Menstruation and "Family Purity" (Taharat Ha-Mishpacha)

An act of will is required to turn our thoughts back to the sacred after a bodily event has focused our attention on the very physical here-and-now.

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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

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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.