Why Do Jewish Couples Separate During Menstruation?

by Chana Boteach

Let’s clear up this bloody misconception once and for all.

Judaism is all about promoting life and separating it from death. But, so much misunderstanding starts with a wonky translation. Let’s take a look into the meaning behind the separation.

Leviticus 15:19 states, “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be seven days in her menstrual separation: and whoever touches her shall be unclean (tamei) until evening.”

From this verse, Jewish law derives that a husband and wife need to separate during menstruation and abstain from sexual activity. Once a woman has dipped in a mikvah (ritual pool) the couple may come together again.

But let’s take a deeper look. What does “tamei” or “unclean” really mean and why does it necessitate separation?

The first thing that needs to be understood is that Judaism is a life-affirming religion, where the sanctity of life is paramount. During the creation  of the world, death was never part of the equation. In an ideal world and in Messianic times, death as we know it will not exist.

In the Torah, “tamei” is defined as “mixed.”

It does not mean sinful or unclean, it just means that separation is needed to deal with the mixup.

“Tamei” is also used to describe the type of impurity that is associated with coming into contact with death. Death is not “dirty” or “unclean” but a separation from the Godliness that infuses life into the world.

Menstruation, while a healthy bodily function, is the loss of potential life as the uterus sheds the lining that would have nourished a fertilized egg.

The Torah calls a menstruating woman a “Niddah”. Interestingly, men too are ritually impure after expelling semen. Both are termed as “tamei” following the bodily function. Though the specifics of each situation are unique, the point is the same. Each holds the loss of potential life.

So, when this potential for life is lost there is separation from sex, an act that has the potential for creation and life.

Now let’s get into the more practical implications of this separation.

While many may find it unnatural and counter-intuitive to separate from their spouse and not touch for up to two weeks, Judaism is actually very insightful about human nature.

The beauty of marriage is the oneness and closeness that two people experience together. But, often this total access can lead to over-exposure, boredom and monotony. Judaism therefore brings erotic obstacles and elements of forbidenness to renew excitement and polarity between a couple.

Separation for the sake of getting closer.

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