We’ve started living Leviticus 15 in our home, the part where God tells us how to handle menstrual impurity. I confess I’ve been a late bloomer on this command. I didn’t understand it enough to attempt to do it, beyond the occasional bath and maybe counting days on a calendar when I thought of it. But now we’re doing it, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. Yes, it is in the New Testament in many places, but this post is about the how of Lev. 15:19-30, not the why.
Here’s the relevant text of Leviticus 15:
15:19 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. 20 And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. 21 And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. 22 And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sat upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. 23 And if it be on her bed, or on any thing whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even. 24 And if any man lie with her at all, and her flowers be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and all the bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean. 25 And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days out of the time of her separation, or if it run beyond the time of her separation; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her separation: she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her separation: and whatsoever she sitteth upon shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her separation. 27 And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. 28 But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 30 And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for her before the LORD for the issue of her uncleanness.
Some Questions: Who is “whosoever”?
Verse 19 says “whosoever toucheth her,” and I’m inclined to take that literally to mean that what God is going to say will apply to whoever touches a menstruating woman; however, I’m beginning my journey a with a baby step by reading “whosoever” as my husband. That is the traditional view within Judaism, and for good reason: by verse 24, the husband is explicitly mentioned. Also, women who avoid touching other men out of modesty don’t need to struggle too much with this outside the home. Besides that, though, family purity is easiest to understand in the context of marriage. When you see how the instructions apply within the home, you’ll see you can easily take the same principles with you wherever you go.
What is niddah, and what is it like?
The word niddah can describe the woman or the state of being or the period of time of menstrual impurity. In verse 19, a form of the word is translated as “put apart.” Think of niddah as a protective bubble that encases the woman’s body when she is standing or in motion, and encases both the woman’s body and the piece of furniture she’s on when she is sitting or lying down. Niddah puts a barrier between menstrual impurity and another person, primarily her husband. This specific uncleanness can only transfer to another person if the person pierces the bubble of God’s protective commands.
What are we supposed to do (or not do) during niddah?
Verses 20-23 deal with touch. Simply put, when the time of niddah comes, the woman tells the her husband, and then the husband should respect the protective barrier around the woman and the furniture she is currently sitting on or lying on. Don’t touch her, and if she happens to be at rest, sitting or lying down, don’t touch the chair or bed either. In other words, give her some space!
In verse 22, in the whole passage actually, the verb tense is the imperfect. It doesn’t say not to touch anything she previously sat on; it says not to touch what she is sitting on. Menstrual impurity does not linger behind after the woman sits or lies on something. It doesn’t cling to food or clothing she touches. Impurity is safely contained inside the niddah’s space.
She is “not permitted” to her husband for intimate contact, which includes touch, during the seven niddah days.
What happens after niddah?
Verse 28 explains that after niddah comes a seven day period of purification. There is no “But if” in the Hebrew. The verse starts with the idea of becoming cleansed. It takes seven days to purify a woman from a flow of blood. Incidentally, it takes seven days for a man to be purified from contact with menstrual blood too (verse 24). Perhaps the purification has nothing to do with gender: it just takes seven days after a person’s last contact with menstrual blood to be purified from it.
Leviticus 12:4 on childbirth gives us more information about what being in the blood-purification time after niddah is: “she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.”
So blood purification is not the same as niddah… or is it? The instructions in the chapter have to do with the woman, not the man: she isn’t to touch holy objects or go to the sanctuary. It’s likely that these are regulations that are part of niddah as well since a niddah does not go to the temple until after the days of purification.
During blood purification, it’s not clear if a woman is technically clean or not. At the latest, a woman becomes clean from menstrual impurity seven days after the last blood flows by the passage of time. She is then clean, and because she is clean, she is permitted to go to the temple. If she is still unclean during the purification time, it stands to reason that her uncleanness can still transfer to her husband during the purifying days. That is why it is common for people to observe the niddah regulations through the days of purification, resulting in 14 days of no touching (seven niddah days + seven purifying days = fourteen days).
It seems to me that every woman becomes clean seven days after the blood. The holy nation of Israel, though, is not called to cleanness only, but unto holiness. There’s only one way to level up from a clean state to a holy state: the mikvah (total immersion, a baptism).
You don’t see a mikvah in the verses in Leviticus, but the mikvah is the last step in family purity.
No sooner than the eve after the seventh day of purification, the woman transitions from clean to holy by immersing in a mikvah. She began holy before the blood, and she finishes holy after the mikvah. After the mikvah, she is then permitted to her husband, and the two enter a time of touch, which is to say intimacy. It appears to answer the question of how to keep the marriage bed pure when confronted with this verse: “Marriage,” Hebrews 13:4 says, “should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure.”
Some Plain language instructions for the woman:
1) See a blood spot the size of a dime or greater? Tell your husband you are entering niddah. He should not touch you or the chair or bed you are actively sitting or lying on. The rest of your relationship can and should go on as normal. In fact, no one besides the two of you should know whether you are in permitted or unpermitted time. It’s a private thing.
2) Count seven purifying days after the seven niddah days. It is customary to wear white undergarments during these days so that you know you are in fact done bleeding. Some women use a special cloth to examine themselves during these days.
3) No sooner than the eve after the seventh purifying day, wash yourself physically, and then immerse in a mikvah.
4) Tell your husband you are in the time of permitted intimacy.
That’s over-simplifying the process, but it might help until you can consult a qualified rebbetzin on the matter.