Niddah in a Nutshell
The Basic Laws of Taharat Hamishpacha (Family Purity)
A woman enters the halachic status of niddah when she experiences uterine bleeding not due to abrasions, lacerations or other forms of trauma (makah). The most common cause of this status is menstruation. However, niddah and menstruation are not totally synonymous. Uterine bleeding from the withdrawal of hormones (such as occurs when using oral contraceptive pills), and as side effects of medication also causes the onset of this status. Stains (ketamim) found on the body, clothing or bedding that fit certain criteria and cannot be attributed to other sources also render a woman niddah. Certain gynecological procedures involving significant dilation of the cervix may render a woman niddah even in the absence of visible bleeding. Childbirth brings on a similar status known as yoledet.
While the wife is niddah, the couple is not permitted any physical contact. Further proscriptions on behavior (harchakot), apply as well. In order to prevent marital relations from inadvertantly taking place at the time that a woman begins her menses, the couple also observes times of separation (vestot or onot perishah) when marital relations are prohibited but the harchakot are not required.
A woman remains in the niddah status until she has passed the following stages:
- At least five days (or four by some Sephardi customs), have passed since the onset of the niddah.
- All bleeding has ceased. This is halachically confirmed by a self performed internal exam known as a hefsek taharah, and further confirmed by the insertion of a cloth from sunset until dark (moch dachuk). As mentioned, the hefsek taharah may be performed as early as the fifth day from the onset of the niddah status.
- She counts seven clean days (shivah neki’im), beginning the day after the hefsek taharah. During these days, the woman wears white underwear and performs internal exams (bedikot) (generally two per day) to halachically assure that bleeding has not restarted.
- On the completion of the seven days, she prepares for immersion, ensuring that she has removed all barriers (chatzitzot) which could intervene between her body and the water. She then immerses in a kosher mikveh and exits the niddah status. She is now tehorah and may resume relations with her husband.
Torah & Rabbinic Law (D’Oraita & D’Rabbanan)
“Torah law” (D’Oraita) includes not only the commandments stated in the Torah, but also their authoritative Rabbinic interpretation. “Rabbinic law” (D’Rabbanan) refers to decrees enacted by the rabbis after the Torah was given. These Rabbinic decrees protect and enhance our observance of Torah Law.
In most cases, Rabbinic law and Torah law are equally binding. Even when the Rabbis of the Talmud explicitly stated the reasoning behind an enactment, and circumstances have changed such that the reasoning no longer applies, the enactment remains in force unless formally revoked.
However, our sages sometimes built special leniencies into Rabbinic laws. In cases of doubt (safek), after the fact (bediavad), or in extenuating circumstances (bish’at hadechak), rulings concerning Rabbinic law may be more lenient. The application of these general principles to particular cases is complex. A posek (halachic decisor) must consider many halachic factors and practical details before issuing a ruling appropriate to the individual situation.
Rabbinic law as derived from the Talmud is binding upon all Jews. In addition, there have always been local customs and prohibitions, which are binding only where practiced. Indeed, the Talmud gives detailed rules for people who visit or move to a locale where the custom differs from their own. Custom can also determine halachic practice in cases of disagreement among rabbinic authorities.
Some customs were eventually adopted universally or almost universally (e.g. monogamy). Others are observed by some major segments of Jewry but not by others (e.g., not eating rice on Passover), while still others are practiced by specific subgroups (e.g., Lubavitch), locations (e.g., minhag Yerushalayim), or even families.
Jews whose ancestors originated in most areas of Europe (regardless of where they live now) tend to follow Ashkenazic customs, while those originating from the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East generally follow Sephardic customs. (“Ashkenaz” was the medieval Jewish name for a part of Germany; “Sephard” for a part of Spain and Portugal).A rabbi or other respondent should always be aware of which customs are followed by a person asking a question.