Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


Niddah (Heb. נִדָּה “menstruating woman”; literally, “one who is excluded” or “expelled”) is the practice according to Jewish law where a man is forbidden to maintain sexual relations with his wife during and for some time both before and after (see below) her menses. Marital intimacy may resume only after the wife has undergone ritual immersion (see Mikveh; Ablution) at the appropriate time. These strictures of separation and ritual cleansing, which apply only to married Jewish women, are intended to preserve men from the ritual pollution that would follow from any contact with their ritually impure wives. Procedures for calculating the intervals of time when spousal contact is forbidden rely heavily on a woman’s knowledge of the stages of her cycle. Fidelity to the rules of marital separation, self-examination, and expedient immersion comprise one of the three areas of ritual obligations specifically incumbent on women (together with hallah, separating a part of the dough used to make Sabbath loaves and hadlakah, kindling Sabbath lights (see Candles)). Jewish girls were traditionally taught to comply strictly and promptly with hilkhot niddah, the regulations pertaining to the menstruating woman.

The laws relating to the niddah comprise some of the most fundamental principles of the Halakhic system. They also constitute one of the few remnants of biblical regulations pertaining to ritual impurities that survived in Jewish life following the destruction of the Second Temple. Among the most difficult and intricate in the entire range of the halakhah, these laws are elucidated in a lengthy and detailed tractate of the same name devoted to the subject (see Niddah, tractate). The historical development of the relevant halakhot through the centuries is likewise extremely complicated. To decide a law relating to a niddah demands, besides a profound knowledge of the halakhah, experience in various medical matters, and at times also the ability to assume the grave responsibility of disqualifying a woman from pursuing a normal married life and of – at times – separating her forever from her husband. In every generation and in every place, there have generally been men, referred to in the Talmud simply as "sages," who specialized in the subject, as did eminent tannaim and amoraim, to whom particularly difficult questions were sent, even from remote places, together with specimens of blood (Nid. 20b). In brief, the halakhah as at present codified is that sexual intercourse (and any other intimacies which may lead to it) is forbidden from the time the woman expects her menses until seven "clean" or "white" days (i.e., days on which no blood whatsoever is seen) have elapsed. For this purpose, a minimum of five days is fixed for the menses themselves. Thus the minimum period of abstention from marital intimacies is 12 days. On the evening of the seventh day, without a sign of blood, the woman immerses herself in a mikveh, and normal marital relations are resumed until the next menses are expected. Any bleeding in the ensuing days is considered as menstrual and requires a waiting period of seven "white" days (see below). The laws of niddah are codified in the Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 183–200.

In the Bible

A detailed discussion is devoted to the niddah as part of the general "law of him that hath an issue" (Lev. 15:19–32), within the framework of the many laws of ritual purity and impurity whose main purpose was to preserve the purity of the sanctuary and its precincts. To this aspect, the Bible adds a further prohibition against sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman, the punishment for which is karet for both the man and the woman (ibid. 20:18). While this prohibition at present constitutes the main feature of the niddah, in the Bible it is the former context that is the decisive factor. According to the literal meaning of the biblical passages, most of which are, however, unclear, the law is thus: A woman who discerns blood within and up to a period of seven days is ritually "impure" (teme’ah) for those seven days from the time the blood first appears. On the eighth day – if she sees no further blood – she is "pure" (tehorah). Whoever touches her or anything she sits or lies on during the week of her "uncleanness" is "unclean until the evening" and must bathe himself in water and wash his clothes. One who has sexual intercourse with a menstruant is unclean for seven days since she transfers her condition of ritual impurity to him ("and her impurity is upon him"). If, however, a woman sees blood for more than seven days, she becomes a zavah ("one who has a discharge") and is in a state of ritual impurity until her discharge of blood ceases. All the laws previously mentioned apply to her. Unlike the niddah, however, the zavah does not revert to her state of ritual purity immediately after her discharge of blood stops but has to wait a further seven "clean" days, reckoned from the day she has ceased to see blood. At the conclusion of this period, she brings "two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons" as a sacrifice. Although not specifically mentioned in the Bible, the purification of the niddah of both the first and second types was undoubtedly associated with immersion in a ritual bath since this is clearly stated in the Bible with respect to others rendered levitically impure by reason of a discharge. The Bible does not lay down the normal length of time between one menses and another.

