Some Possibilities of Why Jewesses Enstringed Upon Themselves Concerning Menstrual Impurity Around the Turn of the Fourth Century CE (Niddah 66a)

February 13, 2019 1 By Rabbi Drew

A significant text that occurs in the area of menstrual impurity in Jewish law (Halakhah) is the following reportage of Rabbi Zera (Niddah 66a):

אמר רבי זירא בנות ישראל החמירו על עצמן שאפילו רואות טפת דם כחרדל יושבות עליה שבעה נקיים

Rabbi Zera said: “Daughters of Israel have enstringed upon themselves that, even seeing a drop of blood like a mustard seed, they sit upon it seven clean ones.”

Having mentioned elsewhere that there is a lot to unpack about this statement, one aspect I am discussing in this piece is how it came to be about. There are many possibilities as to its potential etiology, of which I will discuss a half-dozen possibilities herein (although there may be more possibilities, as well):

  • Diminution of knowledge – Primarily advocated by medieval rabbinic scholars that these Jewesses no longer were really sure about the parameters of menstrual impurity, especially vis-à-vis distinguishing between who is in niddah, who is a zavah ketanah, and who is a zavah gedolah.
  • Lack of familiarity with calendarizing – It could be that these Jewesses were not really clear about their sense of keeping track of the calendar and how much time had passed between when they were supposed to be impure and when they were supposed to be pure, so they just went ahead and made a huge chunk of time to be considered as impure.
  • Birth Control – A simple possibility was that it may have started with some women desiring a form of birth control, but within a halakhic framework. That is, with the understanding that a woman is most fecund close to the time of her departure from the mikvah – about 8-10 days from the onset of her menses. By pushing back the time of her immersion in the mikvah, a woman would not be engaged in sexual intercourse at her [most] fecund time. This may have been done by those women who already felt they had a sufficient amount of children, but wanted to maintain a regular marital life. It may have then even spread to those women who were not in that particular situation. Either that, or, at its being reported, remained as a minority of women.
  • Keeping Up With Neighbors – Living in a land where most of their fellow women were Zoroastrian and keeping more stringent menstrual purity parameters than as set out by Tannaitic parameters, they may have felt a competitive need to enstringe upon themselves to a higher standard of menstrual impurity.
  • Not Originating With Jewesses – A somewhat cynical approach is that these Jewesses actually did not enstringe upon themselves regarding menstrual impurity, but, rather it was Rabbi Zera (or someone close to him) who came up with the stringency, but articulated it as if it had come from these Jewesses.
  • Diminution of Sexual Activity – A clear outcome of this enstringing is less days of availability for sexual activities between man and woman, could it also have been to allow some more physical/emotional space for the woman from engaging in sexual activities from her husband?

I should note that these possibilities are not mutually exclusive: for instance, it could be that these women wanted more space for themselves and less sexual activity, so they figured it could work for birth control purposes.

For the moment, I will leave these possibilities lacking annotation, but I hope to return to this post and properly annotate these possibilities.