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by R. Gidon Rothstein

22 Av: R. Moshe Feinstein on Issues of Vestot

In many areas of life, I have become suspicious of deliberate choice. I see, in myself and others, overconfidence that leads us astray all too often. One of the major appeals of choosing responsa by date, to me, is that it takes some of the choice out of my hands; inserting some randomness makes it more that these are responsa that came my way than that I went to find.

With all that, I still do choose, based on length, favorite respondents, topics of my interest, ideas I feel I can present well and briefly. Responsa that are too long can’t fit here (unless I cut too ruthlessly even for myself to feel comfortable). And I usually avoid very technical responsa, because I don’t trust myself to convey them well enough to be a credit to their authors.

To not let that warp the selection process too much, I occasionally stretch and take on that which I might ordinarily have left. In this case, Iggerot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2;74, R. Moshe Feinstein took on a very practical issue, but a somewhat delicate and technical one. Let’s see if we can make it worth our while.

A Very Brief Introduction to Vestot

It is, I hope, well known that married Jewish couples who follow the Torah’s commandments refrain from intimate contact after the woman menstruates until she goes to mikveh. What might be less known is that halachah also required the couple to anticipate when that was likely to happen, to avoid the possibility that they might have relations when they should not.

Some women’s cycles are regular enough that they have a good idea of when they need to separate physically. That’s called a veset, an expected time of menstruation, and such a couple would refrain from marital relations that day or night. (If she doesn’t menstruate then, for some reason, they can resume their relationship until she does, and then there are all sorts of rules as to how she decides whether that was a blip, a loss of veset, or the first step in a change of veset).

For a woman who doesn’t have a veset, the practice became that the couple would treat day thirty as if it were. Since we know she has to see sometime, thirty days was chosen as an average time, a way for them to show they, too, were mindful of these halachic concerns.

The Question to R. Feinstein

What would happen, R. Moshe Feinstein was asked on 22 Av, 5722 (1962), with a woman who never had that short a gap between menstruations? That is, three consecutive experiences supported her expectation that her next menstruation would occur no fewer than thirty-one days after the last one. She had no better veset than that, but it seemed odd to spend day thirty apart if there was no halachic reason to expect she might menstruate that day.  

There is a somewhat parallel case in Yoreh Deah 186;3, that a woman who never menstruates within fourteen days of the last one can have halachic confidence that she will not become a niddah in those days (which allows certain leniencies for the couple). The questioner had heard R. Feinstein applied that to this case as well, and wanted clarification.

It’s Not a New Question

R. Feinstein points out that later authorities debated this very issue. R. Elchanan Ashkenazi, the 18th century author of Sidrei Taharah (and rabbi of Danzig), held much as R. Feinstein, that the fourteen-day case in Shulchan Aruch sets up a general rule that we accept a negative veset, a certainty she won’t become a niddah in a certain time frame, even if we have no identifiable regularity as to when she will.

Chavat Da’at, written two generations later by R. Ya’akov Lorberbaum (also known for his Netivot HaMishpat on Choshen Mishpat), held that such a couple did have to abstain on the thirtieth day—the idea that they have to worry about an onah beinonit, a median or average regularity, was so clear to him that he also refused to accept Shulchan Aruch’s fourteen-day ruling. For him, there was no such thing as a veset to not menstruate.

His main support was a comment of Rashba’s, that veset created a presumption about one particular time, with no ramifications about what her body would do at other times.

What a Veset Does

R. Feinstein is puzzled by that, since he knows of well-accepted halachot that support the idea of a negative veset. For example, in a couple where the wife has no veset, the husband is supposed to check before initiating marital relations (halachah worried she would be too embarrassed, shy, or some other emotion to rebuff him with the bad news).

The husband of a woman with a veset had no such need, proof that a veset gave confidence she would not menstruate at other than her established regular time.

Rambam and Rosh required that such women physically check themselves before every time the couple has relations. Many authorities disagreed, since she has a chezkat taharah, a current status of being tehorah, of being allowed to have relations with her husband. Shach ruled that way, making R. Feinstein wonder how Chavat Da’at could hold the opposite, that a veset does not let her assume she is tehorah until that time came around. [On this last, it seems to me Chavat Da’at might have held that chezkat taharah is independent of the function of a veset, as R. Feinstein has just noted many authorities held.]

How Certain a Veset

To explain the Chavat Da’at— because even if he’s going to disagree, R. Feinstein respects him enough to know he must have had a reasonable perspective—R. Feinstein suggests that he held that only an established veset was strong enough to mean she didn’t have to worry beforehand. Without an exact prediction of when it would come, however, it could not be seen as precluding other timings (even as he would agree, R. Feinstein is saying, that it could be considered a veset in terms of expecting it at the less exact time that it predicted).

In clarifying that further, R. Feinstein reminds us that we’re trying to decide how confident we are about our predictions of the future based on past results. This comes up with many chazakot, halachically valid presumptions, and is in that sense about more than just this one issue.

Here, he’s understanding Chavat Da’at to have been saying that a veset establishes a very strong chazakah that this woman’s cycle is governed by time (other women had cycles that depended on other factors, as far as halachah was concerned). This presumption is so strong, in fact, that we can rely on it at a Torah level, to allow the couple to ignore the issue until it forced itself on their attention.

A less well-defined veset (such as the type we’re discussing, that she doesn’t see before a certain amount of time) would be also less certain, for Chavat Da’at, and therefore might be relevant in limited circumstances, and only once it was in play (when the time had arrived).

A Broken Chazakah

Chavat Da’at sought to prove his view with the fact (also noted by Rashba) that should a woman become a niddah unexpectedly, she would have to assume that this had happened as much as twenty-four hours ago (for deciding which items she had rendered tamei, ritually impure). If the chazakah established that she did not have to worry, then it should last right up until the moment we know it was no longer in effect. That’s how we act with other halachic presumptions.

R. Feinstein responds that here, the issue is that women sometimes change vestot, their bodies migrate to other rhythms and regularities. When a woman menstruates unexpectedly, then, it can be an exceptional event or the first instance of a new version of herself. The uncertainty led Chazal to treat this chazakah as less ironclad than most, but only once we had reason to think the situation had changed.  

There is more in the responsum, but too much to take on here and now. As much as it as we’ve done has shown us, first, some sense of halachah’s attempt to understand the ways in which women’s bodies express their regularity (the discussions of veset are open to a plethora of ways in which a woman might evince a regularity to her cycles), the nature of chazakah, of where and what we are allowed to assume about the world, and, most importantly for a man and wife, when they can take her regularity as carving out a time in which they need not worry that she might become a niddah and interrupt what we hope is their happy, healthy, and satisfying relationship.

About Gidon Rothstein

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