The Purification of a Niddah: When Silence Matters
The Absence of Israelites Immersing in the Wilderness
Halacha states that women are required to immerse in water after their menstrual cycles or childbirth in order to be permitted to resume conjugal relations. If this was supposed to have been practiced in the wilderness, where would the Israelites have obtained sufficient quantities of water? This is never addressed in the biblical text itself, but it may very well be that this problem was the impetus for the set of aggadot found in the Tosefta, which describe the amazing amount of water to which the Israelites had access in the wilderness period.
…הבאר שהיתה עם ישראל במדבר דומה לסלע מלא [כברה] מפרפרת ועולה כמפי הפך הזה עולה עמהן להרים ויורדת עמהן לגאיות מקום שישראל שורין הוא שורה כנגדן…
…The well, which accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness—it resembled a rock which was sieve-like, and it would bubble up as if coming out of the mouth of a bottle, and it travelled with them up mountains and down dales. Wherever the Israelites encamped, it encamped over against them…
נשיאי ישראל באין וסובבין אותה במקלותיהן ואומרים עליה את השירה (במדבר כא) עלי באר ענו לה עלי באר והמים מבעבעין ועולין כעמוד למעלה וכל אחד ואחד מושך במקלו איש לשבטו …
The princes of Israel would come and surround it with their staffs and speak to it, saying ‘Rise up, O well’ (Num 21:17) and the water would shoot up like a column, and each of them would draw the water with his staff and channel it to his own tribe…
וגם היא סובבת את כל מחנה ישראל ומשקה את כל הישימון] שנאמר (שם) ונשקפה על פני הישימון והיא נעשה נחלים שנאמר (תהילים עח) ונחלים ישטפו הן יושבין באיספקאות ובאין זה אצל זה שנאמר (תהילים קה) הלכו בציות נהר העולה דרך ימין [עולה] דרך ימין [העולה] דרך שמאל [עולה] דרך שמאל [כן מים מתמצין הימנה היא] נעשית נחל גדול והולכין לים הגדול ומביאין [משם] כל חמדת העולם.
It would go around the entire camp of Israel and water the wilderness as it says ‘overlooking (or we overlooked) the wilderness’ (Num 21:20). Then it formed streams as it says ‘flooded by streams’ (Psa 78:20). These streams they would navigate in skiffs as it says ‘they went in fleets upon the river’ (Psa 105:41). Eventually it would turn into a mighty river along which they would sail to the ocean and bring back from there all sorts of bounty (t. Sukkah 3:3; author’s translation).
Whatever the purport of this and similar aggadot, they succeed in providing the Israelites the means to perform the requisite immersions during their forty-year wanderings in the wilderness – something for which the Bible had failed to cater. In the Torah, we hear repeatedly of droughts afflicting the people and of how their thirst is quenched in the nick of time. However, the supply of water as described in the Torah could not satisfy the rabbis’ immersion requirements, inasmuch as it fails to meet ritual needs.
Take the story in Numbers 21, where both verses 8 and 11 speak of water gushing forth out of the rock, allowing the congregation and their beasts to drink. But nothing is said about water for the ritual needs of some 600,000 women. And since P (Priestly Code) imposes karet upon a couple who have marital relations during the wife’s period (Lev 20:18), all such relations would have to be suspended if water was indispensable for terminating her niddah status.
“Does the Torah Require a Niddah to Immerse” – the Debate
Admittedly, the question of how Israelites could have immersed in the desert without miraculous intervention is a side point. Nevertheless, it is illustrative of the total silence of the Torah regarding the assumed requirement for women to immerse or wash themselves in water upon the end of their menstrual cycles. This silence has been the source of a long-standing debate among biblical scholars about whether the Torah actually requires women to wash themselves in water as part of their purification from menstruation or not.
This old debate has been sparked off anew on TheTorah.com by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber’s article, “The Purification of a Niddah,” which argues that the Torah had no such requirement. This article engendered a stimulating rejoinder by Dr. Yitzhaq Feder claiming that this requirement was understood and unspoken. Both articles appeared on TABS’ website, TheTorah.com, and I was asked by TABS’ director, Rabbi David Steinberg, to weigh in on the subject, since I discuss this problem at length elsewhere, and I argued a position similar to that of Farber’s. I will take this opportunity to explain why.
