Yoreh De’ah 183, An Introduction to Niddah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The most immediate surprise for our siman of Aruch HaShulchan lies in simple numbers: this siman has one paragraph in Shulchan Aruch and sixty-eight in Aruch HaShulchan. In our review—I will skip liberally, to cover the siman in two essays, for reasons that will become clear as we learn—I will look for clues to what exercised R. Epstein greatly enough to expand so far beyond the presentation of Shulchan Aruch itself.

A Basis of Comparison

To help us see how much he went off on his own, let’s this time summarize SA itself, something I usually leave to Aruch HaShulchan to do.SA says a woman becomes teme’ah [attains the status we call niddah, obligating a married couple to refrain from marital relations] if she feels blood move from in her womb to flow out [we will discuss hargashah—a feeling most women today do not have in the ways described in earlier literature—later in the siman.].

A tiny drop of blood—the size of a mustard seed, today 1-2 mm, but I think it means anything detectable—makes her a niddah, and she cannot go to mikveh, SA says, until she experiences seven full days with no bleeding. Rema throws in that this isn’t solely a marital issue, anyone who has sexual intercourse with a niddah incurs karet, excision from the Jewish people.

That’s SA.

Adding Zavah to the Picture

AH reminds us niddah counts among the arayot, forbidden sexual relationships. Vayikra 20;18 refers to a man asher yishkav isha davah, who shall lie with a menstruating woman. “Lie with” includes ha’ara’ah, insertion of the male member, regardless of whether the couple completes the act. Both here and in Acharei Mot, 18;19, the Torah does not qualify the niddah, meaning adult or child, married or single, virgin or experienced, the prohibition is the same. [Niddah stems from her physical situation, not the couple’s relationship. But violation of the prohibition gets the same punishment as arayot, karet.]

As long as she is over three years old, the age at which halachah thought a sexual act could have meaning. In fact, a Mishnah on Niddah 43b says a baby girl’s bleeding could render her a niddah for tumah, not being allowed into the Temple or to partake of sanctified foods, such as terumah. Two folios later, the age criterion is sourced to an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

Here’s where we start diverging from SA: in se’if two, AH points out Rambam in Issurei Bi’ah 4;1 teaches us a niddah has seven days of tum’ah from even one sighting of blood, and so too after birth of a boy, the mother experiences seven days of niddah tum’ah, fourteen for a girl, regardless of whether she bleeds. (AH gives the relevant verses, which I leave to you to look up.)

The Role of Mikveh

These statuses are removed by immersion in a mikveh, a collection of natural water, after the time is up. Were a woman to immerse during the seven days, it would have no impact on her status. At the other end, the Torah calls her a davvah be-nidatah (Vayikra 15;33, translated variously, but along the lines of “in her period of discharge,” which AH is taking to indicate a continuing situation) to mean she retains her niddah status until she goes to mikveh. Years, decades, later, without mikveh, she and any man with whom she has relations will be liable for karet the same as if she just menstruated.

The principle applies to all forms of tum’ah, the ones that last a day or seven days, and is so obvious the Torah did not bother with it when it came to zavah, said only she’ll count seven days and be tehorah when in fact she must go to mikveh. The Torah only says it for a zav because he must immerse in mayim chayyim, flowing water, where all the other forms of tum’ah can be removed with mikveh water, natural water gathered in one place.

A Pause for Faith

Before he moves on to our current (thousands-years-old) system, AH pauses to say we always must rely on the Oral Law to understand the written law, and anyone who doubts the Oral Law has no share in the God of Israel.

To me, the statement stands out for its vehemence and its superfluity. Why say that here, when it is true of all of halachah? I believe the answer lies in the next section, where we will see how Jewish tradition altered the original Torah law, in ways I believe were already under attack in AH’s time, by those who chafe under halachic strictures.

He has laid out the Torah law, now takes us to what happens in practice.

The Timing of Niddah and Zavah

The Gemara tells us Jewish women decided to treat any drop of blood as if it were three days of zivah. To understand the idea, remember niddah blood leads to seven days of tum’ah, but those end on day seven, as long as the woman has stopped bleeding before sunset.

After a niddah period, the woman is potentially a zavah for eleven days. Should she see blood in those eleven days, she is teme’ah that day, and must wait the next day to be sure no further bleeding occurs. Should she in fact not bleed, she goes to mikveh and her zivah is over. Should she bleed on the second day, she again needs wait only one day of not seeing.

It’s where she sees a third day in a row while a possible zavah that she then must wait until she sees no blood for seven full days. Note, first, it must be three in a row; if a woman bleeds on days 1, 2, 4, 5, 7,8, 10 and 11 of her possible zivah time, she will not become a zavah gedolah.

Second, most rishonim understood the halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai of how zivah works to mean the woman has only one possible zivah period per menstrual cycle—she menstruates, after which there are eleven days she might become a zavah and then whenever she bleeds next, is a niddah.

Rambam’s More Confusing System

Rambam had a very different view, and because he is Rambam, later authorities tried to take it into account as well. For Rambam, the cycles repeat, seven days she might become a niddah, eleven days she might become a zavah, seven days she might become a niddah, eleven days she might become a zavah, etc. For Rambam, if a woman became a niddah on day 1, let’s say, and saw blood again on day twenty-nine, she’s a zavah, not a niddah. If she saw again on day sixty, she’s again a zavah. And so on.

As I said, he is mostly a lone view, although his view does explain why women would find the system confusing enough to choose to simplify it so radically (as R. Yehudah HaNasi had done to some extent before them), a point AH made in paragraph thirteen and fifteen.

Details I Leave

AH discusses how Rambam’s view of veset–the signals a woman must use to suspect she might soon menstruate, and therefore refrain from marital relations in case she in fact becomes a niddah– diverges from the other rishonim, in se’if twenty-two. Among the issues, Rambam seems to think a veset ha-yamim, a periodicity based on days (the gap between seeings, or the date), must include a veset ha-guf as well, some bodily symptoms. Other rishonim thought they could occur independently.

Theoretically, each of these types of tum’ah affect when the woman goes to mikveh. However, since we treat all such women as if they were zavot gedolot, the woman will not have seen for seven days already, will check herself once more before the end of day seven (of no bleeding at all), and go to mikveh.

It’s all because of the uncertainty, the ease with which people can lose track of these counts (I’m sending this out on the 34th day of sefirah, think of how much people struggle to keep up with that count, let alone this more intricate one), that we have adopted this system.

We’re pretty much halfway through AH’s presentation, a chance to pause for next time and also to ponder what AH is doing. Why does he include all this, if SA did not? We’ll check my guess next time, but I think people of his time (as of ours) knew a little too much for their own good, knew that by Torah law a niddah is only x, and started insisting they could be perfectly fine Jews even if they only kept Torah law.

He was laying out for them how complicated that actually is, the reason R. Yehudah HaNasi had already introduced safeguards, taken one step further by Jewish women themselves. Because being sure to keep halachah correctly often asks more of us than just actually keeping halachah correctly.

About Gidon Rothstein

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