Dear Jewrotica #6 – Separation During a Woman’s Period

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Dear Jewrotica Staff Responses2

Elissa Shevinsky

Elissa Shevinsky

Religious Jews embrace the prohibition against sex while a woman has her period (and for the seven days after) because they find that the forced separation each month keeps married life more….interesting. By re-experiencing longing for their partners each month, Orthodox Jews have found a way to maintain passion within the context of monogamous married life. While this practice may not be for everyone, you gotta give Orthodox Jews credit for making such a strictly traditional lifestyle – I call it “radical monogamy” – so spicy.

But the prohibition isn’t based on physical (or even romantic) benefits. It’s based on the concept of “Niddah” – the idea that there is a spiritual impurity that a woman acquires during her period. This impurity stays with her until she immerses in a mikvah. (For the record – men acquire a sexual-related spiritual impurity as well. That’s a story for another column.) According to Torah tradition, the impurity is purely spiritual – the prohibition is not for physical cleanliness. Judaism teaches that physical uncleanliness often follows spiritual uncleanliness – but the prohibition is, at its core, for spiritual benefit.

For more in-depth details on niddah, a local rabbi can be helpful. Feel free to contact me at elissa@makeoutlabs.com to connect you to someone nearby. For more info, this article goes into more detail about the Orthodox/Kabbalistic perspective on niddah.

team_david

David Abitbol

I have very little of substance to add to this except to contribute the notion of what we used to call “policy considerations” back in Law School. You see, a woman in Niddah can’t touch her husband, but she can touch her children and other women. Niddah functionally exists to create a regular period (pun not intended) of enforced abstinence. The end result is that once the woman visits the mikvah, the prospect of human touch is exciting again to both her and her husband.

Of course many non-religious Jews and people that don’t practice “family purity” manage to have exciting long-term, monogamous sex lives. However, Niddah acts as a systematic method of keeping intimacy “fresh” in a marriage. I know secular couples who go months without having sex and I know religious couples who have a standing post-mikvah “date-night” where they get physically reacquainted in anticipation of, well… booty time! Of course I can’t cite much rabbinic discussion on this ancillary effect of said scriptural prohibitions Leon, but I’m sure you can see how that all works quite well.

In conclusion, I’d just like to quote a paragraph from the introduction to the book Total Immersion by Rivkah Slonim who is the education director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University:

Over the course of a lifetime, open ended sexual availability may well lead to a waning of excitement and even interest. The monthly hiatus teaches couples to treasure the time they have together and gives them something to look forward to when they are apart. Every month they are separated not always when convenient or easy – but they wait for one another. They think about each other and how it is when they can be physical – all the while counting the days until their togetherness – and each time there is a new quality to their reunion. In this regard the Talmud states: “So that she will be as beloved as on the day of her marriage.”

Who is going to argue with that?

Dr. Limor

Dr. Limor

Other than the well-known notions related to Niddah (as a supposed solution to matters related to hygiene, procreation, fertility, sexual/ marital continence, respect for womanhood and the mighty “two weeks abstinence maintains lecherousness” theory), there’s an additional, rather unusual explanation for the whole ‘Vey menstruation blood’ practice:

Talmud passages suggest that the rabbinic horror of menstrual fluids is not merely religious, but genuine and visceral. For example, in the following from the Tractate Shabbath, a woman attempting to drive away a snake may rely on her secret defense. The ultimate weapon, according to the Sages, is for the woman to tell the snake, “I am menstruous.”

“If a woman sees a snake and does not know whether it has turned its attention to her or not, let her remove her garments and throw them in front of it; if it winds itself around them, its mind is upon her; if not, its mind is not upon her. What can she do? She should cohabit [with her husband] in front of it. Others say, That will even strengthen its instincts. Rather she should take some of her hair and nails and throw them at it and say, ‘I am menstruous.’”— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath 110a Soncino 1961 Edition, page 535

Projecting their own attitudes onto the snake, the rabbis believe it would be repulsed by a niddah. But what threat does the snake offer the woman? Of course, a venomous snake might bite the woman, but the rabbis’ explanation continues in the following:

If a snake enters a woman, let her spread her legs and place them on two barrels; fat meat must be brought and cast on the burning coals; a basket of cress must be brought together with fragrant wine and placed there, and be well beaten together. They should take a pair of tongs in their hand, for when it smells the fragrance it will come out, so that it can be seized and burnt in the fire, as otherwise it will re-enter.


— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath 110a Soncino 1961 Edition, page 536

The danger, apparently, is that the snake will crawl up the woman’s vagina and take up lodging. Remember the dreadful “Garden of Eden evacuation”?:

טו וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית, בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ, וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב.
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

It is difficult to separate the snake from its deeply ingrained phallic symbolism. Menstrual blood repels the snake in this story, representing the power of menstrual blood to ward off male advances.

God means business… Shabbat Shalom, y’all!

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Dear Jewrotica is an advice column hosted by the Jewrotica staff. We answer questions about sex, sexual health, relationships, romance and other topics as they relate to the Jewish community, culture and tradition. Confidentiality is respected, and we'll do our best to tackle your questions with knowledge, sensitivity and tact.