“The Nidah–Affirming the Value of the Sanctity of Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Towards the end of this week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, we learn the laws of the Zav, the Baal Keri, the Nidah and the Zavah, the various natural and unnatural emissions discharged from the bodies of both men and women.

The text in Leviticus 15:19 reads, “V’ee’shah kee tee’hee’yeh zavah, dam yee’hee’yeh zovah biv’sarah, shiv’at yamim tee’hee’yeh b’nee’dah’tah.” When a woman has a discharge, her discharge from her flesh being blood, she shall be in a state of nidah for a seven day period. The Torah further states that anyone who touches the woman and anything she touches, will be rendered impure until evening.

The laws of a menstruant woman are extremely complicated and involved. In addition, they are broadly misinterpreted and often misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, the menstruant woman is not regarded in Jewish law or Jewish philosophy as unclean or contaminated. Jewish “ritual impurity” is something entirely different.

To understand the concept of “ritual impurity” in Judaism, one must recognize that the bottom line of all of Jewish law and practice is the sanctity of human life. In fact, all of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah can be traced to that value and that ideal. If life is the highest value, then, of course, death is the greatest contaminator.

When a woman ovulates, an ovum is released. If the ovum is fertilized, it may hopefully develop into a living fetus. However if it remains unfertilized, the ovum withers and dies. It is soon expelled from the woman’s body, along with the nutrients that would have sustained that life, resulting in the menstrual flow. The menstruant woman in effect encounters death in her body–the death of a potential life that has not been realized, and is therefore regarded as ritually impure.

Some commentators explain that ritual impurity comes to underscore the concern that one who frequently encounters death (through monthly menstruation), may become inured to the sanctity of life. We who live in the age of extraordinary media proliferation are uniquely qualified to appreciate this fear. As a result of the vast proliferation of news, not infrequently we hear reports of hundreds if not thousands of victims who die or are subjected to inordinate suffering. Rather than commiserate with the pain and loss of the victims, we often simply switch channels, turn to the sports columns or the fashion pages. The constancy of death reduces us, often rendering us indifferent to life.

A woman who menstruates is required to count a minimum of five days of bleeding. After the bleeding ceases, a period of seven clean days are counted, during which, according to the experts, the lining of the uterus is regenerated and restored. On the night of the eighth, the woman goes to the mikveh, the pool of primordial natural water, representing a return to creation. It’s a reaffirmation of life in a most profound way.

By immersing in the waters of the mikveh, the woman, in effect, pronounces that she wishes to rid herself of the contamination of death and seeks to reaffirm life. There is no more meaningful way of expressing the value of the sanctity of life than through enveloping oneself in the waters of the mikveh.

This practice of reaffirming life through immersion in a mikveh, is life-affirming in another way. In our over-saturated sexual environment, we know only too well that the intensity and overwhelming attraction of the physical relationship all too often obfuscates the spiritual love relationship between individuals. According to traditional practice, from the start of the menses until the woman goes to the mikveh husband and wife do not engage in sexual contact. It is meant to be a period in which husband and wife engage in a spiritual rather than physical relationship, where, in effect, they say to one another, “I love you for who you are, rather than for what I can get from you.” The laws of Taharat Hamishpacha, of family purity, have profound psychological merit, reaffirming and strengthening the spiritual love bond between husband and wife, resulting in a sexual relationship that is all the more powerful and meaningful.

These are the laws of our Torah. They are eloquent, insightful and psychologically sound. They deserve to be embraced by all!

May you be blessed.