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?