Sex During Menstruation: From Impurity to Prohibition
The Law of Menstrual Pollution: Leviticus 15:19–24
Leviticus 15 provides a set of instructions on how to handle the impurity that results from various male and female genital emissions. Verses 19–23 deal with menstruation:
ויקרא טו:יט וְאִשָּׁה כִּי תִהְיֶה זָבָה דָּם יִהְיֶה זֹבָהּ בִּבְשָׂרָהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תִּהְיֶה בְנִדָּתָהּ וְכָל הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהּ יִטְמָא עַד הָעָרֶב…
Lev 15:19 When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days; whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening…
Normal menstruation makes a woman impure for seven days, an amount of time that is both religiously significant and approximately that of an average menstrual period. During her impurity, a woman contaminates anything she sits or lies on, and anyone who touches her or anything she sits or lies on becomes impure until evening.
Verse 24 explains what happens when a man has sex with a woman during her period:
טו:כד וְאִם שָׁכֹב יִשְׁכַּב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו וְטָמֵא שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְכָל הַמִּשְׁכָּב אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב עָלָיו יִטְמָא.
15:24 And if a man lies with her, her impurity is communicated to him; he shall be unclean seven days, and any bedding on which he lies shall become unclean.
This verse treats sex with a menstruating woman as a special case of physical contact. Whereas other types of physical contact result in short-term impurity (until evening), a man who has sex with a menstruating woman becomes impure for seven days and contaminates any bedding that he lies on. “Her (menstrual) impurity is communicated to him,” and he enters the ritual state of a menstruating woman.
It is important to bear in mind that the Priestly system does not prohibit becoming impure. Impurity is seen as a normal part of life, though impure people may not approach the tabernacle or have contact with holy things. While this verse states that sex with a menstruating woman results in ritual impurity, it does not prohibit it.
The Sexual Prohibition: Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18
There are, however, two verses in the Torah that explicitly prohibit sex with a menstruating woman. Leviticus 18:19 reads:
ויקרא יח:יט וְאֶל־אִשָּׁה בְּנִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ לֹא תִקְרַב לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ׃
Lev 18:19 Do not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness.
Leviticus 20:18 adds a punishment to this prohibition:
ויקרא כ:יח וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִשְׁכַּב אֶת־אִשָּׁה דָּוָה וְגִלָּה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָהּ אֶת־מְקֹרָהּ הֶעֱרָה וְהִיא גִּלְּתָה אֶת־מְקוֹר דָּמֶיהָ וְנִכְרְתוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּם׃
Lev 20:18 If a man lies with a woman in her infirmity and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow and she has exposed her blood flow; both of them shall be cut off from among their people.
In both verses, the prohibition is clear and unambiguous. Leviticus 20:18 even penalizes the couple with the severe penalty of karet, being “cut off” from their people.
Attempts to Reconcile the Passages
If sex with a menstruating woman is so severely prohibited, why is this not mentioned in Leviticus 15:24? Traditional commentators offer various explanations.
Ibn Ezra: Menstruation Began After Commencement of Intercourse
Ibn Ezra suggests that Leviticus 15:24 deals with a case in which the woman’s period started during intercourse, so the contamination is accidental:
ואם שכוב ישכב איש אותה. בלא זדון רק שוכב עמה בשוגג, והנה באה נדתה, והיתה עמו, וזה טעם עליו, כי כרת יש על השוכב עם נדה בזדון…
And if a man lies with her. Without intention. He only lies with her unintentionally, and her menses comes, and she is with him. This is the meaning of “upon him.” For one who lies with a menstrually impure woman intentionally is subjected to karet…
Ibn Ezra’s reading has a number of problems:
- He interprets the word עליו, “upon him,” in the clause וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו (“her נדה is upon him”) as indicating that the woman’s menstrual blood “came” and thus transmitted its impurity to the man. But the term נדה throughout this stratum of the Torah (P; see below) refers to the state of menstrual impurity, not to blood.
- The term ותהי is a jussive verb, a form that typically introduces the consequence (apodosis) in a legal case. Thus, the clause וּתְהִי נִדָּתָהּ עָלָיו should be understood as referring to the consequence of the act, as translated above: her impurity is transmitted to him.
