Jewish Laws of Purity in Jesus’ Day

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The sages were required to interpret the biblical commandments, including those dealing with ritual uncleanness of menstruants. Rabbinic regulations about impurity caused by menstruation form the background to several stories in the gospels.

The Hebrew Scriptures and other early Jewish writings place considerable emphasis upon the laws of נִדָּה (niddah, “menstruation,” “menstrual flow”; “menstruant”). The main foundational teaching on menstruation in the Hebrew Scriptures is found in Leviticus 15:19-33. In addition, the sixth division of the Mishnah, Tohorot (Cleannesses) contains a tractate titled Niddah (The Menstruant). Furthermore, the Babylonian Talmud devotes hundreds of pages to commentary on the laws of menstruation in the tractate Niddah, including numerous accounts of how the rabbis judged the “purity” of various stained cloths that had been presented for their examination (Niddah 20b).

The Regulations

According to the Bible, a woman is impure for seven days from the beginning of her menstrual flow (Lev. 12:2; 15:19). Anyone who touches a menstruous woman becomes unclean until evening (Lev. 15:19). Whoever touches her bed or anything she sits on during the week is unclean until evening and must wash his clothes and bathe with water (vss. 20-23).

A ritual immersion pool (mikveh) discovered at Magdala. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Sexual relations during a woman’s period are forbidden (Lev. 18:19; Ezek. 18:6; 22:10). The penalty for the man and woman who violate this prohibition is being “cut off” from the people of Israel (Lev. 20:18). But should a woman’s menses begin during intercourse, the man and woman become unclean for seven days, and her condition of uncleanness is transferred to him (Lev. 15:24).

If a woman menstruates for more than seven days, or has an irregular discharge of blood at any time other than her period, her uncleanness ends only after seven “clean” days (Lev. 15:25ff.). On the eighth “clean” day, the final act of ritual purity involves the bringing of two doves or two young pigeons for sacrifice (Lev. 15:29ff.).

The sages extended the period when sexual relations between a husband and wife are prohibited to seven “clean” days following the menstrual period. This means that the total period of separation is about twelve days a month assuming a menstrual period of five days.

Purification

By the time of Jesus, bathing in water was an established part of the purification process following menstruation, but nowhere in the Bible is there mention of the menstruant bathing in water. Instruction on purification through the use of the mikveh (ritual bath) by menstruants may be traced to the time of the sages. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Mikvaot, is devoted to immersion pools. To this day, for Jewish women committed to halachah (religious law), immersion in the mikveh is considered obligatory before marital relations can resume.

According to Leviticus 12:1-8, because of the bleeding associated with childbirth, a woman is ceremonially unclean after giving birth, just as she is unclean during her menstrual period. The uncleanness is for seven days if she bears a boy (vs. 2), and for fourteen days if she bears a girl (vs. 5). The mother must wait thirty-three additional days after a boy and sixty-six days after a girl to be finally “purified from her bleeding” (vss. 4-5). At the end of her time of uncleanness, she is to bring a sacrifice to the priest (vss. 6-8).

The Synoptic Gospels record an account of Jesus coming into contact with a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years (Matt 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48). Whatever the cause of her loss of blood, the Levitical restrictions (esp. Lev. 15:19-33) rendered her ritually unclean, and likewise anyone and anything she might touch, thus making her an exile among her own people. The moment the woman touched the cloak of Jesus, however, she was healed by the power of God, and her defilement removed. The New Testament is silent about whether the woman’s actions rendered Jesus ceremonially unclean and about her obligation to bring the prescribed offerings following cessation of her discharge (cf. Lev. 15:28-30).

Rock-hewn steps descending to a mikveh (ritual immersion pool) which was discovered in 1968 during the Temple Mount Excavations. The low divider built on top of the stairs enabled a ritually clean person to exit the pool by a different path and thus avoid contact with an entering unclean person (cf. Mishnah, Shekalim 8:2). Photo: David Bivin.

Other Sources

In addition to the Bible, other Jewish sources indicate Judaism developed very strong and forthright teaching concerning niddah. For example, the Mishnah compares the uncleanness of an idol to the impurity of a menstruating woman (Shabbat 9:1). The failure to heed laws concerning menstruation was considered one of three transgressions for which women die in childbirth (Mishnah, Shabbat 2:6). Josephus states that women during the menstrual period were not permitted in any of the courts of the Temple (Against Apion 2:103-104;  War 5:227). The social separation of women during their menses is further emphasized in the Talmud.

The Mishnaic sages taught that women were exempt from religious ordinances whose fulfillment depended upon a certain time of the day or the year (Mishnah, Berachot 3:3; Kiddushin 1:7). Thus, the lengthy periods of seclusion mandated by their ritual uncleanness, as well as their responsibilities at home, led to a general non-participation of women in the public activities of community religious life. A woman’s routine, however, could change somewhat at menopause. An “old woman,” according to the Mishnah, is one who has missed three menstrual periods (Niddah 1:5).[1]

For more on the topic of ritual purity, see the JP article by Joshua N. Tilton, “A Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity.”

This article originally appeared in issue 37 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • Marvin Wilson

    Marvin Wilson

    Marvin R. Wilson was, until his retirement in 2018, the Harold J. Ockenga Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He has been honored four times at Gordon commencements with the senior faculty award for “Excellence in Teaching.” His field-trip course…
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