The “Laws of Family Purity” are among the cornerstones of the Jewish tradition. In their most basic form, they hold the following:
Five (in some cases four) days after the onset of a woman’s monthly period, she determines by self-examination that all her bleeding has ceased. Once this is established, she counts seven “clean” days, then immerses herself in a ritual bath (mikveh taharah ) – a pool of clean water constructed according to specific legal specifications.(1) It is forbidden for a husband and wife to engage in physical contact from the onset of her period until after her immersion in a mikveh. This period is known as niddah in halachic literature and applies equally to married and single women.(2) (This is in addition to the clear prohibitions against any physical contact between men and women without the pre-condition of an authentic Jewish marriage ceremony).
The Laws of Family Purity might appear strange to a person with little or no acquaintance with Judaism. Yet recent stunning scientific discoveries have revealed that these laws offer a brilliant technique for the healthy management of the human body, and that they reflect an amazing knowledge of the physiological systems guiding a woman’s body; for they take into account minute, hidden details of internal biological processes that medical research has only recently discovered.
Beyond these surprising facts, it has become clear that Jewish law provides solutions to a number of difficult medical and family-relationship problems confronted by many couples. The Laws of Family Purity are based not only upon expertise in the area of physiology, but also reflect expertise in the fields of general health, endocrinology, psychology, and sociology as they relate to married life.
The following excerpts are from the article “Health and Happiness in Married Life,”(2) by Dr. Eli Sussheim, a senior surgeon at Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel, together with our own supplemental explanations and emphases, will guide us through our exploration of this topic:
“There are incredibly close correlations between Jewish tradition and medical science regarding the chronology of the three physiological stages in a woman’s monthly period. For the purposes of this discussion we will begin with the first two stages before moving to the third. In the first stage the lining of the outer surface of the uterus detaches and sheds, which causes bleeding. In the second stage, the uterus rebuilds the destroyed portion of the lining in order to prepare itself to receive and nourish the developing embryo it is designed to support.
Advanced scientific devices have only recently discovered that the length of time required for reestablishing the uterus’s outer lining is seven days from the end of the process (marked by the cessation of bleeding). Scientists have been amazed to learn that according to Jewish law a woman must wait seven “clean” days from the end of bleeding – at which point she immerses in a mikveh, allowing the couple to resume marital relations.
Before focusing on a particularly intriguing detail of this correlation, let us state unequivocally that the Torah’s commandments were not given based on their health benefits. The commandments are like the decrees of a king, the reasons for which are never revealed to his servants. The Laws of Family Purity must be observed whether we ascertain their health benefits or not.
It is obvious that the Creator of the World, who established the nature of all things, would not allow any damage to health to occur as a result of observing the commandments. In fact the opposite is true: God most certainly formed a positive link between human health, nutrition, behavior and the performance of the commandments. Yet one must remember that good health and other visceral benefits of observing the commandments are not the goals of Jewish religious practice; they are only their secondary outcome.
From this perspective we return to the discovery mentioned above concerning the seven day process required by the uterus to rebuild its outer lining. Until the completion of this process the outside of a uterus is like a sponge, prone to absorb any bacteria with which it comes in contact, thus creating an ideal breeding ground for the development of diseases. Proper management of the woman’s monthly period protects the body from such threats.
Indeed, cancer researchers have noted that traditionally observant Jewish women, who observe the Laws of Family Purity, have a natural “immunization” against this dreaded disease, and the chances of their developing uterine cancer is greatly reduced.
We can easily add further benefits of the Laws of Family Purity, demonstrating once again what our ancestors have always known – that the same God who created both humankind and the world also wrote the Torah. However, let us offer only two more brief examples, allowing the reader’s own intelligence and curiosity to encourage him or her towards further study of these issues.
1. The first two stages of the woman’s monthly period were described above. These include the break down of the outer lining of the uterus and its reformation. During these stages, the Laws of Family Purity safeguard the woman’s health. The third stage is ovulation, namely, the expulsion of the ovum from the ovaries. The time of ovulation coincides exactly with the reformation of the outer lining of the uterus (which will catch the fertilized ovum, nourish it and allow it to grow into a fetus). Based upon astounding evidence accumulated by various monitoring devices, scientists have determined that the day of immersion in the mikveh – which is the first day of resumed marital relationships after the menstrual break – is the absolute best day for conception!
The most interesting fact here is the overlap between three intimately connected functions: the legally proscribed day for immersion after seven clean days; the point of ovulation most likely to produce conception; and the culmination of the seven days of rebuilding the outer lining of the uterus.
Again, scientific discoveries do not reveal anything that was not already stated in clear terms by the Oral Torah which states: “A woman conceives only immediately after her immersion.”(4)
2. It is said in the Babylonian Talmud:(5)
“Why did the Torah make the duration of niddah seven [“clean”] days [after the four or five days of her period]? Because he [the husband, may have] got used to her and was impatient with her [Rashi explains that this means that he was “tired of her”]. The Torah decided to make her forbidden for seven days so that she would be desirable to her husband again [after immersing in the mikveh], just as she was on their wedding night.”
This teaching illuminates the Laws of Family Purity from a different direction, emphasizing their contribution to the emotional health of the couple. It turns out that these laws provides an ideal solution for one of the major challenges of marital relations – the boredom, distance, and fatigue partners can feel for each other that can eventually damage or even destroy married life.
This point needs to be explored even further, but as stated before, we will leave this task to the reader.(6)
In conclusion let us reiterate that any scientific evidence proving the health benefits of the commandments merely elucidates their profound and eternal significance of the Divine ordinances. Such reasons are not, however, the ultimate rationale for the commandments, which transcend human understanding altogether. Thus, no matter what their other benefits, observance of the commandments has itself always been the greatest benefit for the Jewish people.
Notes and Sources
(1) Every menstrual cycle ends in the loss of a potential new life. The negative spiritual outcome of this process requires spiritual re-balancing, which can only be achieved through a ritually fit mikveh, which removes spiritual impurity (symbolically similar to the removal of unseen germs by sterilizing). According to the Jewish esoteric teachings, forty se’ah (about 88 gallons) of water that was collected (such as rain or spring water) is deemed “living water” (mayim chayim), and contains purifying properties not found in drawn or tap water. (Similar to a plucked flower, which may look alive, but is actually dead, water that is manually drawn from the ground or tap merely resembles “living water,” whereas it lacks spiritual purifying power). All of the water that is subsequently added to that forty se’ah also becomes “living water.” All mikveh pools are built based on this fundamental principle. After the water of the immersion pool comes into contact with the water in the collection vessel, all the water becomes “living water,” and is fit for ritual immersion. This water surrounds the person immersed in them and creates a level of purity reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden, before their sin which brought death to the world. Thus, the waters of the mikveh are also called: “the river coming out of Eden” (Genesis 1: 10). From a spiritual perspective, the person who emerges from a mikveh is like a baby born from the pure world of the womb. For this reason, there must be no obstruction between the body and the water, and it is forbidden for any part of the body, even a strand of hair, to remain outside. (Water, which constitutes two-thirds of the human body, derives from the spiritual world sefirah of chesed, whose character is that of unlimited bestowal.)
(2) Single women, however, do not go to the ^mikveh ^^until just prior to their wedding.
(4) Ibid., 23, 33, 49–51.
(5) BT Niddah 30a/b. See also Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 14: 5: “A woman only ‘receives’ after her niddah.”
(6) BT Niddah 30b.