The Purification of a Niddah: The Legal Responsibility of the Reader
In his insightful analysis of the purification of a woman following menstruation (niddah) according to the Torah, Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber points out that the requirement for a niddah to wash is not mentioned where we would expect it in Leviticus 15, nor in any other place in the Torah. From here, he draws the conclusion that the priestly laws did not require any kind of washing, such that the woman was rendered pure automatically by waiting seven days. Since this conclusion is not only at odds with traditional Jewish practice but also with the views of several academic biblical scholars, it offers a fascinating test-case for examining the role of the reader in interpreting biblical law.
I will not argue with Farber regarding the textual details of Lev 15 and claim that the washing of the niddah is implied from other laws in the chapter. This latter approach is the more usually taken one (as the citations in the essay indicate), but I believe that it misses the main issue. My basic claim is different and builds on the recognition – emphasized by literary critics of the school of reader-response criticism – that the meaning of a text is dependent on the participation of an informed reader. That is to say, the reader is not a blank slate onto which the text inscribes its meanings, but rather, the reader is an active participant who is expected to fill in gaps in the text. With this general orientation in mind, my goal here is to substantiate the premise that the text takes for granted that its readers assume that a niddah requires washing.
The Savage Jew
As a point of departure, it is useful to place the biblical requirements in a wider cross-cultural context, since menstrual impurity is an extremely wide-spread phenomenon in traditional cultures. As is well known, a large commonality can be found between these practices, characterized by avoidance of contact with menstruants, their seclusion and especially by a prohibition of sexual relations which was considered dangerous. Regarding the dangers of sexual relations, there is no reason to think that the ancient Israelites were an exception, when one considers the threat of “being cut off” (karet) in Lev 20:18. Indeed, the etymology of niddah points in the same direction. Deriving the term from the root נד”ד, Moshe Greenberg observed that the semantic fields of this root in Hebrew and Aramaic “indicate a basic meaning of ‘distance oneself’ with negative connotation, as in flight from disgust or abhorrence, such that niddah could be rendered “rejected one” (see e.g. Lam 1:8, 17). Hence, Farber’s emphasis on the temple as the primary locus of purity misses the point. Once it is acknowledged that menstrual impurity was a serious concern even in daily life, it becomes less likely that it would be treated less stringently than the other forms of impurity. Furthermore, as a scholar who specializes in cross-cultural purity practices, I would add that impurities generally require some kind of ritual act to remove them, with washing constituting a minimal requirement.
In fact, it is noteworthy that even the Karaites, known for their rejection of the rabbinic tradition, require the niddah to wash. I do not cite the Karaite practice because I think it necessarily reflects a continuous tradition extending back to biblical times, but rather because it exemplifies an assumption which is self-evident to any culture that observes purity practices, that impurity – especially a severe form – does not just go away.
Fill in the Blanks
Turning back to the biblical requirements, Farber provides an interesting survey of the rabbinic attempts to address the absence of an explicit requirement to wash. However, it must be remembered that it is of little significance whether or not rabbis at a later period felt uncomfortable with this omission. The real question pertains to the audience assumed by the text, which I will argue did not share the scholastic perspective of these medieval rabbis. Note again that even the Karaites understood the washing to be implied by the text and not based on rabbinic midrash.
Clearly, the priestly laws aim to be as systematic as possible, but this goal is achieved by means of short-hand formulations and self-referential notes which assume a competent reader to understand and fill in the blanks. For example, note the one word short-hand references in Lev 12:2, 5 comparing the new mother to a niddah (כנדתה), requiring the reader to fill in the missing information – in this case from Lev 15 (or from previous knowledge). In this regard, formulas such as “he will be impure until the evening” or “she will be impure for seven days” take for granted that these periods of impurity end with purification by washing.
At first glance, such inferences may seem forced. Since so many laws are spelled out in detail, should we not avoid reading anything further into the text? Though such an approach appears reasonable, it overlooks the possibility that certain requirements were so obvious that there was no need for pedantically exhaustive presentation. Indeed, against Farber, I would contend that washing was required for all of the types of impurity. As such, the text is careful to state the duration of each type of pollution, since this was the variable element, whereas the requirement to wash was fixed, so that it could be omitted. Indeed, additional examples where we find the omission of the washing requirement include: Lev 11:40 versus 17:15 regarding the consumption of an improperly killed clean animal; Lev 11:31 for touching a creeping creature (שרץ) compared with a vessel which must be washed (32); the person who gathers the ashes of the red cow whom the text only requires to launder (Num 19:10) versus the others involved in preparing the ashes (7–8); and Num 31:24 versus 19:19 regarding corpse impurity. To this list, one should also add (against Farber) the zavah (Lev 15:28–30), whose purification can be clearly inferred from the zav (13).
A Return to Common (Ritual) Sense
With this alternative mode of reading in mind, let us return to Farber’s conclusion, that the menstruant was not required to wash, and see if it can stand up to counter-evidence. Here are some brief points to consider:
- If the minor impurity caused by sexual relations required washing (Lev 15:16–18), is it plausible that a prohibition of the magnitude of menstrual impurity, involving the possibility of the karet punishment, would just go away automatically?
- Both the zavah (15:29) and the parturient (12:6–8) are commanded to bring offerings to the sanctuary as part of their purification, but in neither case is washing mentioned! Are we to assume that these impurity bearers were exempted (because they are women?) from the general requirement enforced by capital punishment to undergo washing before any contact with the sacred realm? Note, for example, the strictures incumbent on the priesthood to wash upon entering the sanctuary (Ex 30:20–21) or before partaking in the sacrificial offerings (Lev 22:1–8) on the penalty of death.
- Farber’s case would be much stronger if he had an example of a narrative which would seem to imply that no washing was necessary, but none exists. As it turns out, we have a narrative which indicates the very opposite. Indeed, the story of David and Bathsheba divulges (only because it is central to the plot) that Bathsheba washed after her menstrual impurity, indicating not only the existence of the practice but also the audience’s familiarity with it (with no further explanation needed). Are we to assume that Leviticus is seeking to undermine a more stringent popular practice by omitting the requirement to wash?
In my mind, the answer to all of these questions should be negative, indicating that Farber’s conclusion is highly unlikely.
In conclusion, the foregoing considerations call our attention to the fact that our conventions of reading (as academics, rabbis or whatever) may not be those presupposed by the text. Moreover, I have attempted to demonstrate that an argument which appears forced or apologetic within a narrowly defined context may turn out to be the most sensible interpretation when viewed within a more expansive context. To conclude our particular inquiry, my impression is that the priestly instructions were more interested in sparing words than sparing water.
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April 24, 2014
October 4, 2019
Dr. Yitzhaq Feder is a lecturer at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context and Meaning (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). His research focuses on biblical ritual and conceptions of purity and pollution in ancient Israel and surrounding cultures as well as on early halakhic traditions in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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