Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Metsorah: The Purity System in Post-Temple Judaism

Last week I wrote about the biblical purity system. This week I’d like to discuss the impact of the biblical system on post-Temple Judaism.

After some initial ambiguity, it became accepted that most of the biblical purity regulations applied only when the temple stood, since their practical implications were limited to access to the sanctuary and to entities dedicated to the sanctuary. Exceptions to this rule occur where biblical law suggests implications that extend beyond the sphere of the sanctuary. These exceptions occur in three major areas:

1. Pure and impure animals, birds, insects, etc. In addition to transmitting ritual impurity, impure creatures may not be eaten, according to Leviticus 11. This chapter also specifies the ways in which these creatures may transmit impurity to various types of vessels (vv. 32-36). These regulations form the basis for the laws pertaining to the maintenance of kosher cooking implements and dishes.

2. Purity of priests. Priests (kohanim) are prohibited from contracting death-impurity except in very specific situations (Leviticus 21:1-4). Although one might logically assume that this prohibition derives from the priests’ role in the Temple, the Bible states the prohibition categorically. Observant kohanim therefore refrain from visiting cemeteries to this day.

3. Menstrual impurity Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sexual intercourse with a woman in a state of menstrual impurity. The basis for determining this state and purifying oneself of it is derived from Leviticus 15:19-30. The sacrifices called for by verse 29, of course, can no longer be offered, but women are required to immerse in water from a natural source (referred to as a mikveh), a process that the biblical text describes as “washing oneself in water.”

The rabbinic development of #3 puzzles me in a number of respects, which I will outline below. I would appreciate it if those of you with more extensive knowledge of this area of halachah could help enlighten me.

First, I am somewhat confused about the immersion requirement. The Bible does not mandate that a woman immerse after menstruation, or after any other form of discharge, for that matter. (It does, inexplicably, mandate that women immerse from semen-impurity contracted through sexual intercourse.) My understanding is that the rabbis derive the requirement of immersion after menstruation from the requirement that men immerse after contact with menstrual blood (vv. 20-24). (Ironically, this requirement no longer applies, since the impurity of males has implications only insofar as the sanctuary is concerned.) My questions are as follows: Is immersion after menstruation considered halachah mi-de’oraita (“biblical” law)? If so, is it derived by means of gezerah shavah (analogy) or some other legal mechanism, or is it simply assumed?

Second, I am perplexed by the fact that the rabbis deemed the laws of zavah relevant to the prohibition against sex with a menstruant. A zavah is defined by as a woman who experiences a long or irregular blood flow, as per Leviticus 15:25-30. Unlike women with regular periods, who remain impure for seven days following the onset of menstruation, zavot remain impure for seven days following the cessation of blood flow, presumably to ensure that the flow will not resume without notice.

Based on the biblical text alone, it would seem that the laws of zavah should apply to off-cycle periods, or to periods lasting longer than seven days. The rabbis, however, considered any flow of three days or longer a case of zavah, and the Talmud (BT Niddah 66a) relates that Jewish women took on the additional stringency of applying the laws of zavah to isolated blood stains “the size of a mustard seed” or larger. Because of the difficulty of differentiating between cases of niddah (regular menstruation) and cases of zavah, the rabbis eventually instituted a new law calling for the stricter zavah regulations to be applied to regular menstruation as well (BT Niddah 67b). Thus, contemporary Orthodox wives wait seven days after the cessation of menstruation, even when their periods are regular, before immersing in a mikveh and resuming sexual relations with their husbands.

My question is, why should the rules of zavah apply in post-Temple times at all? Leviticus 18 prohibits sex with a woman in a state of niddah impurity, not a state of zavah impurity. This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is the sort of hair-splitting that constitutes the bulk of rabbinic law. True, it would be illogical to prohibit sex with a woman experiencing a regular period and permit it in the case of a lengthy or irregular period. This could be resolved, however, by applying the laws of niddah to cases of zavah. Applying the laws of zavah to cases of niddah strikes me as beyond the realm of reasonable stringency. What was the purpose of instituting such a law?

Even stranger, contemporary Orthodox practice requires a woman to wait an initial five days before counting the extra seven, even if her period is exceptionally short. The reason for this, as I understand it, is that a woman may expel semen for several days after intercourse, resulting in a state of semen-impurity (also referred to as zavah). As I’ve noted, the Torah does not explicitly prohibit sex with a woman experiencing an irregular period, and it certainly doesn’t prohibit sex with a woman in a state of semen-impurity. Even if such a counter-intuitive prohibition did exist, it should only prevent a woman from immersing while she might still be expelling semen, that is (to use the rabbis’ somewhat overzealous estimate) for five days after intercourse. To prevent her from even beginning to count the requisite seven days preceding immersion seems to me to defy common sense.