- The wording “and if a man lies with her (וְאִם שָׁכֹב יִשְׁכַּב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ)” suggests that it applies to a woman who is already menstruating, since the pronoun “her” (אתה) refers back to the subject of the passage, “a woman who has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body” (v. 19).
Abravanel: Purity and Sexual Laws are Dealt with Separately
Don Isaac Abravanel maintains that the prohibition is not mentioned because it is simply not the subject of this verse, which deals with ritual impurity and not sexual transgression. According to Abravanel, the purpose of this verse is to teach that the impurity applies regardless of whether the woman’s period began before or during sex — and thus, presumably, regardless of whether the contamination is deliberate or accidental.
ואם שכוב ישכב איש אותה הוא לענין הטומא’ לא לענין הערוה כי כבר ביאר’ התורה במקום אחר עונש השוכב עם הנדה. אבל בא הכתוב הזה לבאר בענין הטומא’ שאם שכב איש אותה בנדת’ או שבא וסתה בעת המשגל.
And if a man lies with her. This is with regard to impurity, not with regard to sexual prohibition, for the Torah already clarified the penalty for one who lies with a woman in her menstrual impurity in another place. But this passage comes to explain, with regard to impurity, [what occurs] if a man lies with a woman in her menstrual impurity or if her period comes at the time of copulation.
It is difficult to accept this suggestion. How could such a severe consequence simply be omitted because it was off topic, especially when the prohibition will only be mentioned 3 chapters later?
The modern critical scholar Jacob Milgrom agrees with Abravanel, arguing that
P concentrates on the effect of impurity on persons and objects and not on divine sanctions for its bearers.
He maintains that P must have believed that this act bore a penalty, because
P is much concerned, indeed obsessed, with the potential contamination of the sanctuary by Israel’s impurities.
But these explanations are contradictory: P could not have been both obsessed and unconcerned with the threat posed by impurity, such that it must have both accepted a penalty and failed to mention it. On the contrary, as I argue, P did not envisage a penalty for this act because, like the other impurity-generating acts mentioned in this chapter, it was not viewed as a transgression.
The Passages are Contradictory: A Critical Approach
A broader look at Leviticus 15 favors the view that this chapter considers sex with a menstruating woman permissible. The chapter concerns impurity from a variety of male and female emissions, most of which are involuntary and thus cannot logically be prohibited. Sex with a menstruant is treated as fundamentally similar to other cases of contact with polluting people or emissions, none of which are prohibited per se. This contradicts Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18. Furthermore, since nothing about these verses sounds polemical—an attempt to polemicize against a prohibition would at least state the permissive ruling explicitly, instead of simply assuming it—it seems likely that this author was not aware of any such prohibition.
The Priestly Source and the Holiness Legislation
These two different approaches to the subject come from different strata of the Torah, each of which derives from a distinct Priestly school. Leviticus 15 comes from the Priestly source (P), but the verses that prohibit sex with a menstruant come from the Holiness school’s legislation (H). The Holiness legislation, which encompasses Leviticus 17–26 (as well as some other isolated passages), shares many stylistic and linguistic features with the rest of P but also has distinct characteristics.
Characteristics of H vs. P
The following elements distinguish the Priestly text from the Holiness text:
Israelite Centered vs. Priest Centered – P as a whole is primarily concerned with the priesthood, the laws of the tabernacle, and ritual purity. H, however, includes laws that deal with a wide variety of issues relevant to Israelite life.
Addressee: Israel vs. Moses – While God speaks through Moses throughout P’s legislation, in H God tends to address Israel more personally, in the second-person plural, rather than in the third person. And the laws in H are often punctuated by the expressions “I am the Lord” and “I am the Lord your God,” which serve as a sort of divine signature.
Focus on Holiness for Israelites – As its name suggests, the Holiness legislation places a strong emphasis on holiness. The remainder of P is also concerned with holiness—particularly that of the priests and tabernacle—but H is specifically concerned with the holiness of the Israelite people. The Israelites are commanded to “be holy” because their God is holy, and they are to accomplish this by obeying God’s laws as found in H.
H’s Relationship to the Rest of P
Scholars have expressed a range of views on the precise relationship between H and the rest of P, including which came first. (Some even doubt that H is a distinct unit.) To me, H appears to be later than P and written to supplement it. This would explain why the author of Leviticus 15:24 was not aware of the prohibition in Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18, though the authors of the latter were likely familiar with the former. Assuming this is correct, how might we explain the Holiness authors’ new prohibition?