Priestly Torah – Synchronizing the Narrative with Halacha
The fact of the matter is that the Priestly Torah nowhere ordains any kind of washing for either the parturient (yoledet), the niddah or the zava, and that jibes perfectly with P’s history of the wilderness sojourn. If one insists – as Feder and others do – that though it didn’t say so, P intended those three classes of women to sluice anyway, then let those scholars supply the requisite water just as Tosefta Sukkah did.
The Priestly Torah typically makes sure that its narrative and legal norms are in agreement. To cite but one example: all the journeys undertaken by the Israelites or indeed by the patriarchs in P avoid Sabbath travel, as demonstrated by Annie Jaubert. Ritual purity was quite evidently a high priority for P and it stands to reason that P’s narrative would have made sure to uphold it.
The Intended Readers of the Priestly Torah
Expressing his main objection to Farber’s claim, Feder states:
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.
This statement encapsulates sound advice insofar as it reminds us to ask when studying a text: what kind of readership was the text intended for, and what can the text’s omissions and silences tell us about that readership’s presuppositions? In other words, what could they be relied upon to know without having it spelled out?
As for the Priestly Torah’s intended readership, it is unlikely to have been the hoi polloi of the time – even the literate among them. Most likely, it was the priestly caste itself whom P had in mind; a caste that was expected to preach its ideals and enforce its laws (see Lev 10:10-11). Such a readership would, indeed, understand how to read the text, but this, in my opinion, militates against Feder’s argument in this case.
To explain, let us shift our focus from P’s targeted readership to the legislation itself. P does not give the impression of participating in the genre of “collections,” such as medieval compendia of minhagim, that are often grab bags of folklore. Even people who do not share a belief in P’s revelatory dimension cannot deny its manifest purposefulness. Indeed, much of it reads like polemic. In a few instances, we can even identify the butt of that polemic as some version of the Deuteronomic code or other older law collections.
Considering this purposeful and polemical writing style, there is little reason to assume that just because some ancient Near Eastern women, and even some Israelite women, purified themselves after menstruation, as Bathsheba does (2 Samuel 11:2-4), that P necessarily supported this practice. P is no automatic codifier of popular norms. In fact, the characteristics of P’s legislation are hardly compatible with a laissez faire attitude that would take on board wholesale notions and practices of the superstitious masses. Nor did it absorb extraneous ideas indiscriminately.
The Influence of Zoroastrianism on the Priestly Legislation
It is widely thought that Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Judaism from the time the Exiles rubbed shoulders with its adherents in lands around the Euphrates. For example, the heightened concern with ritual defilement characteristic of P is often attributed to that influence. (Many, including this author, date much of P to the exilic period). I am inclined to agree that ritual purity, and niddah in particular, were never matters worthy of the prophetic attention prior to the age of the first exilic prophet-priest Ezekiel and of Lamentations. Earlier scriptural references to niddah are easy-going as attested by the stories of Rachel (Gen 31:35) and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:4) and lack the later earnestness and trepidation – so reminiscent of the Zoroastrian attitude to menstruation.
But all that notwithstanding, P does not slavishly imitate Zoroastrian thought and practice. P borrows only what is compatible with its own vision; and even those borrowings it modifies. As noted by the late Jacob Milgrom (d. 2010) apropos the menstruant’s touch that is not said to defile:
[T]here is no prohibition barring the menstruant from touching anyone. This can only mean that in fact her hands do not impart impurity. The consequence is she is not banished but remains at home …. This leniency contrasts markedly with the fear of the menstruant’s touch and even of her breath that prevailed elsewhere… It clearly represents the concerted efforts of the Priestly legists to eviscerate the notion of the demonic that was universally attributed to the menstruant.
With this recognition that P’s choices of what to include in its system were made selectively and deliberately, the fact that in other cultures the niddah washed would not have necessarily persuaded P to follow suit.
