Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Halacha in a Nutshell: The Laws of Family Purity

Halacha in a Nutshell is a series that does not aim to actually teach you halacha. The goal is to acquaint you with the general ideas of a halachic issue so that you can follow conversations without looking like a total n00b.

Now here's a fun topic full of vague euphemisms. This will not be comprehensive in any sense of the word (it's a pretty technical area), but hopefully you'll get the general idea. I bring this topic up because the laws of family purity are referenced to and joked about quite commonly, particularly among women, but almost always in a very vague way. If you don't know the basics of the family purity laws, you will have no idea what someone has just said to you because it was such a vague euphemism.

As a sidenote, the laws of family purity are generally not practiced by liberal Jews. You will very often hear jokes about the laws of family purity in liberal Jewish circles. In orthodox circles, it is usually not considered an "appropriate" area of public discussion, and no one should ever ask details about your personal observance of these mitzvot. If they do, feel no shame in telling them that you don't think it's an appropriate discussion to have or change the subject. This is a very personal mitzvah and is no one's business but your own (and maybe your rabbi's).

Known in Hebrew as taharat hamispacha, the laws of family purity govern the sexual relationship. It is presumed that this is a relationship between a married husband and wife. Because people aren't supposed to have "relations" before marriage (and you wondered why frum kids marry young!), this area of the law generally isn't taught until someone is engaged. In fact, several people were shocked to see it required in some detail on a conversion syllabus for a well-known American beit din. The idea is that women are taught this area by the kallah teacher (kallah means bride) when a girl is engaged. I'm really not sure when men are taught this, and my suspicion is that they're given the rudimentary details by a rabbi during engagement and are then told to trust their wives. Whether it's right or wrong, this (like kashrut) is an area where women are given significant leeway to make their own rulings in questionable situations.

At its most basic, there should be no "relations" (sorry, I feel silly saying that) during the woman's menstrual cycle and the 7 days after it ends. The days of the menstrual period are called "red days," and the days after are called the "white days." The red days last the longer of your cycle or five days. So if your cycle is 9 days, you have 9 red days. However, if your cycle lasts 2 days, you still have to count 5 days before you can count the 7 white days. This is the period called "niddah." If you say a woman "is niddah," it's during these red and white days. Niddah is usually translated as "unclean," but a more accurate translation is "ritually impure." That isn't a value judgment that women are impure, anything can potentially be ritually impure (and all of us today are ritually impure for the purposes of entering the Beis HaMikdash). This mitzvah is the source of a lot of battles with feminism, but both sides are arguing past each other because they're not talking about the same issue.

For couples who are shomer negiah, this means that they are shomer negiah to each other (and with some additional restrictions according to their minhag) during this time. So to spell that out, in addition to no "relations," they also don't touch each other, hug/kiss each other, etc. This can also extend to passing each other items, eating from the same plate, or even looking each other in the eye. An example often joked about (though a totally serious halachic ruling) is not playing tennis because that is passing the ball to each other. As a practical matter, this means that the spouses are more restricted with each other than with other members of the opposite sex. As you can imagine, this can be a very difficult mitzvah to keep! On the other hand, couples say this means they have to be especially careful to develop their ability to communicate. You can't end an argument by distracting yourselves with make-up sex. More common is to separate the beds during the niddah period. Most people have 2 twin beds that they can push together as one bed after the niddah period. However, twin beds aren't necessary. You can keep your full, queen, or king size bed so long as you can fit two of them in your bedroom!

In order to count the white days, the woman performs an internal inspection with a tampon or a "bedikah" cloth (yes, using the finger). This is where things get technical. She has to examine the cloth or tampon by daylight, and any sort of discharge (internal on the cloth or external on the underwear) has to be examined carefully to determine its origin because some discharges count for red days and some don't. For instance, blood from an injury doesn't start niddah (for example, from a gynecological exam - though an exam could also cause niddah bleeding). As you can imagine, this can get very complicated, and a trusted halachic advisor is essential to the proper observance of this mitzvah. Because this can be a very embarrassing discussion, more and more women are being trained as halachic advisors in this area. After all, you may have to show the person a stained tampon, underwear, or bedikah cloth. I'm sure you get used to it (and it doesn't come up all that often for the average woman), but the first few times will be unavoidably awkward for 90% of us.

Once the 7 clean days have passed, the woman can go to the mikvah, which will end the niddah period. If you want more information about preparing for the mikvah, read The Conversion Mikvah Visit in a Nutshell because the same supplies and preparation applies. There are just less dips in the mikvah and one less blessing. It is against halacha to unnecessarily delay going to the mikvah, which is something I find very interesting. After all, a wife could use that as a weapon against her husband, which isn't fighting fair.

Financially, there is normally a "recommended donation" for using the mikvah, though there may be a set fee. Every mikvah can and will be different. Some will be prettier than others, some will be cleaner than others, and some will be more crowded than others. You may or may not need to make an appointment.

Some say that the woman can't/shouldn't bathe off the mikvah water until she's had "relations" with her husband.

