From a “Pot of Filth” to a “Hedge of Roses” (And Back): Changing Theorizations of Menstruation in Judaism

  • Jonah Steinberg


Concerning the Jewish laws of purity and impurity, including hilkhot niddah, the laws pertaining to the menstruating Jewish woman, the twelfth-century rabbi, philosopher, and physician Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, also Ram-bam) wrote the following in his legal magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah: “It is clear and manifest that the laws of purity and impurity are Scriptural decrees, and they are not among the matters which human understanding can judge; for lo they are included among the ḥukkim [inscrutable God-given laws].”1 Closer to our own day, the Orthodox Jewish writer Kaiman Kahana introduced the manual Taharat BatYisroel (The Purity of Israel’s Daughter)—a summary of hilkhot niddah aimed at the Jewish married couple—with a similar remark:

Man cannot fully understand the reasons for these restrictions, just as he cannot fathom completely the reason for any of the divine commandments. Indeed, the motivation for the observance of mitzvoth [commandments] is never the knowledge of their full meaning, even if this were attainable. The basis for mitzvoth is, rather, the realization that they are the manifest will of the creator. Man’s only goal on earth is to fulfill, for as long as he breathes, the will of the creator of the whole universe.2


Jewish Woman Menstrual Blood Subsequent Reference Physical Danger Jewish Sect 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Kaiman Kahana, ed., Daughter of Israel [Taharat Bat Yisroel], trans. Leonard Oschry 3d ed. (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1973), 29.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Shaye Cohen, “Purity and Piety: The Separation of Menstruants from the Sancta,” in Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, ed. Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 106.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 195. (Subsequent references to this source will be indicated parenthetically in the text.) Compiled in the sixteenth century by Joseph Caro, the Shulhan Arukh is the most authoritative code of Jewish law. For lists of these (and other) regulations in English, see Kahana, 43–48; Saul Wagschal, Taharas Am Yisroel: A Guide to the Laws of Taharas Hamishpochoh, 2d ed. (New York: Feldheim Press, 1982), 59–67;Google Scholar
  4. and Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity: Insights into the Practice of Taharat Hamishpachah (New York: Targum-Feldheim Press, 1988), 110–15. The Shulhan Arukh also forbids the husband to jest or sport with his wife while she is a niddah. Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Rachel Adler, “In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity,” Tikkun 8, no. 1 (1992): 40.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Norman Lamm, A Hedge of Roses: Jewish Insights into Marriage and Married Life, 6th ed. (New York: Feldheim, 1987), 14. Subsequent references to this source appear parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    H. E. Yedidyah Ghatan, The Invaluable Pearl: The Unique Status of Women in Judaism (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1986), 26.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    “[M]any gynecologists and obstetricians feel that the Pap smear does not have to be administered to women who observe niddah,” Zev Shostak, A Guide to Jewish Family Laws, 4th ed. (Brooklyn: VTE, 1983), 32. Kaiman Kahana writes, “We shall not dwell upon the abundant physiological benefits derived, by men and women who live according to these laws. It has already been proven and much has been written about this in medical literature—that the withdrawal from marital relations during the menstrual period, as presented by the Torah, has prevented or severely restricted the occurrence of numerous diseases among the Jewish people” (29).Google Scholar
  9. 24.
    Ghatan, 164. For another examination of recent Orthodox literature on hilkhot niddah, see Jody Myers and Jane Rachel Litman, “The Secret of Jewish Femininity: Hidenness, Power and Physicality in the Theology of Orthodox Women in the Contemporary World,” in Tamar M. Rudavsky, ed., Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Experience (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 51–77.Google Scholar
  10. 25.
    Rachel Adler, “Tumah and Tahara-Mikveh,” in The Jewish Catalog, ed. Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), 167–71. Subsequent references to this source appear parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  11. See also Adler, “Tumah and Tahara: Ends and Beginnings,” in Elizabeth Koltun, ed., The Jewish Woman (New York: Shocken, 1976), 63–71.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Elizabeth A. Castelli 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonah Steinberg

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations