Author Archives: Rabbi Alana Suskin

Rabbi Alana Suskin

About Rabbi Alana Suskin

Alana Suskin received her Rabbinic Ordination and Master of Rabbinic Studies from the University of Judaism's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

Menstruation and “Family Purity” (Taharat Ha-Mishpacha)

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.

Biblical Sources

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.

Green Spaces: A World Not Of Our Making

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

As Israel stands by the Jordan River, God tells Moshe of the tribes’ inheritances in Canaan. In chapter 35 of the book of Numbers/Bamidbar, God announces the inheritance of the Levites. Their inheritance is quite different than that of the other tribes: they are to be city dwellers.

God is quite specific that the cities given to the Levites must be cities surrounded by open space. The medieval commentator Rashi notes that there must be not just space around the cities, but that some of it must be unutilized space. He says, "’And open space’–this means a space of open area outside the city, around it, to be an ornament to the city. They are not permitted to build there a house, nor to plant a vineyard, nor to sow any seeds."

The cities of the time were small and densely packed with people. People lived very close together, and the sanitation was not something with which we contemporary people would be content. Most importantly, those residing in these cities would be living in a manner different than the way that most of the nation lived.

Israel was an agricultural nation: the importance of knowing the cycles of the earth would be of great importance to the Levites serving the nation as priests, and yet they lived largely urban lives.

Today, however, we are even more distant from the earth than those who lived in the Levite cities. We live lives unconnected to our survival: our food comes from groceries; most of us have never seen an animal slaughtered; and many of us do not even prepare our own food from the basic ingredients, but rather buy already prepared foods from a store or restaurant.

Those of us who are middle class or wealthier often have a little bit of yard in the front or back of our homes to raise a couple of tomatoes or squash in the summer. Those who have little money often do not even have the opportunity to do that!

In inner cities, many people have no recourse but to buy their food at stores which carry nothing greener than a head of iceberg lettuce. For a number of years now, there has been a quiet grassroots effort in a number of communities to take abandoned lots and clean them up, turning them into parks, or community gardens. The results of these projects often produce astonishing changes in a community.

When these empty lots are cleaned up, people take pride in them; the areas become safer as people watch to make sure their work is not harmed. They provide a space in which people have a chance to watch the product of their own labor come to fruit, and to see the miraculous processes of the earth.

But it is not only the poor that benefit from green space. The spaces in which plants can grow freely, without our being able to make a profit from it, give us a sense of nature and its holiness.

I often wonder whether, if the heads of polluting corporations had a space to which they went, that they did not own, and could not pay a gardener to landscape, would they understand what they are destroying by their own carelessness?

We read in the midrashic work Ecclesiastes Rabbah: "In the beginning, the Holy One created the first person, and caused the adam (which we might translate as "earthling") to pass before all the trees of the garden. God said to the adam, "See My works, how fine and excellent they are. Now all that I created was created for you. Think about this, and lo taschit–do not harm or desolate the world; for if you do, there will be none to fix it after you."

The world that God created is not like that which humans create for ourselves. We build houses and cities, and make the land do our bidding, but we need to also experience the wildness and richness of the earth. It should not only be those who can pay to travel to Yosemite, or Denali, who experience the spark in all of God’s creation, but all of us.

The sparks of holiness in wildness must join to all the other divine sparks, for us to undo the damage done during the cracking of the vessels of creation (according to the Lurianic Kabbalah creation myth). If we destroy these sparks, we can never complete the tikkun, or repair, that we were created to do. And if we do not know these sparks in nature, then we ourselves remain incomplete–never experiencing a world that we ourselves did not build.

For all our modern knowledge, we are just beginning to recognize the importance of green spaces. It is imperative that we work to create green spaces for everyone, to make cities livable places, to have a place where everyone can walk and experience the things God wrought, which are unlike the things we ourselves can create.

If Shabbat is the time in which we experience God’s order of time, rather than our own, then the open spaces are where we experience God’s place, rather than our own.

Seeing Their Faces But Not Their Doors

The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

What is a good place to live?

"Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’acov, mishkenotecha Yisrael–how good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel." This famous line from Parsahat Balak, spoken by a non-Jewish prophet about Israel, seems simple enough. The great medieval commentator Rashi, however, sees another level of meaning in it. He tells us that Balaam spoke these words because the entrances to the homes of the people were not aligned with one another.

It seems odd that of all the things that a prophet could praise about Israel, especially since he is praising them against his will, Balaam decided to praise the fact that they cannot see into each other’s homes. But perhaps it is not so strange that what makes a dwelling place "good" is the ability to have privacy within it.

Indeed, this idea is so important to Rashi that it appears twice in his commentary on this portion: Just a few lines earlier, in chapter 24, verse 2, Rashi explains that the words, "Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes," actually mean that he saw that their entrances were not aligned with one another, so that one could not peek into the tent of his friend.

We know that conditions in the desert must have been very difficult. Nevertheless, Israel was able to ensure that every family had a space of their own, a place that was theirs.

It is enlightening to contrast this with modern conditions of poverty in the U.S.A. The U.S. government, claiming to respond to the demands of the people, has made it more and more difficult for the poor to have a decent place to live.

Not long ago, Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York provided us with an excellent example of how this sort of policy works: If a person refuses to go to a homeless shelter, they can be sent to jail. If a person does go to a shelter for the homeless when sent there by police, but once he or she is there refuses to do anything asked by the shelter, they can be thrown back onto the street–where, presumably, the problem will be taken care of by an arrest shortly afterwards.

It is curious that a modern city, with an enormous amount of resources–certainly far more than a tribal people wandering through the desert–is nevertheless far less able to provide a decent place to live to all its community. Oddly enough, it is not even a matter of money: Case after case has shown that with programs that encourage ownership of housing, the conditions of people’s lives materially increase–along with the safety of their neighborhood–and for far less money than running a sting operation against homelessness. (Habitat for Humanity is only one example of how successful a program like that can be.)

Yet, instead of attempting to provide decent housing for the poor, the little money that is spent is directed toward creating homeless shelters, which are, in addition to physically dangerous places at times, extremely demoralizing to individuals, and often inhumane to families trying to stay together.

Why is this? It seems that we need to punish people for being poor. The ideology behind such laws understands poverty as the obvious result of slothfulness and greed. It insists that no one could be poor by accident, that those who are poor are of color, are "welfare queens" or perhaps are one of the "crazy" people who got dumped during the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals.

Even this last notion is somewhat of a concession for one who holds this ideology, who often believes that these are people who probably prefer to live on the street anyway, and besides, what we really need to do, for their own good, is to lock them up, where we can’t see them.

Even when people are provided with homes to live in that are not shelters, modern welfare housing is a disgrace. Private companies fail to do repairs on their properties to create a space that is even minimally livable: plumbing ceases to work, vermin move in, walls and doors sometimes have gaping holes. It is small surprise that the people who live in these places despair of a better life.

Rashi’s comment strikes so deeply to the heart of what it means to have "a good place to live." The people Israel were moving forward toward their own land, and though not yet there, they made, as a community, homes that created an atmosphere of respect for one another.

Just as in every other community, there were undoubtedly those who were richer, and those who were poorer; yet every family in Israel had a space in which to live, a place that was respectable, and respected. From these homes, they were able to envision a brighter future, one in their own land, which they could work to build with their own hands, and to improve both it and themselves. The decency of their homes was the base from which they built our future.