Here are some awesome first-person discussions of the mitzvah of mikvah:
My Mikvah, My Mitzvah
The Mikvah Is Lost on Me
The Ladies' Club (About a bride's first experience at the mikvah)


  1. Regarding the 5 day minimum, it should be said that this is also a minhag! Sefardic women have a minhag to hold 4 days from the last time of sexual intercourse. So, if you had sex three days before your period, you may start bedikah/sheva nikim after one day assuming, for instance, your period ended after only one day. Not very likely, but this case could potentially involve being niddah for as little as 8 days, due to the minhag.

    It's a really complex area of halacha. Yoatzet.org has fantastic resources, including a hotline to call with any questions, as well as answering questions via email. They also have online supplemental kallah classes for a small fee.

    1. absolutly wrong
      sefardic women (in some comunities) keep minimum 4 days "period" or 5 days and then they count 7 white days !!

      you should check with some orthodox rabbi
      it is very important that it will be kept properly

  2. So touching other men at that time is common? I am a bit confused because many women don't touch other men anyway. But I know a woman who does and I wasn't sure if it was common. She does things a little different so I thought maybe it was just her.

  3. The Conservative Movement has actually been taking some steps in "re-embracing" mikvah and taharat mishpacha. There are several teshuvot from the Rabbinical Council (the Conservative Movement's rabbinical governing body). Good post :)

  4. Dena, good question! Women who are shomer negiah (not touching men) follow the same rules at all times. The only difference is that these rules are applied to her husband during the niddah period. In addition, there may be additional "fences" between their conduct, such as the ones mentioned above or another common one is to place something between them when they eat (something even as simple as a napkin holder) to remind them of the separation. So all the regular rules still apply, but they are also applied to the husband, and the husband may have additional rules that don't apply to other men. Does that make sense?

  5. This particular women rides motorcycles with a man who isn't her husband (as in, they sit on the same bike) and she touches her male friends. I think I had it in my head that is one follows adheres to one side of the coin then they adhere to the other. Obviously she challenged that assumption and it was a bit confused.

  6. I did have some of the Rabbinical Council's responsa around here but I seem to have lost it. I'll have to find it and print it out again.

  7. Hmmm... couple of points:

    1. "Tamei" means "ritually impure." "Niddah" does not. You could translate "niddah" as "ritually impure due to menstrual impurity," though that's a mouthful. The language about clean/unclean is just another way of translating ritually pure/impure (though to be clear, pure/impure is a better translation), but since the only form of ritual purity that's still in use in the absence of the Beit haMikdash is taharat mishpacha, it gets ugly pretty quickly if you use the clean/unclean language.

    2. I'm not sure where you heard taharat hamishpacha jokes in the liberal community. I've never heard any, though there's more of a willingness to discuss taharat mishpacha openly (and in mixed company) than there is in the frum community.

    3. There are chosson classes for men. What they cover and how long they last varies, but men aren't left totally in the dark. It might not be a problem if men don't know what to do with a bedikah cloth, but problems are going to pop up if a guy doesn't anything about harchakot, you know?

  8. There is an increasing number of non-Orthodox Jews practicing the laws of Taharat haMishpachah. For the Rabbinical Assembly's teshuvot on the issue, go to: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org > Contemporary Halakha > Teshuvot and you'll find them there.

    I personally don't think the silence and the euphemisms are helpful. This is a deeply personal commandment, for sure, but also one that needs community support and sisterhood. It can be a very challenging mitzvah (as well as deeply rewarding) and different women practice it differently, regardless of what it says on the books. I think openness is helpful and can strengthen our understanding of this mitzvah, of the sanctity and importance of marital intimacy and our own bodies.

    This Good Life

  9. I can understand not having sex on red days, even waiting a full day for there to be nothing on underpants or tissue after using the bathroom. I can't understand inserting cloth often each day to check for a week after it's over. I can't understand counting 12 days when you find some spotting after. I don't understand waiting a week or more after having sex for the first time after the wedding. Does the hymen bleed for 12 days? I can understand not sleeping in the same bed but I don't understand the never touching at all. Not all touch leads to sex.

    Does one have to be ceremonially pure to pass a plate at the table to a particular person? What is the problem with being ceremonially impure? Did any of the matriarchs insert cloth inside for days? Did their maids? Some practices like giving maids to their husbands to produce extra children for them seemed to come from the wives cultures, a command from God. Did these extra rules come after from within the community or from outside cultures?

    I wonder if men who wrote this had to insert cloth into a particular orface several times a day to make sure there is no color on the cloth, to start over if there were color on the cloth might soon change their understand to a more simple interpretation to following what was actually written in the Torah? I mean no disrespect but I wonder what is going on in the minds of the men who never had to do such thing. It seems unnecessarily cumbersome in reality while it sounds like it takes only moments to do on paper. There is nothing in leviticus about checking with a cloth and how how often.

  10. Dr. Deena Zimmerman was in the first graduating class of Nishmat's yoetzet halacha program and is the one who got their website up and built out their network of responders for women's queries. Her book (which she said she wanted to call "What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Got Married") is a concise, comprehensive guide to taharat mischpacha and I highly recommend it. She's also an amazing human being and one I'd feel safe telling anything! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/9655240630