Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing 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.

One of the basic elements of Jewish married life is the body of law known as the Laws of Family Purity, virtually all of which are derived in some form of fashion from this week’s Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora.

Let’s take a short walk through the general framework of these laws. If you’re already an old hand at it, think of this as a refresher.

We begin with a woman’s menstrual period.

Generally, most post-puberty, pre-menopausal, non-pregnant, non-nursing women menstruate on a monthly basis. Once a woman sees blood she enters a state of ritual impurity.

It is important to note that the term “impurity,” as used here, has no negative connotations, and is neither a pejorative nor a thing to be avoided. Indeed, immediately prior to the menstrual laws, the Torah discusses the ritual impurity caused by the emission of semen, or by coming into contact with semen. Despite the life-creating nature of semen, it still causes ritual “impurity.” In both cases, this impurity is a healthy, natural part of our life; it is simply that G-d wished to mark a separation between our sex lives, our menstrual period, and our regular, default state.

Typically, the state of being ritually impure simply means that one may not enter certain parts of the Temple, or eat certain consecrated foods, until one becomes pure. In the case of a menstruating woman, however, there are a few additional consequences.

If a woman has a discharge, her flesh discharging blood, she shall remain in her state of menstrual separation for seven days, and whoever touches her shall become impure until evening.[1]

As the verse continues, this applies, not only to anyone who touches her directly, but even one who touches her bedding, or who sits on her bed, or on her seat. This consequence, however, has little application nowadays, when we don’t have the Temple, and we don’t have consecrated foods.

A more relevant consequence, however, appears in next week’s Parshah, Acharei-Kedoshim: “And to a woman during the uncleanness of her separation, you shall not come near to uncover her nakedness,”[2] and “a man who lies with a woman who has a flow, and he uncovers her nakedness, he has bared her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood —  both of them shall be cut off from the midst of their people.”[3]

In other words, there are steep biblical penalties for having sex with a menstruating woman. Don’t say “eww” — apparently, it’s a thing.

This is why a menstruating woman is referred to as a “Niddah,” which comes from the word meaning “separation,” for she is separated from men during this period.

It is important to note that the laws pertaining to a Niddah are not actually limited to a married couple, even though they have come to be known as the Laws of Family Purity. These laws likely became associated with married couples only because, back then, sexually active women tended to be married, and the men that needed to know the relevant laws were their husbands.

However, the laws pertaining to a Niddah apply equally to single women, who would need to go through the same purification process as a married woman before resuming sexual relations with a man.

What is that process?

Well, as the laws have evolved and been interpreted over the generations, once a woman spots the first drop of blood, she is required to count a minimum of five days (four, if she’s a virgin). Those days are presumed to be her period. If her period continues beyond the five days, then she waits until it ends completely, and she is free of menstrual blood. This is confirmed by a test known as a “mokh dakhuk,” followed by a “hefsek tahara” — the details of which I won’t go into here — but which generally involves a woman inserting a white cloth into her vaginal cavity on the earliest afternoon possible, and leaving it there for some period of time. If, when she removes it in the evening, it is free of blood, then she is ready to begin counting her seven days of purity.

During her seven days of purity, a woman is required to check herself each day to confirm the absence of menstrual blood, and to wear white underwear and sleep on a white sheet for the same reason.

During both the menstruation itself and the seven pure days that follow, due to the seriousness with which the Torah regards the sin of menstrual sex — and their understanding of how easy it is to lose one’s head in the heat of passion  — the Rabbis instituted several safeguards to prevent couples from getting carried away. Thus, during this period, a married couple may not touch each other, or even hand objects directly to each other. They may not sleep in the same bed, or sit on the same love-seat. And other such.

Much has been written on this topic; indeed, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has authored several books[4] capitalizing on the hidden beauty and benefit that this period of sensual separation can have on a marriage. This period forces a couple to learn how to connect with another non-sexually and non-sensually; even as the sexual distance causes their mutual desire for each other to simmer, gradually heating to a boiling point that coincides with the culmination of the seven days of purity.

Assuming that she remains blood-free for the entire seven days, then, on the evening of the seventh day, she immerses in the mikvah.

The mikvah ritual itself involves a woman immersing in a ritual bath — although for those who do not have a ritual bath in their city, any natural body of running water will do.

However, the mikvah requires some preparation, as it is important that there be no separation between the woman’s body and the water. None. Nada. So makeup must come off. Hair must be carefully brushed to ensure that no knots will stand in the way of the flowing water. And she must bathe thoroughly to ensure that there is no dirt or any other substance that might constitute a separation.

Traditionally, a woman’s immersion in the mikvah is a ritual that requires the supervision of another Jewish person familiar with the laws of mikvah, whose job it is to confirm that the woman is fully immersed in the water. It is my understanding that, in a pinch, her husband would suffice, although most mikvahs are staffed with female mikvah attendants who are ready, willing and able to provide this service.

Not all women are comfortable with a stranger — or even a friend — observing them in what is a fairly vulnerable state; and indeed, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has recently revisited this tradition. However, by and large, those that volunteer as a mikvah attendant are aware of the delicate nature of their task, and make every effort to ensure that the women whom they take to the mikvah are as comfortable as possible.

Today, the mikvah has become known as almost exclusively a woman’s ritual. Orthodox men go to the mikvah as well on various occasions and for various reasons, but they do so as a custom, as opposed to a biblical requirement. Although men also become ritually impure, they do not have a menstruation-like ritual impurity that would make them off-limits to their spouse; and so they do not require a mikvah in order to restore ordinary (or extraordinary, as the case may be) marital relations. This, of course, was different during the Temple era, when ritual purity was necessary for so many aspects of Jewish life.

What is interesting about this is that the source in Torah that requires  immersion in the mikvah is actually not stated with respect to a Niddah herself; rather, it is only with regard to a man who touches her bedding or her chair who “shall immerse his garments and immerse himself in water.”[5] The Talmud concluded, however, using an a fortiori, that if another person must immerse in a mikvah after touching her, then she herself must certainly immerse in a mikvah.

Once she has emerged from the mikvah, she is now pure, and free to resume sexual relations with her husband.

Because the Torah frowns upon sexual relationships outside of the institution of marriage, there was obviously not an energetic campaign to have single women going to the mikvah. Nowadays, one does not go to the mikvah unless one plans on having sex; and the guardians of the mikvah get queasy about being perceived as endorsing pre-marital sex.

Nevertheless, the prohibition against menstrual sex, from a biblical perspective, is far stricter than that of unmarried sex. Even if it weren’t, two wrongs never make a right. So it would seem appropriate for any woman — single or married — wishing to have sex to avail herself of her local mikvah to rid herself of her Niddah status. I can’t say that she won’t meet any resistance among those who operate the mikvah, but hey — if you’ve got to have sex, let it be with the purest version of you.

Shabbat Shalom!

Disclaimer: Please note that this article was intended to be merely a summary and an overview of the Laws of Family Purity — not a comprehensive Halachic disposition of the subject — and there are myriad laws and details that have not been touched upon here. There is a great deal of literature discussing and expounding upon both the technical and spiritual aspects of these laws, and I would encourage an interested reader to make good use of both Google and Amazon. For specific and personal questions, please reach out to your local, ordained Halachic authority.

[1] Leviticus, 15:19.

[2] Leviticus, 18:19.

[3] Leviticus, 20:18.

[4] These include Kosher Sex, Kosher Adultery, and Kosher Lust, to name a few.

[5] Leviticus, 15:21-22.