Finally, I understand that women who ovulate early, during their period of niddah, and are therefore unable to conceive (a state known as “halachic infertility”) are sometimes given dispensation to begin counting the extra seven days before the initial five are completed. However, they are never (as far as I know) given dispensation to forgo the extra seven, which would seem to be the truly superfluous ones. Thus, these dispensations are unhelpful to a majority of women, whose periods typically last longer than five days. Is this because the seven days are a matter of rabbinic law (halachah mi-derabbanan), while the five are a matter of custom (minhag)? Even if this is the case, there are other situations in which rabbinic law is waived on account of extreme need. (Not only to save a life – for that purpose, even biblical law is waived.) Why not here?


Jayd said...

Hey Elf --

I'm responding to this here, so you don't have to keep checking back up on Rachel's comments.

"Jayd: Good question. The truth is, I'm more or less Reconstructionist in theology. I view the Torah as the earliest recorded attempt of my people to come to grips with their identity and their relationship to their Creator. As a member of the Jewish people and an heir to Jewish tradition, I consider myself duty-bound to try to understand the Torah and to incorporate it into my life, but I do not feel obligated to accept every word of it as absolute Truth.

The more I study TaNaCH from a historical perspective, the more convinced I am that there is something valuable to be learned from every part of it. At the very least, confronting biblical ideas that I can't accept forces me to clarify my values. Usually, I realize that these ideas are attempts to deal with dilemmas that still exist today: how to find the proper balance between a clear sense of identity and acceptance of others, how to negotiate the tension bewteen ritual and ethical obligations, how to maintain a system of religious law in the face of changing circumstances. In the end, no one has perfect solutions to these problems. I may sometimes disagree profoundly with the solutions offered by the biblical authors, but I assume that they were doing their best to make the right decisions, and I can only pray for the strength to do the same."

It seems that your inclusion in a people is prior to your duty to the Torah. That's the way I understand your statement, in the first paragraph, that as a member of the Jewish people you are duty-bound to try to understand the Torah and incorporate it into your life. Study of Torah is one among many things to which you, as a Jew, are bound by duty. You are not obligated, though, to follow its laws. This is interesting -- you have a community myth, a frame of orientation: the Torah, and whatever other texts and acts are part of your heritage. You also have a belief that individual reason is humanly necessary -- faith without reason is unsatisfying. These combined lead to an understanding of your life and communicating with others using a common language, but expressing your individual ideas.

You also say that the more you study Tanach, you realize that there is something valuable to be learned in every part of it. Even in disagreeing, you clarify your positions. I'm still curious about the "disagreement" position. There's a line in a GK Chesterton essay on The Catholic Church and Conversion, in which he claims that most people seem to want religion to be right where they are right, but it's far better to have a religion that is right where one is wrong. The religion should be beyond the individual's grasp, stretching her capacities, pushing her. I have experimented with this position, as I read of the "obligations beyond measure" -- I don't quite understand why rejoicing with the bride and groom, visiting t

Jayd said...

The message was truncated. That's irritating.

The point I made at the end -- some things I treat as beyond my wisdom. Others I treat as mistaken opinions. Chesterton claims that even those things which seem unreasonable to the individual, if he sticks with the church, will see that experience bears out their reasonableness. I can imagine someone saying the same about Halakhah.

So how do you decide which parts of Tanach to treat as beyond your wisdom, and which to treat as mistaken?

From one potential heretic to another --


DeanB said...

Maybe Chesterton is wrong -- maybe not everything that the church thinks is reasonable turns out to be.

Maybe someone who made the same claim about halakhah would also be wrong. However, most really orthodox positions I've read make no claim of all hakakhah being reasonable, rather "Hey, the Torah says so, just do it, it's not for us to understand why."

Myself, I don't believe in revelation nor even divine inspiration. I have great respect for the wisdom of most of the Biblical authors, but have no problem thinking that some of them were just stuck in the ignorance of their times.

elf said...

It is irritating that Haloscan truncates messages. I am considering switching to Blogger comments.

Anyway, the answer to your question is that I don't have a good answer. I agree that it is better to have a religion that is right when one is wrong, but in and of itself that is not a valid argument for deferring to tradition whenever a decision must be made. One has to have absolute faith in the rightness of that tradition. I simply don't have that kind of faith.

I accept that certain things are beyond my understanding, but I can only work with what I have. God gave me a sense of empathy and the capacity to reason, and I try to use them responsibly. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

My practical approach to halakhah is to give it the benefit of the doubt, up to a point. I try to observe the laws even if they rub me the wrong way, or don't seem to make sense, but I cannot accept a law that I am convinced is immoral. Again, I may be wrong, and I don't think that the decision to reject a halakhah should be made lightly. I'm just trying to do the best I can with what I have to work with.

