One of the most misunderstood aspects of Judaism is “tumat niddah.” According to Jewish law, a couple refrains from physical intimacy from the onset of a women’s monthly period until seven days after her period when she immerses herself in a mikva (ritual bath). The ramifications of tumat niddah raise many questions and the very meaning of this mitzvah is unclear. An understanding of the meaning and significance of the concept of “tumah” (impurity) within Judaism can contribute to clarifying this issue.
Virtually all the laws of tumah (impurity) – which comprise approximately a quarter of mishnaic literature – are connected to the Temple (Beit Hamikdash). This is because sensitivity to tumah and the need to distance from it is found exclusively in places of sanctity: “Do not defile the land that you are living there that I dwell amongst it, for I am HaShem who dwells amongst Bnei Yisroel” (Bamidbar 35:34). The only realm besides the Temple that there is sensitivity to “tumah” is in the intimate relationship between husband and wife. Immersion in a mikva is required for Kohanim before serving in the Temple and women prior to resuming marital intimacy. This parallel demonstrates that the sensitivity to tumah does not stem from a negative view of human sexuality, but rather an expression of the sanctity of this bond.
Creating Life and Sanctity
The question remains: why does menstrual blood make a woman tma’ah? Furthermore, if dipping in the mikva is an expression of the sanctity of marital relations, why does only the woman dip and not the man? In Judaism, tumah is inherently connected to loss of life. Each month, an opportunity to create life develops in the woman’s body. The biological reality of menstrual blood is an expression that this potential has not been actualized; thus it is “tumah.” This point is highlighted by the fact that after birth, there is “dimai taharah”, blood of purity (Vayikra 12:4-5), an expression of life and fulfilled potential.
Sanctity and tumah are diametrically opposed, therefore specifically in a place of sanctity there is sensitivity to avoid tumah. Thus the fact that menstruation makes the woman tma’ah, is based on the implicit presumption that the life-forming process that transpires inside her body over the course of the rest of the month is an inherently holy process.
The Cyclical Nature of Light
The system of halacha lends religious significance to biological reality. These 2 systems, however, are tied to a third system – the cosmological. There are many parallels between the moon’s phases and the woman’s cycle. They are each (approximately) thirty days and just as the moon reaches it peak in the middle of the month, two weeks before the end of its cycle, so too the woman’s potential to produce life peaks in the middle of her cycle.
This phenomenon is expressed in halacha as well, as brought down by the thirteenth century Austrian halachic authority, the Or Zaruah: “Women who follow the custom to refrain from work (melacha) on Rosh Chodesh, it is fitting … each month the woman is renewed, immerses in the mikva, returns to her husband and is beloved by him like the day of their wedding, just as the moon renews itself every Rosh Chodesh… Therefore, Rosh Chodesh is a holiday for women” (Or Zeruah, Laws of Rosh Chodesh 454). In the man’s body, on the other hand, there is no cycle. He does not have the potential to develop new life and, consequently, has no relevance to the world of tumah and taharah. This is the reason that the time of distancing between the couple is set based on the woman’s internal clock.
I was once giving a class in my house on Sefer Yetzirah, about the kabalistic techniques surrounding creating a golem, when my wife, Michal, overheard the discussion and could not help but chime in: “Only men could possibly think about making a a golem”, she said, “women do much more – we give birth !” In the spirit of these words Michal advises her female students at the pre-army prep school which she oversees, to avoid entering a combat unit, but to pursue other military roles. Women, who bring new life into the world, Michal maintains, should not enter a role that may require from them to take a life. Likewise, the Zohar (Berisheit 48b) explains why specifically the woman lights the Shabbat candles: the women, who gives life, is fit to light the candle which symbolizes the extra soul that mankind is given on Shabbat.
The difference between women and men is analogous to the difference between a Kohan and a Yisroel. The Kohen is more sensitive to tumah, since he is in greater proximity to the holy. It follows, therefore, that women are the Kohanim of life.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach
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