Traditional Judaism views no part of human behavior as outside the purview of religious law. Sexual activity, so full of complex moral decisions and interactions, is certainly no exception. Like all human behaviors, one’s sexual life can be lived in a holy way, and Jewish law provides instruction regarding how one can bring kedushah (holiness) into relationships.
The basic rules for tohorat ha-mishpacha, or family taharah, usually translated "ritual purity"–this term and its opposite, tum’ah will be explained below–come from three chapters of Leviticus.
In Leviticus 15:19 and 24, we are told: “If a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be tamei [a bearer of tum’ah] until evening…And if any man lie with her at all and her [menstrual] separation will be upon him, he will be tamei for seven days…."
Next, Leviticus 18:19 warns: "Also you shall not approach a woman in the tum’ah of her [menstrual] separation, to uncover her nakedness."
Finally, Leviticus 20:18 states: "And if a man lie with a menstruating woman and reveal her nakedness, and she revealed the fountain of her blood, both of them will be cut off from among their people."
The first of these passages is a list of that which makes one ritually tamei, the second and third a list of forbidden sexual unions. The first takes a much less stringent view of sexual relations during the week after the onset of menstruation. Quite likely this is because this list is part of a longer enumeration of bodily emissions of both men and women which render one tamei.
For both men and women, there are normal and abnormal emissions, and for both men and women, one renders oneself again tahor (non-tamei) after some time has elapsed, by immersing in the mikveh. It is only when we find the topic of menstruation embedded in the list of sexual improprieties that it takes on the additional force of a punishable offense. Note that the punishment of being "cut off" in the third passage is applicable only upon actually having sexual relations.
There is also a special case in biblical culture for a woman’s separation from others that occurs after giving birth: for a daughter, the mother is separated from others for fourteen days, and then is fully t’horah (in a state of tohorah) after sixty-six days, and she may then bring a sacrifice to the Temple. For a son, she is separated for seven days, and then waits thirty-three days. One suggestion that has been made for the doubled time for a daughter is that the daughter herself bears a "fountain of blood" and so the additional separation period reflects the presence of the daughter’s body.
Interpreting "Family Purity" Laws
The concepts tahor and tamei (or, again, the abstract nouns tohorah and tum’ah) are often translated as "clean" and "unclean," or "pure" and "impure." But examining the other places in which these concepts appear, it becomes clear that tum’ah and tohorah are best understood as contrasting states in which one is a vessel either for the sacred (tohorah) or for the secular or everyday (tum’ah).
Blood is holy. It symbolically carries the soul of animate creatures. That is why it is spilled out for sacrifices, and why meat, in order to be kosher, is salted so that all the blood is removed. It is also why niddah (separation of the menstruant) occurs not just during blood flow, but instead extends until she goes to the mikveh and consciously changes her status. One’s self is occupied with the things of the world, and one’s touch can transmit that mundane outlook to others.
In other words, when things happen that focus one’s attention on the world, such as death or sex or birth–often things over which one has no control–then when one has the opportunity to turn one’s mind back to the holy when the event is over, it takes an act of will to do so, and that act of will is to go immerse oneself in the mikveh.
This understanding of the pair of concepts, not often advanced in Jewish legal literature, can be derived from a number of passages in classical Jewish literature, including a comment made by the eleventh-century Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi in one of his responsa about the laws of niddah (no. 336, ed. Elfenbein) and Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed III: 47.
The law of family tohorah as it is commonly understood proscribes all sorts of physical contact when a woman is in niddah (separation). The word “niddah” is actually a functional term whose application is not limited to women, but can include anyone who is exempted from society for a short period of time. This exemption can be either positive or negative; in itself it does not have any value connotations.
The origin of this requirement of complete physical separation comes from the Temple era, during which one could not enter into the precincts of the Temple while tamei. Today, because there is no standing Temple, having the status of tamei is not especially problematic. Indeed, all Jews are in this state to some extent, because for some categories of tum’ah, one needs to undergo rituals that we no longer have the ability to carry out, for lack of the Temple and its priests.
In fact, in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 21b –22a), an extended discussion shows that the closest male equivalent to female niddah is severely restrictive–a ba’al keri (a man who has a normal seminal emission) may not utter words of Torah, and may not even enter the house of study. While a woman would not be subject to the punishment of being "cut off" from the community for having sex with him, his punishment is nearly equivalent to that, since the house of study was considered the primary location of importance, and if he was not permitted to utter certain blessings, it would make his life quite unworkable until he went to the mikveh. Those laws are mostly no longer observed, although there are communities in which men do regularly attend the mikveh, and men who copy holy texts (such as Torah scrolls) for ritual use often visit daily
Niddah and Tohorat Ha-mishpacha Today
The Torah requires a minimum seven days of sexual abstinence for women and their husbands, from the onset of blood flow. The rabbis in the Talmud (BT Niddah 66a) claim that women took upon themselves to extend the time during which couples are to refrain from sexual relations from the biblical minimum of seven days to at least twelve by waiting until the end of her flow, as described above–five or more days–and then waiting an additional seven days in which there is no flow or spotting.
In practice, then, a woman needs to anticipate the beginning of menstruation to avoid accidents, and if she has an irregular cycle, to check regularly. The woman then checks herself toward the end of her flow to ascertain when the blood flow stops. On the last day of spotting, she begins to count seven additional days. At the end of that time period, the woman visits the mikveh.
At the mikveh the woman prepares herself by bathing, brushing her teeth, cleaning under her nails, removing all jewelry, and so forth, to make sure that her body is perfectly clean before entering the waters. She then goes into the water and immerses, and recites a prescribed blessing. The procedure is similar for a woman who has given birth. Until the woman returns from the mikveh, Jewish law bans all sexual contact, and mandates that the couple should refrain from any contact that might stir sexual feelings.
Today, observance of the traditional strictures and the post-menstrual immersion in a mikveh are common among Orthodox Jews, much less common (but growing) among Conservative Jews, and quite unusual in the more liberal religious communities.