A Brief Guide to Family Purity
By Avi Lazerson
Perhaps the aspect of Jewish life that sets the Jew apart from the culture of the world is the emphasis that it places on the family in general and in particular in the aspect of family purity. Judaism does not look at a family as the natural consequences of a male and female living together without employing ‘proper’ anti-pregnancy measures. Judaism looks at the family as the natural evolution and development of a new generation who are ready to accept and continue the heritage of their parents.
Where as life in today’s Western culture seems to center on ‘personal enjoyment’ or ‘personal fulfillment’, the traditional Jewish value is to emphasize the family and its welfare above that of the individual’s need for self-fulfillment. It is easy to accept the dominant culture’s value system as being valid as one lives one’s life, yet compared to the Jewish role model for living, the current Western culture is seen as vehemently hedonistic.
Judaism eschews the men and women to live a life that not only promotes family harmony, but injects into the midst of the family as sense of purity and holiness. As opposed to the culture of the street where sexual promiscuity becomes daily tabloid reading matter, the Jewish home radiates warmth, care, tranquility, and trust. Where as the common Western culture is replete with violence and sexual excesses, the Jewish home shuns that which acts as a cancer for family growth and adhesion, for the family is the essential core of Judaism, it is not a religion of adherents, but the continuation of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is a family that marches through the rising, yet perishing, cultures of each age taking with it only the message of Jewish tradition of the family and its sanctity.
Family purity begins with the women. It is about her menstrual flow, it is about sexual relations and abstention. It is about bringing holiness into an act that the coarse street culture look upon as ‘dirty’ and at the same time they use to promote every product from soft drinks to automobiles. Family purity is about giving birth to healthy vibrant children who have an inborn desire to be good as opposed to being killers. The secret of the Jewish family is that it unites not just the husband and the wife in the privacy of their bedrooms, but it draws into their bedroom with their most intimate relationship the holy of holies, G-d.
Whereas to most people who live in the predominant Western culture, sex is a great physical pleasure that is to be enjoyed with as many as possible, in all forms including perversion, in the Jewish family, sex is a special gift for a special time, for uniting man, woman and G-d in the holy act of creation. Unlike those who seek to ‘enjoy’ sex, who read ‘girlie’ magazines, magazines designed to increase the innate animal desires, far different from the vast porno adherents, Jewish sex is not a vehicle for mere personal pleasure. Sex, while it provides pleasure, is viewed in a positive mode. Like food, which is a necessity of life, sex is a necessity of life. It provides the new generations that live on.
The purity of the family is dependent on both the father and mother, but it all starts with the female. Family purity is about kosher sex and it is the women who must make the determinations when it is kosher to have relationships and when it is not. The menstrual flow is a normal part of being a woman. A woman lives within a cycle of constant recreation; it is she who gives birth to life. It is her body that conceives, carries and eventually gives birth. The cycle of her menstrual flow is not just indicative of her chances of conception, but is a constant building and budding of chance for life. Her body gives forth an egg that needs fertilization from the male; if that egg is not fertilized then it losses its ability to continue as a vehicle for life. It begins its descent from her womb and this together with the accompanying blood is the beginning of her menstrual cycle.
Death imparts spiritual impurity. When someone dies, the holy spirit that gave it life leaves and the lifeless body is now considered impure. When the egg can no longer be fertilized and it with the accompanying blood begins its descent, they cause the woman to become spiritually impure – the G-d given blessing to the woman to be the carrier of a new life has temporarily passed from the world like a dead person. The woman is now spiritually impure. At this time it is forbidden for her to have sexual relations with her husband. She is called in Hebrew a nidah. This period continues until the bleeding stops with a mandatory period of time of five days. Once the bleeding has stopped, then she must wait an additional seven days during which sexual relations are forbidden. At the conclusion of this period, the woman goes to a specially constructed ritual immersion pool called a mikvah and immerses herself totally. When she comes out she is cleansed of her spiritual defilement and is again spiritually pure and capable of resuming sexual relations with her husband. (See below for further elaboration)
When the husband and wife resume their natural intimate life together, they resume in an atmosphere of spiritual purity and holiness. When a child is conceived, the conception is a conception in holiness. The child develops in the womb with the blessings of the holy One. When he is born and begins to develop and live in the world, he has a spiritual advantage over a child that was conceived in spiritual defilement. Their abilities to receive and live with spirituality will be different. Their abilities to fathom the secrets of the Torah and the world around them will be different. The spiritually enhanced child will be capable of understanding the world around him from a higher and loftier advantage than the child who was born from a spiritually defiled relationship.
It is this aspect of family purity that has set aside the Jewish family from its common culture neighbor. It will be apparent to all the advantages a child born of a family that properly observe family purity have.
Below is a very brief guide to the observance of Jewish Family Purity:
Step One – Becoming a Niddah:
As soon as a woman feels a flow of blood from the uterus she becomes a niddah; even a drop the size of a grain of mustard - very small indeed - will cause her to become niddah. If however she did not feel the flow of blood, yet upon visual examination of herself or her undergarment she sees a blood spot, this is also an indication of the beginning of the niddah period. Any red color from light red to dark red, even black, indicates that her state of impurity has begun. The size of the blood stain that is considered large enough to render her a niddah is approximately the size of a penny. Not only upon the flow of blood from the uterus does a woman become niddah, but also on the insertion of a medical instrument in her vagina even if there is no blood flow.
In learning the laws of family purity, very often it is necessary to consult with knowledgeable rabbis. There is much to know, and only someone experienced in these important matters is capable of properly understanding and giving advice. It is imperative that you not feel inhibited when discussing these matters with them for it is just these matters that will bring into your family the holiness that is so necessary to create a pure family.
Step Two - Restrictions:
Once a woman becomes a niddah, it is strictly forbidden to have intercourse with her husband until she completes the purification process which terminates in a mikvah. During this time not only is sexual relations forbidden, but also that which brings closeness such as hugging, kissing and touching. All actions that could bring the husband and wife closer in an intimate manner are refrained from such as passing objects from one hand to the other’s hand; eating from the same plate, performing actions that bring one closer together such as making the spouse’s bed in her/his presence or passing a cup of wine to her/him.
At this time the beds are separated, for laying in the same bed can cause forbidden relations. Even to sit on the same sofa or bench is to be avoided.
Although those unfamiliar with Jewish family purity will look at these actions as restrictions on their individual liberty to pursue their personal pleasure, and it is possible that they may be correct, but what works is really what counts. If you desire to have a pure home, a home in which the family is pure and untainted from the crassness of commercial sex, these are not fences to keep people in, but to keep unwanted influences out.
Step Three – Beginning Preparations for Purity:
After the flow of blood has stopped and at least five days have passed from the beginning of the flow, the woman now begins a new period. This is a period of waiting to go to the mikvah. To begin this period, she must wash her vaginal opening and adjacent thighs. She should wear clean white undergarments and clean white sheets. This is to enable her to ascertain that there is no continuing bloody flow.
At the end of this period of five days minimum menstrual flow, an inspection must be made to ascertain that there is no blood. A clean test cloth is inserted in the vagina and pressed in all directions. It should be examined in daylight to ascertain that there are no reddish stains.
Step Four – Counting Seven Pure Days:
During these seven days it is necessary for the woman to examine herself, preferable twice a day during daylight hours, but if she only examined on the first and seventh day, it is sufficient. During these seven days no blood can be found, for if she sees a bloody stain, she can no longer conclude this period in purity.
The seven days must be successive; she can not see three pure days, one bloody day, and then four pure days.
Step Five - Mikvah:
At the conclusion of the seven day period of purity a woman will go to a kosher mikva. A swimming pool is never a kosher mikva nor is a bath tub.
Prior to immersion, the woman will bath herself and wash her hair. She must be careful that there is no dirt on her body, for then the water will not touch her skin. She also cuts her fingernails and cleans under them. Makeup and lipstick must be removed.
The teeth are also cleaned. Although the mikvah water does not go into the mouth, none the less, it must be clean.
After the sun sets and three medium stars are visible, she goes to the mikvah. Prior to immersion she removes all jewelry and makeup. She completely immerses her entire body under the water. Even her hair must be under the water at the same time that her body is submerged. To ascertain that she is completely submerged, the mikvah normally provides a woman assistant who watches each lady and gives instruction if necessary.
Step Six – After the Mikvah:
After leaving the mikvah, the husband and wife return to the normal life that they enjoyed before the onset of niddah. It is customary for the husband and wife to resume their sexual relationship on that night. Because of this, it is not considered modest to reveal that the woman is going or has gone to the mikvah of this particular night.
Disclaimer: The above is not meant to be a definite guide to family purity, but rather a very brief guide to bring to the reader’s attention what is entailed in a general manner. Following a life that includes family purity requires consultation with those knowledgeable in these manners. There are many who are qualified to give guidance on this topic treat questions with the utmost respect and even though they delve into matters of sexual intimacy which include many sensitive questions. Properly trained and qualified people are available throughout almost all Jewish communities to aid couples who wish to learn more. Generally their services are free in order that you and others like yourself should avail themselves of their services.
The loss of sexual ‘freedom’ is more than compensated by seeing a beautiful well-rounded family that enjoys the love and security of each member. Looking around the predominant Western culture in which divorce is common, homes in which the children look forward to leaving, where siblings have no relationship between one another, Jewish family purity brings the missing harmony into the family life. I earnestly encourage all Jews who currently do not observe Family purity to begin now.
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For more Jewish Customs, see our Customs Archives
from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine