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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, Mismatched Lovers, Sex and Mirrors, The Challenge of Real Loving,Getting Undressed, The Strangers Among Us, Wet, Moist Matzah, and The Anatomy of an Anchor.
This week’s Parshah begins and ends with menstruation. Actually, it only works out that way this year where the Parshiot of Tazria and Metzorah are read together. And not in Israel, where the Parshiot of Acherei and Kedoshim will be read this week.
Tazria begins with this provocative statement and law:
If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Leviticus, 12:2-3.
Next, the Torah states that after the seven “unclean” days, a woman must still “sit it out” for 33 “clean” days period. However, if the baby is female, then these periods (pardon the pun) are doubled: the mother is “unclean” for two weeks, followed by 66 “clean” days.
The end of Metzora deals more directly with menstruation. Menstrual blood renders a woman “unclean” for seven days, as is any man who sleeps with a woman while she’s menstruating.
So what’s the deal with menstruation? This is something that is unique for human females; no other creature can hemorrhage blood for days at a time without serious medical setbacks. So what is the meaning of it?
For matters such a spiritual uncleanliness, we are going to need to turn to the Kabbalah.
The renowned kabbalist, the Arizal, explains that G-d anticipated a similar question, and he said to Moses: “If the Jewish people ask you why have to be defiled by menstrual bleeding…tell them that it is because Eve transgressed what I told her to do, she was made to suffer the impurity of menstruation.” This is how the Arizal explains the Talmudic passage in Tractate Eruvin (100b). In consequence of disobeying G-d’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, Eve was made to undergo the blood of menstruation and the blood of virginal marital relations. This is meaning of the double expression “I will greatly increase your suffering…” Genesis, 3:16.
But was menstrual and virginal blood simply a creative punishment that G-d conceived of for Eve’s benefit? Is there any relationship between the punishment and the crime?
The plot thickens.
The Talmud explains that, although the Torah says that the snake merely spoke to Eve, that was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – it actually had sex with Eve. See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 146a. For those of you who are too weirded out about sex with a snake, remember that this particular snake: (1) could talk; and (2) had hands and feet, which were removed as part of its punishment. (I’m not sure if that helps at all.) The snake, which embodied pure ego, selfishness and self-centeredness, injected Eve with its own variety of poisonous semen, introducing the concept of a godless sense of self, which she then passed on to Adam. Thus, Adam and Eve became blinded to the divine perspective of creation, seeing the universe instead from the infinitely lower perspective of a sightless mortal. Their children, sadly, inherited this shortsightedness.
And that’s why Eve ate from the forbidden fruit. She was not initially tempted by the forbidden fruit – not until the snake “spoke” to her. Only then did it occur to her to eat the fruit despite G-d’s commandment that she not; she had been robbed of her divine perspective, and had the heavy veil of selfishness descend upon her senses.
As a result, G-d’s “punishment” was that every month she be forced to go through a cleansing process, a purge of the build-up of blood within her. Remember that Torah regards blood as a creature’s life-force, which is why we may not eat it, and why we must respectfully cover it when an animal is slaughtered. However, menstrual blood is very clearly not the woman’s life-force. She definitely doesn’t need it; in fact, she feels much better without it. Indeed, it is only after ridding herself of her menstrual blood that she can then ovulate, her body preparing to create new life. So the blood that she is getting rid of is non-productive, non-procreative, and not her life-force. Rather, it is her body’s monthly rejection of the snake’s poison.
And doesn’t this put another slant on PMS? C’mon – it’s been thousands of years, and the best that science has been able to do to explain that monthly murderous spirit is to blame it on “hormones”? Ah, but all those weighty, heavy feelings, that over-sensitivity – those are all symptoms of the blood that needs to leave her body, leaving her freshly-cleansed, her perspective and charming character restored.
Now, any child that grows in her womb will be exposed to only the purest and most refined level of blood in the mother’s body, which will facilitate the child’s receipt of its intellectual faculties which will one day allow him or her to transcend (to some extent) the darkness of self, and to perceive things great than ourselves.
As an interesting aside, the famous biblical commentator Rabbeinu Bachya notes that this is the positive reason that only human females menstruate: because only human females are capable of creating intellectual, thinking, reasoning offspring, with the potential for transcendence. It is for this same reason, he explains, that a woman’s breasts are on her upper torso, close to the inclination of her head, whereas females in the animal kingdom often have their breasts/udders closer to their genitalia. For animals, feeding is a base and purely instinctive experience. For humans, however, nursing and breastfeeding is time for bonding on a higher level of consciousness, and so the baby is necessarily placed closer to its mother’s head.
Even in childbirth, however, a woman purges whatever non-procreative substances have accumulated in her body throughout the pregnancy; accordingly, a similar period of “uncleanliness” was decreed to permit her to place distance between herself (and her relationships) and the snake’s selfish residue.
But now we also understand why it is on the eight day – the day after a mother’s seven days of “uncleanliness” – that a baby boy is circumcised. As we discussed here, the foreskin – like the snake itself (again, pardon the pun) – similarly represents lust, and a narcissistic, self-centered level of pleasure, which comes at the cost of a higher sensitivity to our moral and intellectual vision. After the cleansing of the mother’s non-procreative fluids (and, as the Seforno offers, the same period of time is necessary for any such residual fluids in the baby’s system to disappear), the the child is now ready for his own purging, physically and symbolically severing the veil that separates us from our higher purpose.