In the Talmud

On the basis of the tradition of the Oral Law, the sages gave the biblical passages a different interpretation. Their basic assumption is that there is a fixed cycle of 18 days, comprising seven days of niddut (the state of being a niddah) and 11 days between one menses and another, this being, in the view of the sages, the "allotted" interval. This cycle of 18 days is counted consecutively from the appearance for the first time of blood in a female at the age of puberty and, in rare instances, even earlier. A woman who sees blood on one or all of the seven days is ritually impure for these seven days and becomes ritually pure again on the eighth day on condition that she immerses herself in a mikveh ("ritual bath"; see also Ablution) and that no further blood has appeared before her immersion. If blood reappears on the eighth day, she is ritually impure on that day, immerses herself on the following morning, and waits until the evening. If no more blood is seen, she is ritually pure; if it is seen, she has to adopt the same procedure on the next day. If after the conclusion of the seventh day, blood is discerned on three consecutive or non-consecutive days during the 11 days between one menses and another, the woman becomes a zavah and has to count seven "clean" or "white" days, as stated above. If, however, she passes the 11 or at least nine of the days between one menses and another in a state of ritual purity, she reverts to the beginning of a new cycle, and any blood that she may see during the subsequent seven days does not necessitate seven "white" days. These 11 days are a traditional law ascribed to Moses ("Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai"). Any blood appearing during the interval between one menses and another – on the conclusion of the above-mentioned cycle of 7+11 days – is due to a discharge that requires seven "white" days. This cycle commences from the day blood appears for the first time and no longer depends on the appearance or nonappearance of blood: the seven days are "appropriate" for the blood of menstruation, the 11 days for the blood of a discharge, and only childbirth interrupts this automatic reckoning (see below). Such is the basic law; however, as early as the end of the tannaitic period, Jewish women were accustomed to observing seven "white" days for any spot of blood they observed that was as large as a mustard seed (see below).

The problem that arises if a woman does not examine herself during the days when she is in a state of ritual purity and suddenly sees blood is dependent on the tannaitic controversy over whether the laws of fixed menses are of biblical or rabbinical authority. In the former instance, the woman automatically reverts to her state of ritual impurity retrospectively from the beginning of her fixed menses unless she has examined herself and found no blood, whereas in the latter case, she is ritually pure until she physically feels the movement of, or sees blood. In any event, it is halakhically of great importance that a woman knows the dates of her menses since she has to refrain from sexual intercourse near their onset so that they should not come on during sexual intercourse. In the tractate Niddah the various types of menses, the way in which they are fixed, and their halakhic significance form the subject of extensive talmudic discussion.

The sages distinguished among several types of blood, some ritually pure, others ritually impure, that issue from a woman, the distinction is based on the different sources of the blood in the womb. However, since modern knowledge of a woman’s anatomy and physiology does not accord with the sages’ assumptions, their statements are not clear. Various scholars have unsuccessfully tried to harmonize the statements of the sages on this subject with existing anatomical knowledge. But although the sages have given indications for distinguishing between one type of blood and another, either by its appearance or by various examinations made in a woman’s body, already in Talmudic times, a thorough knowledge of the subject was limited to experts. In consequence, the halakhah states that, since we are not adept in the matter, all blood renders a woman ritually impure. A very difficult and painful question concerns instances of a discharge of blood that is due to an external cause, for example, an internal wound, but cannot definitely be identified as such. This problem was particularly formidable so long as its solution depended on halakhic discussions among the sages and not on a clear, objective medical examination. A more general distinction is made between a woman’s blood and her other discharges, which are not blood and hence do not render her ritually impure. In this instance, too, the sages have given several indications, based mainly on the intensity of the reddishness of the discharge. Here it has similarly been laid down that we no longer possess the knowledge requisite to make a precise distinction, and hence any discharge, unless it is white or green (in their various shades), causes ritual impurity. Whereas nowadays doubt can be easily and definitely resolved, previously this problem, like the former one, was often one of paramount human significance and an obstacle to married life for not a few couples. Accordingly, the works of the codifiers in all periods contain hundreds of responsa dealing with the subject out of a manifest desire to alleviate this hardship, though with a very scant possibility of doing so.

