By Haviva Ner-David
Menstruation: A Cultural History, edited by Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005)
Introduction: In Jewish religious practice, the menstruating woman is referred to as the niddah. Until the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 560 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., the niddah was restricted in two ways: she was barred from Temple worship and by extension kept apart from all foodstuffs and vessels that were used for Temple worship; and sexual intercourse with her was forbidden (for both man and woman) and punishable by karet (to be cut off from the nation). The first of these niddah restrictions was related to what is referred to in the Bible as tumah, and can be most approximately translated as ritual impurity. Menstrual tumah, or tumat niddah, was but one form of tumah mentioned in a list in Leviticus 15 of such ritual impurities contracted from bodily emissions, including also seminal emissions. The second, sexual, prohibition related to the niddah is found in a different section of Leviticus (verses 18:19 and 20:18). These verses are not in the context of ritual tumah, which is reversible and which carries consequence of being barred from the Temple; rather, they are found among a list of forbidden sexual unions, all punishable by karet, and all of which, if violated, result in another kind of tumah, moral tumah, which is permanent, and which, if enough is accrued, results in the exile of the nation from the Land of Israel. Once the Second Temple was destroyed, however, while ritual tumah did not disappear, it became largely irrelevant, since with no Temple standing, there were no ramifications for the contraction of ritual tumah. It is only in the case of the niddah that one’s ritual impurity status is still tracked and noted, since it is this status that determines whether the woman is sexually available or not. If a woman has contracted tumat niddah through a flow of blood from her uterus, she is also sexually off-limits; and therefore, due to this unique sexual prohibition attached to the niddah, menstruation is the only case among those listed in Levitcus 15 where laws relating to tumah are still in effect today. The retention of the niddah status and the laws and rituals surrounding her status, has resulted in the association of the niddah, and women in general, with tumah, in contrast to men. This does not reflect the theological and Jewish legal reality. In fact, all Jews today are ritually impure from tumah contracted from contact with corpses, since the ashes of the Red Heifer, the only means to reversing this type of tumah, are no longer available. Although tumah has not disappeared—having merely lost its practical relevance–even most religiously observant Jewish men ignore their tumah status. A more accurate description of the current reality is that religiously observant Jewish women today who practice the laws of niddah are actually ritually impure from bodily emissions less often than most men, since they rid themselves of this status through monthly immersion in the mikveh, the ritual bath.