by Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish
Niddah is the practice of abstaining from sexual intimacy around the time of menstruation.
When contemplating the rabbinic laws surrounding menstruation, it can be easy to wonder: Why is there a whole area of Jewish law devoted to the intricacies of determining the beginning and end of women’s menstrual cycles? At times, it’s natural to dismiss the discussions of male rabbis as irrelevant to the lived experiences of women. Worse, the discourse around niddah can sometimes be damaging, as the rabbis use this area of law to play out their own anxieties around sexuality, without stopping to acknowledge the real women affected by their musings.
If this is our expectation regarding rabbinic discussions of niddah, the eighth chapter of Tractate Niddah of the Babylonian Talmud (a collection of rabbinic law and commentary on the Torah) opens with a surprising teaching. It is attributed to Shmuel, the head of a prominent rabbinic academy in Babylonia.
Shmuel states: “If she checked the ground, sat on it, and then found blood on it, she is ritually pure (i.e. not considered to be menstruating) as it says, ‘in her flesh’ – until she feels it in her flesh (Leviticus 15:7).”
The biblical source for Shmuel’s teaching, Leviticus 15:19, reads: “A woman who is in a state of flowing, blood will be her flow in her flesh…” By all accounts, the biblical text here is describing some sort of objective reality – blood, a physical substance, comes out of someone’s body, rendering that person and others who encounter them, ritually impure.
In light of the clinical way the verse defines menstruation, Shmuel’s interpretation is radical. Rather than seeing the “flesh” of Leviticus as simply a receptacle for blood or as a physical substance, flesh becomes a site for the subjective experience of the menstruating woman. In order for the woman to become ritually impure, says Shmuel, she must feel the blood emerging. I call this statement radical because it makes a powerful statement about the locus of decision-making around niddah. In order for a woman to be in a state of niddah, she must say, “I felt that. I know that I am menstruating.”
Unfortunately, this statement attributed to Shmuel is something of a rogue voice in rabbinic discussions of niddah. In fact, the rest of the Talmudic discussion of this statement grapples with its radical implications, eventually reaching the absurd conclusion that a woman “felt it without her knowledge,” completely undermining the powerful subjectivity of Shmuel’s statement.
In many ways, I think that modern, western society is actually far more uncomfortable than rabbinic society discussing blood and menstruation. We are often socialized to think, whether consciously or subconsciously, that periods are gross and buying pads or tampons is embarrassing. And how would we even begin to go about discussing our periods with our partners? Why would we want to? The woman Shmuel is imagining is incredibly in tune with her own body. But our socialization can leave us feeling, at times, like the other imagined woman of the Talmudic discussion – alienated from our bodies, even paradoxically “feeling” our bodily sensations without our knowledge.
Engaging with rabbinic discussions around niddah is not an easy task. When we do so, we are confronted with multiple voices, some clashing with our modern sensibilities around gender. We also may feel the weight of Jewish legal tradition, which often removes subjectivity in its quest for an objective halachic (legal) “truth.” However, my hope is that when we come together with other women to explore these texts, without assuming that either the texts provide a simple framework for practice, or that they are archaic records of a patriarchal society, the encounter will transform both the text and ourselves.
Come join me at Mayyim Hayyim to continue the conversation! Beginning January 11, we will have a monthly Niddah Salon in which we will explore facets of these texts, unpacking them on their own terms, and using them as jumping-off points to explore the often uncharted territory of our own femininity. Open to any female-identified person of any sexual orientation or relationship status. Click here to learn more and register.
Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish is a doctoral student in Ancient Judaism at Harvard University. She studies gender in rabbinic literature and the editorial process of the Babylonian Talmud. A graduate of the Pardes Educators Program, she has taught Tanakh, Talmud, and Jewish Law in numerous settings including Hebrew College, Mechon Hadar, and the National Havurah Committee’s summer institute. She also co-runs Boston’s Teen Beit Midrash.