Another problem in this category, much rarer but devoid of any practical solution, concerns a woman who bleeds during the act of sexual intercourse. This blood is assumed to be menstrual blood, and its regular appearance at such a time prevents any possibility, according to the halakhah, of a married life between the couple since, after several recurrences, it is considered a permanent feature, and hence intercourse is prohibited from the outset. In this case, the couple has to be divorced, particularly if the husband has not yet fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation. Virginal blood forms a special halakhic subject, being in principle ritually pure, for, since its source is an external one, it is in every respect identical with blood that has issued from a wound. This was the earlier halakhah. Later a stricter view was taken in the matter, particularly in Babylonia, for fear that such blood might be mingled with menstrual blood discharged due to sexual excitement, and hence the couple had to keep apart from each other immediately after the first coition. In Eretz Israel, this stricter view was not common practice. In geonic times this restriction received, in Babylonia, the force of absolute law, but from the many questions addressed to the geonim, it is evident that the prohibition did not extend throughout that country. The subject was still included as a section in Sefer ha-Hillukim she-Bein Benei Bavel u-Venei Erez Yisrael, compiled in the middle of the geonic period. With the spread of the influence of the Babylonian Talmud, this prohibition was generally observed among almost all Jewish communities and was laid down as a halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh (EH, 193).

An essential change in the entire laws of the niddah, which since Talmudic times became the accepted law throughout Jewry, relates to the addition of the seven "clean" or "white" days. This change took place due to a twofold difficulty arising from the earlier procedure: first, the lack of a reasonable and practical possibility of keeping a methodical, precise, and consecutive count of the days of menstruation and of discharge, as described above, from the first day of the appearance of blood until the end of the period of the menses; and secondly, the recognition that there is no real possibility of distinguishing with any certainty between clean and unclean blood, thus making the actual counting impracticable. In the days of Judah ha-Nasi the first regulations in this connection were issued, and in the middle of the amoraic period, it was already accepted as axiomatic that seven "white" days were to be counted for any blood seen (Nid. 66a; et al.). The essence of the regulation was that the days of menstruation were henceforth equated with those of any other discharge. To this regulation, a further restriction was added, according to which a single spot of blood is treated as a regular flow also with regard to the necessity of counting seven "white" days. It is evident from the sources that originally, only sexual intercourse was prohibited during the seven "white" days, as against the prohibition of all physical contact during the actual days of menstruation (see below). In the course of time, however, this latter prohibition was extended to cover the "white" days as well, which thus became further days of ritual impurity (Shab. 13a).

Although transgressing the prohibition with regard to a niddah is punishable with karet, a marriage with a woman who is menstruating is binding, and her offspring is entirely legitimate, fit even for the priesthood and suffering only from a "taint" which is unattended by any halakhic consequences. The marriage ceremony of a bride who has begun menstruating shortly before is not postponed, even though, generally speaking, a marriage should be capable of immediate consummation. Nevertheless, many restrictions and minutiae with regard to the prohibition relating to the niddah came to be observed. In ancient times a niddah was completely segregated, particularly in Eretz Israel, where the laws of purity were still in vogue from the time when the Temple existed. Excluded from her home, the niddah stayed in a special house known as "a house for uncleanness" (Nid. 7:4); she was called galmudah ("segregated," RH 26a), and was not allowed to adorn herself until R. Akiva permitted her to do so, that she might not be repulsive to her husband (Sifra, Meẓora, 9:12). No food was eaten with a niddah (Tosef., Shab. 1:14) nor did she attend to her household duties, until the stage was reached in which "during all the days of her menstruation she is to be segregated" (ARN A 1, 4). The origin of this segregation lies in the custom, prevalent in Erez Israel long after the destruction of the Second Temple, of eating ordinary meals prepared according to the levitical rules originally prescribed for sacred food. This custom did not obtain prevalence in Babylonia, where there was neither any reason for, nor any halakhic possibility of, observing absolute purity, and where accordingly, all these expressions of the niddah’s segregation were not practiced. Thus, in Babylonia, she attended to all the needs of her household, with the exception of filling her husband’s cup of wine, making his bed, and washing him (Ket. 61a). In the latter half of the geonic period, the geonim of Babylonia, adopting an increasingly stricter view with regard to the ritual impurity of the niddah, accepted the restrictions of the earlier scholars of Erez Israel. Related to the spread of the Muslim religion, which was particularly strict in matters associated with "cleanness and uncleanness," this process reflects the strong desire of the geonim not to be inferior in their practices to their neighbors. Nevertheless, Maimonides, at a later stage, maintained that the restriction imposed on the niddah to refrain from cooking, touching a garment, and so on was devoid of any significance and might even savor of Karaism. These restrictions were generally not adopted in Europe, where the two factors that led to their introduction in Erez Israel and Babylonia were lacking, as well as because of the high status enjoyed there by the Jewish woman in managing the affairs of her household.

