Parshat Tazria-Metzora – פרשת תזריע-מצורע

Parshat Tazria-Metzora – פרשת תזריע-מצורע
  • THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
    Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
    Parshat Tazria-Metzora – פרשת תזריע-מצורע
    April 21, 2018 – ו אייר תשעח
    Isolating the Niddah
    The Laws of Niddah are among the most complex and burdensome aspects of contemporary Jewish observance. In an earlier essay, “Dam Tohar: The Forgotten Leniency” (April 29, 2017), I addressed the historical evolution of two major stringencies in the laws of menstrual purity: 1) The Biblical distinction between an ordinary menstruant and a woman who experienced irregular vaginal bleeding was eliminated, thereby transforming every Niddah into a Zavah Gedolah and necessitating seven clean days before ritual immersion and the resumption of sexual activity (Berakhot 31a), and 2) The extended period of absolute purity afforded to the parturient by the Torah, even in the presence of vaginal bleeding, was disregarded. As a result, a new mother is treated the same as all other women with respect to the timing of immersion and sexual availability (Yoreh Deah 194).
    The extended period of sexual abstinence, a minimum of twelve days per menstrual cycle for observant Ashkenazi Jews, can have a detrimental impact on a marriage. It is no small matter for a couple on the margins of religious life to commit scrupulously to observe Hilkhot Niddah. In an attempt to make these laws livable for its constituency, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement) permitted women to immerse after seven days from the onset of anticipated menstrual bleeding (“Mikveh and the Sanctity of Being Created Human” 2006).
    Yet while Hilkhot Niddah have become much more rigorous in some respects, in one critically important way the law has been dramatically relaxed: We no longer practice the social isolation of the Niddah.
    Rachel was unwilling to budge from atop her camel as Laban frantically searched for his stolen Teraphim. Her excuse was that she had “the way of women” (Genesis 31:35). Ramban explained that, in antiquity, menstruating women were socially isolated because of the scientific and philosophical consensus that even the slightest contact with, or proximity to, a menstruant would be gravely injurious. He cited the Baraita d’Masekhet Niddah, a work of uncertain provenance, likely written in Eretz Yisrael late in the first millennium CE. According to the Baraita, a Niddah may not cook for her husband, bake, sift flour, spread the bedsheets, pour water from an earthenware vessel, comb her hair, cut her nails (lest someone develop boils from stepping on the cut nail), or make a blessing (lest someone respond “Amen” and profane the name of God). Any words she utters are impure. It is forbidden to ask about her wellbeing. It is forbidden to walk behind her, as the dust she treads upon becomes impure. Lastly, it is forbidden to benefit from her handiwork.
    Jacob Milgrom posited that the word “Niddah” comes from the Hebrew root נ-ד-ד, meaning excluded or rejected and condemned to wander. Pseudo-Jonathan rendered it עידוני ריחוקה, “her time of being distanced (see Targum to Leviticus 12:2, 15:19,33)”. In the later books of Scripture, the menstruant was an oft-employed synonym for someone or something to be expelled. The prophet spoke of a glorious future when “you will treat as unclean the silver overlay of your images and the golden plating of your idols. You will cast them away like a menstruous women (Isaiah 30:22).” The Elegist wrote that “Jerusalem has sinned greatly; therefore, she has become unclean לנידה היתה (Lamentations 1:8).” The King James Version reads, “therefore, she is removed,” while an updated KJV reads “therefore, she is a wanderer.” This is consistent with the Midrashic interpretation that Israel became like a Niddah in that it is subject to forced migrations (Lamentations Rabbah 1).
    Pre-rabbinic sources describing life in Eretz Yisrael tend to confirm the cultural practice of removing the menstruant to the edges of society for the duration of her infirmity. Josephus described Judaic practice concerning impure individuals this way: “He also ordered that those whose bodies were afflicted with leprosy or gonorrhea should not come into the city; nay, he removed the women, when they had their natural purgations, till the seventh day; after which, he looked on them as pure, and permitted them to come in again (Antiquities 3:11:3).” Evidence from Qumran, too, suggests the social isolation of the Niddah: “In every city you shall set aside areas for those stricken with leprosy, with plague, and with scab, who shall not enter your cities and profane them, and also those who suffer from flux; and for menstruating women and women after childbirth, so that they may not cause defilement in their midst by their uncleanness (11Q Tempe 48:14-17).”
    The rabbis also spoke about the harsh treatment of the Niddah. After eating from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, Eve was punished in a variety of ways, including having to suffer the experience of menstruation, when she would be cast out of the marital abode and scorned by her husband (Avot d’Rabbi Natan B 42). Rabbi Akiba discovered that in overseas provinces the menstruant is called גלמודה, or desolate, because she is separated and distanced from her husband (Rosh Hashanah 26a).
    Yet the extreme social isolation of the Niddah implied by the language of Scripture and mandated by Baraita d’Masekhet Niddah and other extra-canonical works is not found in the Talmud and Codes. Rather, the Talmud rules that any task that a wife does for her husband she may still do while menstruating, except for pouring his wine cup, making the bed, and washing his face, hands, and feet (Ketuboth 61a). These particular tasks are likely to arouse amorous feelings and so they were forbidden lest illicit intercourse ensue (Rashi). Normative halakhah does not mandate that a menstruant live in another house or be shunned by her husband and family. Other than exercising vigilance to avoid physical intimacy and taking the necessary measures to prepare for ritual immersion, she continues with her ordinary life.
