Today’s Gemara offers us an unexpected moment of comedy as the rabbis attempt to answer the following question: can a husband and wife sleep in the same bed, fully clothed while the woman is in niddah, or menstruating? (According to Jewish law, a husband and wife cannot have sex, and some say even touch, while the woman is menstruating.)
But, what if they don’t touch? What if they just sleep together, side-by-side, their clothes as a protective boundary? The rabbis answer:
Beit Shammai says: the fowl is permitted to be placed together with the cheese on the table, although it may not be eaten with cheese.
Beit Hillel says: The fowl is neither permitted to be placed together with the cheese on the table, nor may it be eaten with it.
How did we get from spouses in bed to food items on the table? According to Jewish dietary law, fowl and cheese, which are in the respective categories of meat and dairy, may not be consumed together. Beit Shammai, usually the stricter interpreter of Jewish law (but not in this case) argues that fowl and cheese can be placed on the same table as long as they are not eaten together. So too, reason the rabbis, Beit Shammai would perhaps argue that the husband and wife can share a bed as long as they don’t have sex. But Beit Hillel offers the more stringent answer in this matter of kashrut: the fowl and cheese can’t share a table, lest someone come to eat them together accidentally. So too, one might argue, husband and wife can’t share a bed.
If you think this is a slightly odd comparison, you’re not alone. The Gemara comments:
The case with the fowl and cheese is different from the case between the husband and wife. Why? Because in that case, there aren’t multiple consciousnesses.
The Gemara notes that in the case of the fowl and the cheese, it takes only one person — the hungry eater — to accidentally commit a transgression by combining milk and meat. In the case of two partners together in bed, there are two people — multiple consciousnesses and as Rashi puts it — and they will remind each other of the religious boundary.
Part of what it means to be in an intimate, caring relationship is for one partner to be invested in protecting and respecting the boundaries important to the other partner and to the couple. In our own partnerships, may this extend well beyond the bounds of niddah, and may we always care about the priorities and boundaries of those we love.