Excerpted and adapted from my Master’s thesis
“The History of Niddah in America as Social Drama: Genealogy of a Ritual Practice”
Niddah, as observed by the global majority of Jews, is a set of biblically derived ritual practices surrounding menstruation that were developed into their current form by the rabbis of the early Talmudic period. The term Niddah can refer to this body of ritual law, to the practice of these rituals, to the general state of menstruation, or to the menstruant herself. Complicating Niddah’s place within the spectrum of menstrual rituals is the fact that Rabbinic Niddah practices are exclusive to menstruation within marriage, not all menstruation. Niddah observance begins with the menstrual cycle immediately preceding marriage and ends with either menopause, divorce, or widowhood. This has also resulted in Niddah traditionally having been a distinctly heterosexual practice for cis-gendered couples…and assumes monogamous marital relationships. I will discuss the complexities of how Niddah is being talked about and to an extent engaged among lesbian, transgendered, and non-binary couples in future posts. The remainder of this post will speak in the cis-hetero, monogamous normative terms reflecting the dominance of this tradition. Acknowledging this normativity is important for understanding what and why LTNB (lesbian, transgender, and non-binary) both push-back and embrace Niddah in the various ways they do. In posts where I discuss what is happening with Niddah today, I switch back to gender-neutral and coupling-neutral terms.
The rabbinic Niddah period is generally described in both academic literature and general Jewish literature as a three-stage process:
- the days of menstruation
- seven post-menstrual “white” days
- immersion in a mikvah.
During this Niddah period, prior to mikvah immersion, both wife and husband are required to proscribe their sexual activity, including increased verbal and physical modesty around each other, and curtailing any behaviors which may cause arousal.
During the ‘white’ (non-bleeding) days, strictly observant women are directed to check for bleeding both externally and internally, at a minimum, once daily but ideally twice daily around the transition times between day and night. After the sunset that concludes the seventh consecutive ‘white’ day, traditionally observant women transition out of the Niddah state by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual pool.
However, this common three-stage description tends to leave out or deemphasize four other important aspects of rabbinic Niddah ritual practice. These additional points extend Niddah to a six-stage process:
- veset (anticipation)
- Niddah of menstrual days
- Niddah of “white days”
- preparation for mikvah immersion
- immersion in mikvah
- post-mikvah sex.
Veset, that is, day(s) of anticipated start of bleeding, during which the ritual proscriptions are observed for either a full twenty-four hours, or the day or night portions thereof, depending on a woman’s community custom and her own established pattern of flow start, as defined by the three consecutive months immediately preceding the current month. Strict observance directs couples to also separate on the days that menses are expected to begin. Interestingly enough, I have found the three halakhic methods for calculating anticipated menses to be overall more accurate than the conventional simple counting of 28-30-some days.
preparation for mikvah is often conflated with immersion itself. However, preparations involve a set of details distinct from the details of immersion, and may be conducted in different locations with significant time-lapses between initial preparation at home and final preparations in the mikvah immediately preceding immersion, as in the case of immersions scheduled for nights following Shabbat and Holy Days. Thus, mikvah preparations qualify as a separate stage in the process.
Resuming of sexual relations is generally presented in both academic literature and in the religious literature for general-readership as a return to normalcy after mikvah immersion concludes the Niddah period. However, in the case of a delay in resuming relations after immersion such as when one partner is traveling and not expected home until the day after immersion, women are required not to bathe until after intercourse and, according to some, it is advisable to sleep with a knife under her pillow until after relations resume [link Der-hey?!?]. These additional strictures reinforce that sexual relations, rather than mikvah immersion, concludes the ritual period. Framing of Niddah within the context of heterosexual marriage and its proscription of only sexually related activities reinforce reading Niddah’s structures as a sexual or marital practice, with an emphasis on sex’s reproductive potential, further complicating its place within the general category of menstrual rituals.
 Rabbinic Judaism is a specific form of Judaism which is distinct from Biblical Judaism. The distinction arises in interpretations of Jewish Biblical documents based on a belief in an Oral Torah/Teachings, or interpretive tradition, which informs reading the Written Torah/Teachings and produces a unique approach to enacting Biblical commandments. Time frame for the development of rabbinic Judaism is a subject of great debate among scholars; but it is safe to place it somewhere in the centuries around the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Its first solid documentation is the Mishnah, whose date is also uncertain but generally attributed to late second century CE. Mishnah refers to a body of writing which articulates the earliest expression of Rabbinic Jewish thought practice. which Talmud is commentary on Mishnah
 Note that this requires couple to remain cognizant of what arouses themselves and their partners, suggesting a heightened awareness of their sexual triggers.