    When, where, and why did Jewish practice change in this way?
    Some scholars argue that extreme social isolation of the Niddah was never widely practiced and that references to it are found only in the writings of fringe sectarian groups. Other suggest that only in Eretz Yisrael was the Niddah ostracized. This view is difficult to accept because the taboo of the menstruant was universal. The Babylonian Talmud records the superstition that, if a menstruant walks between two men engaged in conversation, then in the early phases of her bleeding her malevolent powers will slay one of them, whereas toward the end of her bleeding she will merely cause them to quarrel (Pesahim 111a). It is reasonable to suggest, however, that certain extreme precautions against the spread of Niddah impurity, beyond those expressly mandated by the Pentateuch, were observed exclusively in the Land of Israel, as there was a broader trend in early Judaism to extend the sanctity of the Temple to the entirety of the countryside.
    The Mishnah teaches that randomly found bloodspots are generally presumed pure and not suspected to be menstrual blood. However, bloodspots found in the בית הטומאות “house of impurity” are presumed to be menstrual blood and therefore impure (Mishnah Niddah 7:4). Another recension of the Mishnah reads בית הטמאות “house of impure women.” This is the only Tannaitic reference to “houses of impurity.” One might infer from the Mishnah’s silence that the sages did not require menstruants to live apart from their families in a cloister of unclean women on the borders of the city. But such places did exist because popular practice was often guided by time-honored folkways and superstition, not necessarily by the instructions of legalists. And insofar as Tannaitic teachings had to address the halakhic concerns emanating from social reality, the sages needed to rule on the purity status of bloodstains found in the menstruants’ hostel.
    A close reading of the Mishnah and Tosefta reveals when this situation obtained. Both the Mishnah and Tosefta rule that one contracts corpse impurity by entering Cuthean “houses of impurity” because there they bury their abortions and miscarriages. Contracting corpse impurity simply by standing under the same roof as the source of impurity only occurs with respect to the corpses of Jews. Perforce, this ruling had to have been issued in the second century CE, before the ultimate fissure with the Samaritans and the declaration that they are not Jews.
    Scholars offer an economic theory explaining why the social isolation of the Niddah fell into desuetude. In times of prosperity, when men could materially afford to be polygamous, if one wife disappeared for a week as she waited out her infirmity at the menstruants’ hut, the household could continue to function smoothly with the other wives doing all the necessary chores. But after the Destruction and the associated economic decline in Jewish Palestine, men lacked the wherewithal to maintain polygamous homes. If the one wife were absent for an extended period, or if the law prevented her from accomplishing key tasks, the household would flounder.
    Maimonides praised the Jewish approach to menstrual impurity, contrasting it with the unwarranted extremism of the Sabians and the Zoroastrian Magi. He noted that while Judaism steers one away from the ugly and the repulsive, it does not allow purity regulations to unduly disrupt family life or the functioning of society (Guide 3:47). While Maimonides’ assessment certainly applies to Rabbinic Judaism, a careful reading of the Pentateuch reveals that even Biblical Law never embraced the extreme anti-menstruant measures taken by other civilizations or as taught in Baraita d’Masekhet Niddah. Whereas the leper was expelled from the city and bidden to announce his own impurity lest others inadvertently touch him, the Niddah stayed at home and merely had to sit on her own chair and couch (Leviticus 15:20-23).
    Despite Talmudic legislation limiting the adverse impact of impurity on the life of the Niddah, social isolation was still practiced among some Jews, especially those in far-flung communities untouched by Rabbinism. Most notably, the Ethiopian women of Beta Yisrael maintained the “hut of curse” where they resided for the week of their menses. In the aftermath of Operations Moses and Solomon, some newly arrived Ethiopian women in Israel tried to preserve their distinctive Niddah practices. The housing arrangements provided by the government, though, were not conducive to observance of such rites.
    In normative rabbinic Judaism there is one important practice held over from the superstitious past. Rema mentioned the custom of women’s not entering the synagogue, praying, saying God’s Name, or touching a sacred scroll while actively menstruating. Though he cited a contrary view permitting all these activities, he noted that the prevailing custom in 16th century Poland accorded with the stricter view. Yet he acknowledged that all such activities are permitted during the seven clean days (Orach Chaim 88:1). The Talmud emphatically rejects any distinction between unclean and clean days with regard to impurity or sexual availability. Even the rabbinically ordained safeguards remain firmly in place until a woman has immersed (Shabbat 13b). It would seem, then, that the restrictive customs cited by Isserles began at the popular level where vestiges of older ideas about menstruation persisted.
    Contemporary Jews committed to the full observance of mitzvot should be grateful that Hilkot Niddah have so evolved. Devout people can reconcile themselves even to unpleasantly long gaps in marital intimacy. The social isolation of the Niddah, however, would simply be unacceptable in our increasingly egalitarian world.
    If you would like to sponsor an upcoming essay, please contact me at evanhoffman@gmail.com.