Hence, to Feder’s argument that “there is no reason to think that the ancient Israelites were an exception,” we would respond that P is not any ancient Israelite. Similarly, in reply to his rhetorical question “are we to assume that Leviticus is seeking to undermine a more stringent popular practice by omitting the requirement to wash?” we would venture that P is capable, if not liable, to break with popular practice. Indeed, P’s attested defiance of consuetude and even of quotidian logic deters one from banking on its automatic canonization of regnant usages.
The Late (Exilic) Appearance of the Term “Niddah”
Feder also introduces the etymology of niddah. He may be right with regard to its etymology, namely deriving the root n-d-d from a semantic field that indicates a basic meaning of distancing oneself with negative connotations, as in flight from, disgust, or abhorrence. It is not without significance, however, that use of the term niddah to denote a menstruant is not attested in early Scriptures such as in the story of Sarah (Genesis 18:11-12 orah ka-nashim, ‘edna,), of Rachel (Gen 31:35 derekh nashim) and of Bathsheba (1 Samuel 11 mit-tum’athah). Significantly, niddah vocabulary appears from the exile on, and may have been coined in response to the newly aroused fascination with the subject again, perchance, under the shadow of Zoroastrianism.
Finally, the fact that certain rigors comparable with those of the Zoroastrian system surface in rabbinic writings cannot be used legitimately to shed light on the very distinctive revelation that we call the Priestly Torah. The Mishnah may lend its approval to a beth hat-teme’oth (=house where niddot resided); Sifra to the custom of women not sleeping in their beds during their periods but rather in a kind of tub called an`arevah gedolah she-ha-niddoth shokhevoth bethokham, and Tosefta `Atiqta to a horde of primeval taboos. While these rabbinic tendencies are interesting in their own right, they must not becloud our understanding of P, which does not seem to share this level of aversion towards menstruants and anything associated with them. Rather, P seems to be striking a balance between the older lax attitude towards menstruation characteristic of the pre-exilic Israelite culture, and the extreme recoiling from menstruants characteristic of Zoroastrian culture and religious norms.
The Status of Women in the Priestly Source
In my The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition, I show how consistently P protects its women and their rights while at the same time promoting their inequality. (Such conflicts are not unusual in societies, including our own.) Here we need only repeat that P’s stratification of the genders, such as the extension of the mother’s impurity when a daughter is born (Lev 12:2-5); the monetary evaluation of a female as twenty shekels less than that of a male (Lev 27:3-7), or even its choice of circumcision as a covenantal token (Gen 17:9-14, Exod 12:44, 48). The consistent theme found in these rules can hardly be fortuitous.
One cannot rule out the possibility that establishing a male/female dichotomy in the socio-religious sphere was a discrete goal of P’s. And if so, just as P’s Jewess is expected to get by without P’s covenantal token on her person, it would not be surprising if P intended her to manage without a ceremonial finale to her autonomous defilements. We see no other way of explaining ve-ahar tithar (and after that she shall be clean) in ve-safrah lah shiv‘at yamim ve-ahar tithar (and she shall count off seven days and after that she shall be clean; Lev 15:28). The idiom ve-ahar (and after) always denotes ‘and thereupon’ i.e. without further ado (cf. Gen 24:55; Num 6:20; Num 12:14).
When Silence Matters
In certain contexts, silences can speak louder than words. If you expect, for example, a relative to wish you a happy birthday, and you receive an email on that very day from that relative which discusses shoes and ships and sealing wax, but not a peep about the day, you tell yourself that either the relative is angry with you, or, worse, he or she has forgotten. Either way, the omission of the congratulations is significant because there was an expectation that was not met.
Even more significant are omissions in legal texts, and by omissions I mean things that the reader, rightly or wrongly, expects but does not find. Students of the Talmud soon discover that in their expounding of Scripture the rabbis attach significance not only to seemingly redundant words but also to words that seem to be missing. Hence those of us who are attuned to that kind of close reading of Scripture cannot fail to notice that the Torah nowhere enjoins ablutions for women who have experienced an autonomous ritual ‘defilement’ (i.e. not one conferred on them, such as that of Leviticus 15:18).
