"Why did Hashem (G-d) say there should be no sex during niddah? So the woman should be loved on her husband like a bride entering her wedding."
Editor's note: Many non-Jewish feminists have condemned the religious practices discussed in this article as sexist and anti-woman. As a non-Jewish woman, it is easy for me to see how one who does not understand the culture of Judaism could come to that conclusion. However, after discussing the subject at length with the author and others familiar with the practice, and then reading this article, I’ve come to understand that those interpretations of the laws of Niddah are based on opinion rather than fact. I hope the reader walks away with a new respect for these practices.
Many cultures throughout history, and even some still today, have rituals which evolve around a woman’s menstrual cycle. Every culture has individual ideas or theologies concerning this natural process. Today, the most common way the Western World is exposed to the Jewish Religious view of a woman’s menstrual cycle is in the words of the Bible.
In the book of Leviticus – a book of the Jewish Torah and also the Christian Bible – is found a sequence of verses which give laws concerning a women when she is menstruating. Here the concept of “clean” and “unclean” concerning this natural process is introduced. These verses became the basis for the laws of Niddah and are expounded on in the Talmud.
When looking at the verses in Leviticus, it is important to remember these laws were given to the Jewish Nation as part of other laws in relation to service in the Holy Temple. From all the numerous laws given in connection to service in the Holy Temple, this law alone is still practiced today. To the Jewish couple, continuing this practice is a way to bring holiness and much more into the family.
“One of the most widely misunderstood concepts in the Torah is contained in the words tum’ah and taharah. Translated as ‘unclean’ and ‘clean,’ or ‘impure’ and ‘pure,’ tum’ah and taharah—and, by extension, the laws of Niddah and Family Purity—often evoke a negative response. Why, it is asked, must a woman be stigmatized as tamei, ‘impure’? Why should she be made to feel inferior about the natural processes of her body?” asks Susan Handelman in On the Essence of Ritual Impurity.
In reality, those who live by the laws of Family Purity don’t find them to be harsh or sexist. Instead, they are happily embraced by many in Jewish religious communities. When you ask an Orthodox Jewish wife what is the key to keeping her marriage fresh and new after years of marriage, they will often say Family Purity.
Judaism practices living a life that not only promotes family harmony, but injects into the midst of the family a sense of purity and holiness. One part of this concept is adhering to the laws of Niddah and Family Purity.
Many people who are not Jewish see these laws as sexists or degrading. From the outside looking in, it is easy to see why. In the Western World the term “unclean” is often perceived as something that is nasty or unfit. However in the Jewish Culture, this is not the case. First and foremost, it is important to remember that being “unclean” is not a physical concept but rather spiritual.
“The laws of tum’ah, niddah and mikvah belong to the category of commandments in the Torah known as chukkim—Divine “decrees” for which no reason is given. They are not logically comprehensible, like the laws against robbery or murder, or those commandments that serve as memorials to events in our national past such as Passover and Sukkot.” The basis for these laws today date back to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and have been practiced for 3,325 years.
These concepts can be deep and confusing at times. Without consulting a Rabbi and taking the time to fully study them, they are easily misinterpreted. For the purpose of this article, I would like focus on how these laws affect my marriage, rather than their theological meanings or the ritual acts.
A Honeymoon Each Month
Every month, my husband and I spend 12 days separated from each other. No, I don’t move out of the house. During this time, we live similar to roommates. I have my bed and he has his. We eat together, watch television together, and do everything like a normal husband and wife, with one exception; we do not touch. I know this may sound a bit strange, but for me and my husband it is a wonderful experience.
There are two kinds of love in the world. There is the fiery love between couples, and the calm and constant love of a family member that is bred from familiarity. This type of love is accepting and will continue no matter what happens in life. However, the love between couples is new and has no familiarity. This type of love has to bridge the gap which lies between two people. This love has an ebb and flow and the fire has to jump the divide during the low times.
Often times, couples tend to get wrapped up in the physical aspect of a relationship; the animal instinct of attraction is in full force and hormones run rampant. This is not a bad thing. Having sex with your partner is a completely fulfilling experience. However, it is easy to neglect other areas of your relationship, such as communication or bonding time. Let’s face it, when life gets busy, it is easy to let things like sitting down and having heart to heart discussions, or relaxing together fall to the way side.
During the dating phase of relationships, we want to please each other. We want to our possible mate to feel special and we go out of way to ensure that they do. Unfortunately, once married, sometimes couples get so busy with life that they forget to take time for each other. They forget that their love is like a garden that needs tending to blossom and flourish for years to come.
