidda impurity for the essence of the relationship between man and woman, and between a woman and her body, raise many questions and require much thought and elucidation.

Almost all the laws of ritual impurity – about one-quarter of the Mishna – relate to the Temple, for “sensitivity” to impurity, and the need to remain apart from it, can only exist in a place of holiness: “And thou shalt not defile the land which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel” (Num. 35:34). The only arena aside from the Temple in which there is sensitivity to impurity is the relationship between the sexes. That is why to this day, even when there is no Temple, the laws of nidda are still practiced.

The similarity between marital relations and the Temple shows us that sensitivity to impurity does not stem from a negative view of the relationship between the sexes, but rather is an expression of commitment to the sanctity and importance of the relationship. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Tanna’im, puts it thus: “When husband and wife are worthy, the Shekhina abides with them” (Sota 17a). This is also apparent in the comparison to others whom Jewish law requires to ritually immerse: the only two groups obliged to do so are priests who enter the Temple and women in relationships.

The Creation of Life and Holiness

Still, we have to ask: why does menstrual blood make a woman impure. Furthermore, if ritual immersion is indeed an expression of the sanctity of marital life, why is it an obligation of the woman but not the man? In order to an answer these questions, we must understand the essence of holiness. In Judaism, ritual impurity is linked to death. A corpse is considered “avi avot hatuma,” meaning the primary source of defilement, and any other source of impurity is associated with death or lessening of life. Holiness, on the other hand, is associated with life, and anything that increases life and vitality is holy.

Every month, a woman’s body bears the potential to create new life, and menstrual blood is an expression of that opportunity being missed, of an egg going unfertilized, of a month devoid of new life. Nidda impurity does not stem from a primitive taboo, from fear, but from the recognition that menstruation is an expression of a lessening of life. This is evidenced in the fact that after childbirth there is a period when the blood that comes out of the womb does not defile the woman; rather, because it is an expression of the creation of life, not its lessening, it is called “the blood of purification” (Lev. 12:4–5).

Purity and impurity stand in opposition to each other, which is why places that are suffused with holiness require extreme caution as to ritual impurity. The idea that menstrual blood causes impurity is linked to the assumption that, during the rest of the month, the life-creating process within the woman’s body is holy.

A Cycle of Light

The halakhic system imbues biological reality with religious meaning. But those two systems are also related to a third – the cosmological cycle. There is a well-known parallel between women and the moon, both in terms of the cyclical process and in terms of its length – thirty days. The lunar phase reaches its full state in the middle of the month, two weeks before the end of the cycle, just like a woman’s cycle. This affinity is also noted in halakha; for instance in the thirteenth-century book Or Zarua: “Women who choose to refrain from work on the first day of the month are engaging in a worthy and virtuous custom…. Know that every month, the woman renews herself, immerses and returns to her husband, and is dear to him as on their wedding day. Just as the moon renews every first of the month…. That is why the first of the month is a festival for women.”

A man’s body, in contrast, is devoid of cyclicality. He is unable to foster new life within himself and thus cannot be a source of nidda impurity. That is why the woman determines the period of time when the couple is forbidden from intimate contact. The prohibition against having relations begins with the process taking place inside the woman’s body, while the couple’s return to one another is the culmination of a process of the woman contemplating her body during the seven clean days and immersing in the mikve.

I once delivered a class in my home on the Sefer Yetzira’s secret kabbalistic formula for creating a golem. My wife, Michal, overheard some of our discussion and could not help herself: “Only men could think of creating a golem!” she exclaimed. “We women do it so much better – we have actual children!” In the spirit of that statement, Michal instructs the female students at the pre-military academy she heads not to serve in combat roles but rather in other units. Women, who bring life into the world, should not, she says, be in a position to take life away. The Zohar (Bereshit 48b) offers a similar explanation for why it is women who light the Shabbat candles. Being the one who gives life, the woman is also the one worthy of lighting a candle that symbolizes the additional soul that one receives on Shabbat.

Immersion on Approaching the Holy

Once could say that the difference between women and men is analogous to the difference between priests and laypeople. The priest, because he is required to cleave to holiness, is more sensitive to impurity. Women, it follows, are the priestesses of life.

The transition from impurity to purity is effected by way of immersion in the mikve. Water purifies by virtue of its spiritual quality: in the Torah – both in the stories of Creation and in the visions of the end times – water plays a central part. When a woman immerses in water, the source of all life, she is “subsumed” in its amorphous body. There are sources that compare the mikve to a woman’s womb, and see her emergence from the water as a symbol of the renewal of her life, as a rebirth.

No Crying over a Broken Glass

During the Jewish wedding, the memory of the destruction of the Temple is evoked by breaking a glass under the bridal canopy. It is astonishing that it is at that ostensibly sad moment in the ceremony that the entire assembly yells out, “Mazal tov!” One explanation is that life – and certainly marital life, which is to my mind the essence of life – is rife with crises. Sometimes these crises are painful and difficult, and sometimes they cause a couple to drift apart. But it is these very difficulties that enable the couple to renew their love, thus reconnecting from a more positive place. The Hebrew word for “crisis,” “mashber,” is also the biblical word for a birthing chair. Crisis is what gives rise to new things.

The Kabbala tells us that man and woman were first created with their backs fused to one another. God then separated them so that they could reconnect, not back to back but face to face. The hope in a relationship is that the wedding will not be a climax but rather the beginning of a path along which the couple will ascend ever higher. A cyclicality of distance and closeness, both physical and emotional, is one path toward growth and advancement through love and mutual sharing.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Days

The renewal of the intimate relationship after a woman counts her days of impurity can be compared to another count that culminates in renewal. In Kabbala, the days of the Omer, counted between Passover and Shavuot, are considered days of gradual spiritual buildup ahead of the special meeting between the Jewish people and God on Shavuot, the Giving of the Torah. The Zohar (Emor 97) compares the counting of the Omer to the seven days the woman counts from the day her menstrual blood stops until she can immerse in the mikve. Just as counting the days of the Omer prepares us for meeting with God, so the couple prepares to renew the intimate bond between them and contemplate the spiritual meaning of their looming reunion.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is the Executive Director of the Ohr Torah Interfaith Center, a division of Ohr Torah Stone. He also heads its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue and Beit Midrash for Judaism and Humanity. He is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel and has written ten books about Jewish Spirituality, Talmud and Interfaith.
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