The Sexual Prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20
Both Leviticus 18 and 20 contain catalogues of sexual prohibitions, and their common content and similar wording suggests that they derive from a common source text. Both are typical of H in their framing of the laws: Leviticus 20 enjoins the Israelites to refrain from forbidden relations in order to “be holy,” while Leviticus 18 emphasizes the purity of all Israelites, warning that engaging in forbidden relations will contaminate the people and the land, causing it to “vomit them out” as it did the Canaanites before them (vv. 24–30).
Disparate Conceptions of Impurity (טומאה)
The impurity (טומאה) in Leviticus 18 is for the most part not the same as that in Leviticus 15. Leviticus 15 deals with a technical category of ritual impurity, a temporary condition that can be removed by waiting a set period of time, and in some cases, bathing. Leviticus 18 deals with a more lasting kind of sexual impurity, which permanently mars the individual and can even contaminate the land.
The one reference to ritual impurity in chapter 18 occurs in verse 19, which prohibits sex with a woman בְּנִדַּת טֻמְאָתָהּ, during her period of menstrual impurity. In context, this verse suggests that this type of impurity is more than just a technical problem that the man can solve by waiting, but is a dangerous contamination, which threatens the purity of the Israelite people and the land in which they live.
Men and Women in H and P
Why is H so concerned with the contamination of men by menstrual impurity? I believe that the answer lies in a characteristic of H that is particularly noticeable in Leviticus 18: God addresses the people of Israel as a group of men. Women have a place in the Israelite community, of course, but they are portrayed as ancillary to its male members. Thus, the sexual prohibitions are formulated in the second-person masculine singular, addressed to individual men and only secondarily encompassing women.
While there is one prohibition in Leviticus 18 that specifically concerns women and not men — namely, the prohibition of sex between a woman and an animal (v. 23b) — it is formulated in the third person (i.e., the addressees are still men). Since the authors of H view the Israelite community as essentially composed of males, protecting its holiness and purity includes protecting men against female impurities.
The Priestly Text: Addressed to Men and Women
The Priestly text, in contrast, tends not to privilege men this way. Both the men and the women of Israel are typically addressed in the third person, and with the exception of priests and Levites, their roles in most aspects of religious life are the same. Both men and women can become nazirites, for example, and both bring sacrifices at the cessation of major impurity.
To be sure, P does focus on the special holiness of priests and Levites, who are male, but their status derives from their ancestry more than their gender, and women in priestly families share in aspects of the priestly status, including the right to eat the terumah.
The essentially similar treatment of men and women in P is clearly expressed in its creation story (Genesis 1). In contrast to J’s creation story (Genesis 2–3), which has man (אדם) created first and woman (אשה) formed from man’s body, in P, humanity (אדם) is created “male and female” (זכר ונקבה). And as we have seen, even in dealing with sources of impurity that derive from biological differences between men and women, P treats these impurities as essentially similar and parallel.
Combining the Sources in Post-Destruction Times
Following the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E., most laws of ritual purity fell out of practice, since their main purpose was to protect the holiness of the sanctuary and its sancta. But the laws of menstrual impurity remained, because of their relevance to the sexual prohibition in the Holiness legislation.
As Jewish law developed in this area, it drew not only from the Holiness prohibition but from the Priestly law of purity as well. Sex with a menstruating woman was understood to be prohibited, in keeping with Leviticus 18:19, and to have a penalty of karet, in keeping with Leviticus 20:18. But since Leviticus 18:19 refers specifically to a woman in her menstrual impurity (נדת טמאתה), the laws of ritual purity were deemed relevant as well.
Halakhah considers a woman niddah for at least seven days, in keeping with Leviticus 15, and prohibits sex during that time even if her bleeding has ceased. The requirement to immerse in a mikveh after menstruation likewise draws on Leviticus 15’s ritual purity laws. This interpretative move was one of the first steps toward the creation of the laws of niddah, or “family purity.”
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April 12, 2016
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Dr. Eve Levavi Feinstein holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Sexual Pollution in the Hebrew Bible” (Oxford University Press), explores the Bible’s use of purity and contamination language to describe sexual relationships. She has also written articles for Jewish Ideas Daily and Vetus Testamentum.
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