Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Dangers of Monthly Impurity - Shabbat 13

One of the more touchy subjects in rabbinic law is the question of the menstruating woman [niddah] – just like the eruv [permissive boundary] for Shabat, it has its own Talmudic tractate. A mishnah reference to the separation of impure people from one another earlier in tractate Shabbat, leads to a discussion of this particular law. Based on Torah law, the niddah is considered ritually impure and can “schmutzify” (make impure – my own slang) others by physical contact until her blood flow has stopped for seven days. The question considered here is whether a man and his menstruating wife can share a bed if they each wear separate garments. Fortunately this pre-occupation with menstrual status has faded from the lives of many contemporary Jews.

Some argue that since two boarders at an inn can sit at the same table while one eats meat and the other eats cheese (even though eating both by one person would violate kashrut [kosher dietary laws]). By analogy, they can share the bed without touching each other because there are two minds involved (and thus can remind each other) with an unusual feature (being clothed) to separate them. Other claim that the niddah is like a neighbor’s wife, and since one cannot share a bed with a neighbor’s wife, even in separate garments, one may not do so with a niddah.

This concept of keeping extra distance to avoid sin is what we’ve been discussing in previous pages. So it is understandable to read a teaching of Ulla that the nazir [one who has vowed to consume no wine] to even avoid the vineyard. What surprises us is that it appears to prove pliga deeday adeeday – he disagrees with himself. For when Ulla returned from his school, he would kiss his sisters on the breasts (other say, on the hands)! If one is forbidden to have sexual relations with one’s siblings, where is this leading? Hypocrisy was no more accepted then than it is now.

To prove the general point, however, a citation from another rabbinic collection tells of a scholar who died in middle age, and whose widow carried around his tefillin [prayer boxes] to other scholars asking why he died if obeying the commandments promised long life? None could answer her, but Elijah (the supposed author of the collection) discovered that her husband shared her bed during her seven cleansing days after her menstrual flow stopped. Elijah’s response: “Blessed is God that he killed him” fairly for this violation, despite his great learning. Probably not the most comforting words to the widow, but to the (male) rabbis defining these laws, a new confirmation of the dangers of approaching the niddah.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Alas, there is also an interesting anecdote about the teachings enacted in the upper chamber of a Rabbi’s house on the one day Beit Hillel was outnumbered by Beit Shammai, But we will have to let it go for this cycle of the Daf Yomi. And I apologize for the pun in the first sentence of today's blog entry, but it was (originally) unintentional.