Yet it was mainly in Europe that new limitations and prohibitions were imposed on the niddah and on the members of her family. These measures are all contained in a small work entitled Baraita de-Niddah (1890), which is so strange that some scholars contended that it originated in a heretical Jewish sect. Where and when it was written has, up to the present, not been determined, although it has generally been assigned to the end of the geonic period. The special limitations mentioned in the work include the following: The niddah is prohibited from entering synagogue, as is also her husband, if he has been rendered impure by her in any way (by her spittle, the dust under her feet, and so on). She is likewise prohibited from kindling the Sabbath lights. One is not allowed to enquire after her welfare or to recite a benediction in her presence. A priest whose wife, mother, or daughter is a niddah may not recite the priestly benediction in the synagogue. No benefit may be derived from the work of a niddah, whose very utterances defile. From the beginning of the Rabbanite period, the influence of this work on codifiers has been particularly marked, and although it is generally admitted that its statements have no halakhic validity, they adopted its stringent measures. This is especially notable with regard to prohibiting a niddah from entering a synagogue, which gave rise to a not-insignificant literature among the early scholars of Germany.

This phenomenon is best understood against the background of the various superstitions current among the Jews, some of which derived from the non-Jewish environment. These superstitions held that the breath of a niddah’s mouth causes harm, that her glance "is disreputable and creates a bad impression," that a menstruant’s blood proves fatal to anyone drinking it, and if mingled with the bloodstream produces pustules and boils in the newly born child. If a niddah looks for a long time in a mirror, red drops resembling blood appear on it. She pollutes the air in her proximity, is regarded as sick and even as afflicted with plague, despite the fact that menstruation is natural to a woman (Nahmanides, Gen. 31:35; Lev. 12:4, 18:19). A menstruant at the beginning of her menses who passes between two men causes one of them to be killed; she produces strife between them if she is at the end of her period (Pes. 111a).

A Woman After Childbirth

The law relating to the woman who has given birth to a child is stated in Leviticus 12:1–8. According to the literal meaning of the passage, her discharge of blood is in the same category as menstrual blood and hence she is in a state of ritual impurity, like a niddah. This extends for seven days if she bears a boy and for 14 days if she has a girl. In addition to this, a further period of 33 days in the former instance and 66 in the latter is laid down, these being "the days of her purification," and the blood seen during that time is called "the blood of purification." During this period, she is sexually permitted to her husband but may not enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification have ended. On their conclusion, she had to bring the prescribed sacrifices. The law of the post-partum woman was preserved in this form by the sages, who, however, added that any blood seen during the days of her purification renders her ritually impure, requiring immediate ritual immersion before further sexual contact with her husband. In the view of the sages, childbirth and the counting of the days associated therewith annuls that of the above-mentioned 11 days, and a new cycle of menses begins. In the geonic period, the regulation in respect of the "white" days, previously referred to, was extended to include "the days of her purification," and consequently, the custom obtained in Babylonia, Ereẓ Israel, Spain, and North African countries that a woman who had given birth to a child observed seven "white" days for any spot of blood seen during the days of her purification. This extended regulation, which is wholly incompatible with the essential character of "the days of purification," in that they are not subject to the ritual impurity that accompanies menstruation, was not accepted in France and Germany, where sexual intercourse was permitted after a discharge of "blood of purification" (see Yad, Issurei Bi’ah, 11:6–7). The baraita in tractate Niddah, quoted above, mentions a yet more stringent custom according to which a woman is prohibited to her husband as a niddah for all 40 and 80 days after the birth of a son and a daughter, respectively, even though she has seen no blood during the entire period of her purification. This custom was regarded by Maimonides (Yad, ibid., 11:15) as "the way of heretics," and is indeed practiced by the *Karaites (Anan, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 19) – as also by *Beta Israel.

Non-Jewish Women

A non-Jewish menstruating woman does not impart ritual impurity (Sifra, Tazri’a), but there are scholars who hold that in ancient times, this was not so – a state of affairs which explains Bet Hillel’s statement in the Mishnah (Nid. 4:3). Furthermore, it is held that it was precisely this ancient halakhah that led to the decree that gentiles, in general, were ritually impure as a result of having intercourse with their menstruating wives. Most scholars, however, hold the opposite view, contending that Bet Hillel’s statement refers merely to the ritual impurity conveyed by a niddah’s blood and that it does not refer to the actual menstruating woman herself. It was rather the Hasmonean bet din which first "decreed that a Jew who had intercourse with a heathen woman is liable on account of her being a niddah" (Av. Zar. 36b) and that this decree was a general restriction intended to deter Jewish men from sexual relationships with gentile women.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.