Most couples who are interested in observing the laws of niddah take classes or private lessons to learn all of the details. This article does not replace such a class, but includes the main topics that would be covered in one.
Jewish law forbids sexual relations while a woman is a niddah and until she then immerses in the mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, and the rabbis prescribe a number of additional regulations. The main ones are avoiding physical contact between spouses and sleeping in separate beds while a woman is niddah. Many Orthodox couples also avoid passing objects directly to each other, seeing each other undress, or engaging in flirtatious conversation.
This practice/law is also known as taharat mishpacha, Hebrew for “family purity.” The word tahara refers to ritual purity, rather than a general state of cleanliness.
According to halakhah, or Jewish law, a woman becomes a niddah, a menstruating woman, if she is experiencing the full flow of her period, or any time she sees red blood emerging from her body or on white underwear that she is wearing, unless she has good reason to believe that the bleeding is not uterine in origin.
Menstruation, Childbirth and Irregular Bleeding
The Torah distinguishes between niddah, a woman having her regular menstrual period, yoledet, a woman giving birth (which includes a woman having a late miscarriage), and zavah, a woman experiencing an irregular flow of blood. According to the Torah, a niddah simply counts seven days from the first day of her period (including the first day) and then goes to the mikveh to purify herself on the night following the seventh day. Similarly, a yoledet simply counts seven days from the birth of a son or 14 days from the birth of a daughter before going to the mikveh. But a zavah must wait seven clean days after her blood flow has ended before undergoing purification.
The rabbis record that during the time of the Talmud the distinction between niddah and zavah became too difficult to uphold. In order to be on the safe side, all women who experience uterine bleeding are considered to possibly be a zavah. Some talmudic passages attribute this strictness to the women themselves:
The Israelite women were stringent upon themselves so that even if they see one drop of blood the size of a mustard seed, they wait seven clean days after it (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 31a).
Before beginning the seven clean days, the woman must wait for her period (or her postpartum bleeding) to end. Ashkenazic women also make sure to wait until at least the fifth day since the bleeding began, even if the blood flow ended earlier; Sephardic women wait until at least the fourth day.
Leaving the Status of Niddah
The Torah’s description of the purification of the zavah serves as a guide to the details of niddah rituals:
When she becomes clean of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be clean (Leviticus 15:18).
When she becomes clean of her discharge–the woman must establish that her bleeding has ended before beginning to count the seven clean days. She establishes this fact through an internal self-examination before sundown of the day before her seven clean days begin. This self-examination is called the hefsek tahara.
She shall count off seven days–the seven clean days are seven full days, from sundown to sundown. For example, if a woman starts her period on a Sunday, and does her hefsek tahara before sundown on Thursday, then the first of her seven clean days would be Friday, and the days would end on the following Thursday at nightfall. During those days, all the restrictions of niddah still apply, and the woman is supposed to wear white underwear to make sure that she notices any bleeding. Also, part of the “counting” is performing more internal examinations (this process is called bedikah). The minimum number of internal examinations is one on the first clean day and one on the seventh (in addition to the hefsek tahara), but the Shulhan Arukh recommends two daily examinations on each of the seven days.
If blood appears on the woman’s underwear, or as a result of the examinations, at any time during that week, she must perform a new hefsek tahara and start the seven days again from the next evening. However, some spotting may not be halakhically problematic if the color is not reddish. It is helpful for a woman to be familiar with the colors that are or are not halakhically problematic, since those distinctions can sometimes save her days of being a niddah.
And after that she shall be clean–once the seven clean days are over the woman may go to the mikveh. Mikvaot (plural of mikveh) are normally open every night of the year except for the nights of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, so even if it is Shabbat or a holiday a woman may still go to the mikveh. A mikveh is halakhically defined as a pool of rainwater. However, modern mikvaot contain two pools, one of rainwater and one of (chlorinated and regularly cleaned and changed) tap water. The waters of the two pools are linked through one or two small openings so that the tap water pool takes on the halakhic status of rainwater. In this way, modern mikvaot are able to ensure that both halakhic and sanitary requirements are met. Some natural bodies of water may also be used as mikvaot.
Since another verse about using a mikveh requires that the entire body be immersed at once (Leviticus 15:16), people who immerse in a mikveh must rid themselves of any objects that interfere with the water touching all parts of the body. This includes dirt, clothing, and jewelry, knots in the hair, or contact lenses. So before immersing, a woman washes herself thoroughly and inspects her body to make sure it is completely clean and free of interfering objects.
Due to the same concern about making sure the whole body is in contact with the water, someone else must watch the woman immersing to make sure her whole body and hair go under the water and that she is not touching the walls or floor of the mikveh.
When immersing, a woman recites the blessing: “Blessed are You, God, who sanctified us with Your mitzvot, and commanded us regarding immersion.” Most Sephardic women recite the blessing before undressing and entering the water, but Ashkenazic women enter the water, dunk once, recite the blessing, and then dunk one or more additional times. After this immersion, the woman is no longer a niddah.
Behavior While Not a Niddah
When a woman is not a niddah, Jewish tradition encourages sexual relations and all other physical contact between a married couple. The couple is especially encouraged to have sex the night the woman returns from the mikveh, and on Friday nights. The only times sex is forbidden are on Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, during shiva, and on the days on which the woman anticipates her period’s return.
Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.
Pronounced: nee-DAH, or NEE-duh, Origin: Hebrew, family purity laws governing the separation of husband and wife during and for 10 days following the woman’s menstruation.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: tah-HAH-ruh, Origin: Hebrew for purity, the ritual cleansing of a dead body in preparation for burial.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.