Most of our communication is based on touch. When we want our spouse to know that they are desirable, we touch them. When they are hurting, we hold them. We let our spouse know we care through touch. This can lead to a rut that is routine and solely physical. Relationships can become too familiar, and at times, this is not enough to fill the void. Unfortunately, many find themselves yearning for something much deeper. Some wonder, what has happened to the freshness and excitement of my wedding day? What has happened to that deep emotional attachment felt for the first few months?
How many times do we hear statements like, “I don’t know who you are anymore,” “We never talk anymore,” or “You just don’t get me”?
In my marriage, the 12 days we are separated force us to connect on another level. For those days, we can talk about life and the things that have happened that day, but we can’t experience physical intimacy. We are forced to talk and nurture our relationship, similar to courting.
After going to the mikvah there is a twinkle in my eye and a pep in his step. Now, anticipation fills our days and the nights are fresh and exciting. After being separated we come together like newlyweds, we rediscover each other.
Since we have been adhering to these laws, no longer does sex become stale and mundane from time to time. After days of not being able to hold his hand, not being able to feel the warmth of his body next to mine as we curl up and fall asleep, the first embrace after coming home from the mikvah is like the first time we kissed. My heart flutters, my hormones race, and I get weak in the knees.
To the religious Jew, religion and culture are one in the same. Therefore, many spiritual concepts are connected to physical acts which are part of the culture. The mikvah and the idea of ritual purity is an act of high importance to the Jewish faith. Going to the mikvah is not only a duty, but also a great honor. During World War II Jewish women living in Eastern Europe broke the ice covered rivers to use as a mikvah. The fact that someone is willing to take a dip into the freezing water of a river is a testament in itself of the individual importance placed on this ritual.
For the Jewish community, says Mikvah USA, “building a mikvah takes precedence over building a Synagogue. A Synagogue or Torah Scroll may be sold to raise funds for the building of a mikvah. While the synagogue represents the community, the mikvah is a symbol of the family.” Since ritual purity is an integral part of the religious lifestyle, it is easy to see why the most cherished items can be sold to fund the building of a mikvah.
Much more than a simple inside pool of fresh water or something similar to a bath house, mikvah’s have always been traditionally built with comfort in mind. However, today mikvah’s are built more elaborate than ever. Many are built similar to elaborate spas complete with Jacuzzi tubs, heated tile floors, all the personal care items you could ever need, and the finest linens. They are elegantly built to foster an environment that is inviting, relaxing, and to invoke a deep personal experience. Here the troubles and worries of life slip away.
At the mikvah there are attendants that assist with your immersion to ensure that it is kosher. These attendants are a select group of women who are more like your loving grandmother than a person preforming a job. Having the mikvah attendant present during your immersion is like having a gentle soul guiding to your renewal. At the mikvah you never experience feelings of being under a microscope or judged. Instead, the attendants are kind, gentle and understanding as they assist you. Sworn to being discreet and secret about their duties, they are much more than simple attendants. Often times, they act as marriage counselors for so many women in the community.
The use of the mikvah and observance of Family Purity laws cannot be statistically tracked since records of who uses the mikvah are never kept. It is known however, that the observance of this practice has fluctuated throughout the years after the destruction of the Holy Temple. Today amongst Modern Jewry, the practice of Family Purity and the mikvah cannot be solely attributed to one particular sect of Jews. People who are Orthodox, Conservative, or Non-Religious use the mikvah. Jewish people from all walks of life who have either a religious or non-religious background take part in the practice today. By tracking the increased construction of new mikvahs, it is obvious that this practice is having resurgence in the culture today.
The Hidden Benefits of Family Purity
For me, a daily beauty routine is a quick shower and a bit of hand lotion. These days, in the midst of our busy lives, relaxing for more than an hour in a bubble bath is a dream. Pampering ourselves with a beauty treatment is often the last thing on a long list of ‘wish we could’. Visiting the mikvah gives me a time each month to focus on me and pamper myself. There is no phone ringing, kids who have lost their favorite toys, dinner to cook...nothing at all except me. I can relax, and focus on my physical self from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.
Another aspect of physical abstinence is fertility. It is common for a fertility doctor to first suggest practicing sexual abstinence until 12 days after menstruating, when the average woman is most fertile. Also, doctors have proven that a man's sperm count is increased after abstaining from sex for two weeks. Many Jewish women who have had fertility issues have found that by practicing the laws of Family Purity, their “Mikvah” baby is born. This is so common place that, “See you in nine months,” is often the attendant’s goodbye.
Although these laws are confusing to those who are on the outside of the community, these laws are cherished by so many. As with all issues of cultural beliefs, this topic is deeper than can be easily explained with a short article. I hope that this brief introduction brings a bit of understanding to the practice.