Jayd said...

I have given your answer some thought. I don't know that I have anything to reply to it -- I've been very busy and haven't taken much time to really think through all its implications. But I wanted to let you know that I have read it, thought about it, and appreciate your responding to me at length. Thank you.

Come to think of it, I do have a question: what are your experiences of the religion being right where you are wrong? Have you had those experiences, and if so, what were they?


persephone said...

Er, I'm going to interject here and respond to something in THIS post... I don't know why the 7 days are treated as inviolate. But as far as I remember, the 5 days include some padding time. Semen discharge is only considered halachically significant for 3 days after intercourse. One day was added for fear of counting errors, in case the last time the woman had intercourse was during bein hashmashot. Part of another day ends up being added because the 7 days can't begin until nightfall, even if she finished bleeding hours earlier. I think all that makes the 5 days easier to truncate, because apart from the core 3 days it's a stringency on top of a stringency.

Soferet said...

This is an excellent question which I have been researching myself with the help of my rabbi, his rabbi & his rabbi. I am a soferet by trade, & do not write Sifrei Torah or other ST"M while in niddah, so being a woman in my fertile years has a definite effect on my ability to earn a living. Want to share Halakhic findings?

elf said...

Thank you, Persephone and Soferet, for sharing your knowledge. I am still perplexed by the 5 days. Why worry about semen discharge (even if it is halakhically significant, which I still don't understand) when you'll be counting an extra seven days, anyway? To then pile another two days on top of that . . . I just don't get it.

Anyway, Soferet: My understanding is that there is no real halakhic basis for avoiding contact with a Torah scroll while niddah, although many women have the custom to do so. I believe that the Orach Ha-Shulchan, among other halakhic sources, explicitly permit such contact. This is logical, since we are all subject to a much higher level of impurity now that red heifers are not available. You're the one who's talking to three rabbis, though, so you should be well equipped to provide a counter-argument.

I won't have time to research the subject of this post independently over the next few weeks, but hopefully there will be more comments to this post, so you should keep checking. I'd love to hear anything that you learn.

Jayd: That is a good question. It is difficult to know when the tradition is right and I are wrong, since most of the time there is no empirical way to determine the correct course of action, even after the fact. I can think of a few circumstances, particularly relating to the beginning and end of life, in which I would be extremely grateful to have a tradition to guide me. Still, as an American, I am strongly pro-choice with respect to beginning- and end-of-life issues, because I don't have enough faith in my tradition to force it on others.

Meredith said...

You're getting very lax in the Meredith warnings.

elf said...

Meredith: I think you're going to have to give me some guidelines to the sort of material that you're allowed to read.

Meredith said...

... I was just kidding. I didn't even read the post. Shame abounds.

Tonight being Wednesday night, I'll try to call.

Shlomo said...

The answer comes from Zoroastrianism and Persian influence. If you look through the highly intricate Persian rules for Nidus, you will find striking similarities to the tukunei rabonim. Essentially, the higher level of Tahara that was at first limited to the Mishkan, now became the standard in every home, thus the insistance on similiar time frames and practices.

Shlomo said...

Try this link where I post other links and put some historical perspective on the issue.

Kol Tuv

Dee said...

In answer to your question about why we wait 5 days before starting the seven if the 5 have nothing to do with permissibility of the woman anyway, and it will be more than 5 days anyway by the time you get to mikvah, it has something to do with the definition of a "clean day." Basically, the dripping of semen interferes with starting the 7 clean days, because semen isn't considered "clean" even if it doesn't cause a woman to become forbidden to her husband.

Also, the "difficulty in distinguishing" had less to do with regularity of a woman's periods and more to do with the fact that there are only 5 specific shades of red that count as niddah blood, and anything else has to be assumed zava blood. I don't think we have anyone capable of distinguishing between these reds anymore, which is why since every discharge becomes a question of "is it niddah or zava blood?" we have to use the more stringent case so that we're covered either way.

Also, I'm no expert, but I understand there is a Torah reference to the Israelites being told to kasher and toivel the keilim they had acquired from the Egyptians, and the water is described as "water as for a niddah," which may very well be your source for mikvah for niddah.

Not that I'd be adverse to making it simpler, but unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be an option (for us Orthodox women) until the coming of Moshiach!

elf said...

Thanks, SL, especially for the link to Shayest Na-Shayest. It explains a few things, including the initial 5-day wait (the rabbinic explanation for which I find totally unsatisfying) and the halakhic concern with the color of blood, which has no biblical source.

Dee: Thanks for the info. Desde posted this interesting link on Mayim Rabim recently. It's a shiur on the differences between Niddah and Zavah. I may be missing something, but these rules seem to have remarkably little to do with either female biology or the biblical sources. Maybe Zoroastrianism is the answer...

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