The Rest of Siman 183, First Ideas of Hilchot Niddah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Last time, we saw the basics of what we call hilchot niddah, despite longstanding practice of the Jewish people having women act according to the rules for a zavah gedolah any time they bleed menstrually, wait seven days without any sightings of blood before they go to mikveh and restore their marriage to its usual footing.


Where a woman has a ketem, a blood-colored stain on clothing or some other object, she would have to start or restart a count of seven “clean” days, according to a Mishnah on Niddah 52b. Later in the siman, AH includes an important limitation on ketamim, they must appear on a davar ha-mekabel tum’ah, an item or object susceptible to various statuses that keep people from contact with matters of Temple-related kedushah, sanctity.

For example, toilet paper is not makabel tum’ah—were it to come into contact with a person who had passed away, its halachic status would not change, so a ketem on toilet paper does not require a woman to treat herself as a niddah. The bedikah cloths women check themselves with while niddot are specifically made to be of a material and a size halachah saw as the minimum to be considered possible clothing (really, possible patches for a piece of clothing).

To become what we call a niddah, which is really a possible zavah, Rambam held she would need a stain large enough to have been formed by three occasions of bleeding, or three separate stains, on a garment she wore three days in a row (or if there was a stain each on three pieces of clothing she wore in that time).

Just one ketem is enough to stop her count if she was already a zavah, and for us to worry about what time period of her cycle she is in, to worry she might be a niddah rather than a zavah, and should would have to go through a whole series of checks, not see blood for long enough for us to be sure she was back to regular niddah (we don’t do any of this today, nor have we since the time of the Gemara, another example of AH telling us what we didn’t need given our current practice).

I’m skipping to se’if forty-two, because AH takes us through all the calculations it takes for a woman to return to her knowing where she is in her cycle, whether in a period of niddah or zivah, etc. For us, it doesn’t matter, as se’if forty-two will tell us.

Is Safe Ignorance Bliss?

[Ponder this: what are the disadvantages of a system that flattens out these distinctions? I know the advantages, they make it easier to follow, to be sure we not inadvertently violate rules of the Torah, in terms of a couple having marital relations when they should not. But the Torah knew how to make blanket rules if it wanted, yet it seems to have wanted to separate the two. What have we lost in our current system?

I don’t mean the extra stringencies and their costs, the many more times couples cannot foster their marital intimacy; that’s too obvious, although, as a reader pointed out to me, a cost a passage in Bava Metzi’a thought significant enough to bemoan those who kept a certain rabbi from the study hall, where he knew how to be lenient on these questions.

I meant more theologically: what do we lose when we make ourselves safe against a transgression by wiping it out of our awareness? Here’s another current example: Many neighborhoods have eruvim, for convenience and also to protect Jews from violating Shabbat by carrying. A generous and valuable instinct; is there any downside to Jews’ largely forgetting the prohibition?]

“Today’s” Practice

Only in sei’f forty-two does AH concede none of his lengthy discourse applies to our times, because “after the hearts were reduced, and Jews scattered to the four corners of the earth,” Jewish women realized they struggled to keep track, and took on the practice I brought up last time, to react to any blood as if they had become zavot gedolot, needed seven bloodless days before mikveh.

AH says he chose to explain the original rules mishum yagdil Torah ve-ya’adir, fromYeshayah 42;21, a phrase used to mean Hashem gives us lots of Torah to afford us opportunities for study and reward. He seems to mean he wanted us to have the chance to know “real” Torah law, as Rambam did as well.

[I don’t think he’s being fully transparent. First, the Talmud knew this practice of Jewish women. Jews had been exiled, sure, and their fears of getting it wrong show their hearts had been reduced, but is that the whole story? Was this the only law inspiring such trepidation?

Similarly, Rambam does include all these laws, but he covered all of halachah in Mishneh Torah, currently applicable or not. And AH tried to emulate Rambam, tried to cover all of halachah, too, with his AH and AH He-Atid. Maybe that was what was going on here, too, a desire for completeness.

Except it only makes sense if AH thought we would return to this system in the future. We would likely have to, as it happens: for example, a zavah gedolah brings a chatat and an olah at the end of her time, sacrifices I think she should know her status in order to bring. Perhaps, then, when the Temple is rebuilt, speedily in our days, Rambam and AH want us to be prepared, to have the sources to know how to revert to the old system. And, as someone suggested, to know how to program the app to help us track these times.]

Women’s Tum’ah, Men’s Tum’ah

Se’ifim 43 and 44 highlight two differences between a zavah and a zav, a woman and a man (aside from the glaringly obvious one that different substances lead to this status, blood for a woman, something similar to semen for a man). Verses reference her makor, womb, and blood flowing, without limit on the spur for the flow, on its own or because of an external event, such as a doctor’s examination.

[This last is practical today; online, you can find many articles about which gynecological procedures turn a woman into a niddah and which do not.]

A man’s zivah cannot be incurred because of circumstances beyond his control.

A woman’s zivah also starts when blood moves internally, even if it has not yet left the womb, where men must secrete the zivah substance before the status occurs. [This suggests/implies these halachot pay more attention to what happens inside a woman, where men are more external figures. There’s a lot to speculate there, but I will stick with AH.]

On the other hand, se’if forty-six adds an important exception, if she has a wound, the bleeding is not from any bodily processes, is no different from if she had pricked her finger, neither zivah nor niddah occurs. However, we have an established assumption, an chazakah that blood found in certain places is treated as flow from the womb.

It determines our attitude sufficiently to even allow/require us to burn sanctified materials she touches. Were we in doubt about her status, we would not do that. Such rules showed Tosafot (and us) the various kinds of blood are visually indistinguishable in halachah, are expected to look exactly the same, so we need rules to decide which kind of blood it is.

Not Feeling It

Se’if 47 brings us back to a challenge of niddah in today’s world: without the woman having felt the movement of blood, she is not teme’ah at a Biblical level. For hundreds of years, though, women have reported not having the sensation the Gemara describes.

Before we get to that, the whole idea of ketamim, assigning a niddah status based on a stain on her clothing, seems to go against the need for hargashah, feeling the flow. Se’if forty-eight says Chazal worried she might have not noticed when she had the required feeling, or mistaken it for something else (the need to urinate, for example), and the same applies to when a woman is required to check herself with a cloth and finds blood on the cloth; we worry there was a hargashah, either unnoticed or forgotten.

Feeling It

What would it mean to feel the blood move? SA in simanim 188 and 190 says she feels her uterus open, which AH likens to urination, because the Gemara thought she might confuse the two. He cites a few verses where the root ragash, to feel, is used more in the sense of to know, and thinks here, too, the Gemara and halachah meant the woman knows as it happens.

Rambam went further, thought the woman’s whole body shook when she started to menstruate, except AH in se’if 59 moderates that, thinks Rambam largely agreed with Rashi and Tosafot, as we said above, it’s the feeling of opening of a sphincter, similar to urination.

Noda Bi-Yehudah had suggested it would be enough to have a feeling of zivat davar lach, the seepage of a liquid, a standard AH is not prepared to fully accept.

Our main issues for this time: the role of ketamim, stains, a reminder of our flattened practice, wiping away the difference between zivah and niddah, between men’s and women’s zivah, and what we mean by “feeling” to make a woman a Biblical niddah.

Next time, we’ll do some Even HaEzer, the celebration of the week of sheva berachot after a wedding.

About Gidon Rothstein

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