Leviticus encumbers three women with severe ‘defilement’ as a consequence of secretions from within their bodies: the parturient, the niddah, and the zavah. Washing of their persons or their clothes is not prescribed for any of them, and the run of the mill reader is entitled to take this taciturnity as intentional. Logical arguments are no substitute because—despite Feder’s claim about “ritual common sense”—the logic underlying Leviticus’ ritual purity laws (assuming it exists) is notoriously recalcitrant to neat systemization.
An illustration of this last contention is provided by Leviticus 15:10. “All who touch anything that is under him [the zav] shall be unclean until the evening, and the person who carries them shall launder his clothes and wash [or bathe] in water and be unclean until the evening.” So the person who carries without touching, launders, but not the one who actually touches. In the realm of ritual purity, then, a fortiori arguments are best used frugally.
In spite of the biblical silence, the Mishnah refers to tevilah for a niddah (hereafter TN; Edu. 5:4, Nid. 4:3, Mik. 8:5 et al.). But it is not clear whether the Mishnah is simply describing a prevalent custom or actually legislating tevilah; and if the latter, would the mandate rest on biblical authority or rabbinic? It is hard to tell from the Mishnah’s rather matter of fact references, without the legalistic language of “a woman is obligated to immerse.”
To be sure, the mishnah rarely cites scripture, but the Talmud habitually fills in the lacunae if only for purposes of distinguishing biblical (deoraita) law from rabbinic (derabbanan). In the case of the tevilah of a niddah there is but a single passage in the Talmud—a comment by R. Joseph—that connects TN to scripture, based not on a Torah verse, as is typical of a deoraita commandment, but upon a verse from Zechariah. Describing the future rise of the House of David, the prophet Zechariah states:
בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִֽהְיֶה֙ מָק֣וֹר נִפְתָּ֔ח לְבֵ֥ית דָּוִ֖יד וּלְיֹשְׁבֵ֣י יְרֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם לְחַטַּ֖את וּלְנִדָּֽה:
On that day, a fountain shall be open to the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem for purification (chatat) and cleansing (niddah).
On a peshat level, Zechariah is likely referring to the mei niddah ritual, (Num. 19), where water is sprinkled on a person as part of the red heifer purification from coming in contact with a corpse. Nevertheless, the rabbis associate the verse with immersion of other impurities, and this is what led to R. Joseph’s comment connecting tevilah to niddah.
R Eliezer ben Yaacob said: ‘Water shall flow from beneath the temple’s threshold’ [m Mid 2:7]. As the water moves along it grows ever mightier until it reaches the door of David’s house then it becomes a torrent in which zavim, zavot, niddot and new mothers bathe as it says, “On that day a fountain shall be opened … for purification (chatat) and cleansing (niddah) Zech 13:1]. R. Joseph said: “From this verse there is a hint for the niddah that she must sit up to her neck in water” (b. Yoma 78a).
Other than R. Joseph’s hint that the water must be deep like a torrent, it is only in post-Talmudic sources that we find concerted attempts to establish scriptural authority for TN.
The various means, methods and manipulations employed by post-Talmudic writers for deriving, or rather wresting, TN out of the Torah are scattered over Ge’onic and medieval texts. The Chatam Sofer (R. Moses Sofer d. 1839) very helpfully classified the derivations into four main taxonomies, but as these were dealt with extensively in Farber’s essay I will just note—as does Rabbi Sofer himself—that none of these derivations is particularly convincing. Moreover, the very fact that the post Talmudic sources offer such a multiplicity of derashot intimate that there was no clear tradition regarding the Pentateuchal source fortevilat niddah prior to the Geonim.
In short, P demands to be understood on its own terms. To be sure, in the past when forced harmonization was viewed not merely as legitimate but as pious, the objective of reading was to get all sacred texts to conform even if they lost something of their unique character in the process. We have tried to argue that each of the Torah’s discrete revelations imparts its precious and sometimes surprising message if only we don’t smother it with excessive piety or preconceived notions of normativity.
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August 9, 2014
January 21, 2020
Dr. Hacham Isaac S. D. Sassoon is a rabbi and educator and a founding member of the ITJ. He studied under his father, Rabbi Solomon Sassoon, Hacham Yosef Doury, Gateshead Yeshivah and received his semicha from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He holds a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lisbon. He is the author of The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition and a commentary on chumash called Destination Torah.
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