Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s Enactment in the Fields

July 29, 2019 0 By Rabbi Drew

Originally researched and worked on in the summer of 2017,[1] I have finally tweaked this piece and am publishing it. I consider this essay to very much be a work in-progress, so I am very open to comments and working on this piece.

 With the early rabbinic system built up to deal with menstrual impurity, based off of Leviticus chapter 15,[2] a curious tweak was reported to have been made at the cusp of the transition between the tannaitic and amoraic eras (bNiddah 66a):

אמר רב יהודה[3] אמר רב התקין רבי בשדות[4]:
ראתה יום אחד תשב ששה והוא
שנים תשב ששה והן
שלשה תשב שבעה נקיים

Rav Yehudah said: “Rav said: ‘Rabbi enacted in the fields:
If she saw [blood on] one day, she should sit six [days] in addition to [the first day].
[If she saw blood for] two [days], she should sit six [days] in addition to [the first two days].
[If she sees blood for] three [days], she should wait seven clean [days].'”


There is a lot to consider about the aforementioned text, not the least of which is how this text arrived. There are over 100 instances of Rav Yehudah directly quoting Rav, most of which are either apodictic, clarifying, or use Scriptural quotes, although there is a small segment of them that are stories. Of these stories, most are introduced with “מעשה” (Bava Batra 146a, Bava Batra 146a-b, Gittin 35a, Gittin 58a, Moed Katan 8a, Sanhedrin 64a, and Sanhedrin 65a), and a couple that are not (Ketubot 14b-15a and Eruvin 65b). Thus, this reportage does not seem anomalous that Rav Yehudah would quote Rav speaking of a historical matter, especially on a matter concerning women.[5] It is noteworthy that it is the only occurrence of this text.[6]


Who Were These Women in the Fields?

Why did Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi choose to make this happen in the fields? Who is in the fields? What is their lifestyle like? And, finally, why did Rabbi see fit to make this legislative activity take place there?

First, we need to establish that this text is actually discussing the fields (or not). While it seems straightforward from the manuscripts and printed versions of the Talmud that this activity took place in the fields, “there are significant differences in medieval citations of the word,”[7] causing “a debate as to how to read and understand the word שדות.”[8] Secunda points out the following variants: “Rif and R. Nissim (Ran) record ‘בסוודת’ (Rif Sheb. 4a), Meiri has ‘בשוריית’ (ed. Dykman, 288), Midrash Hagadol has ‘בסוריא’ (ed. Margoliot, p. 452), and R. Yonah of Gerona has ‘בשדה’ (Ber. 21b according to the pagination of Rif).”[9] In other words,

Although some scholars have chosen to render שדות as a place-name, and, indeed, some of the variants seem to indicate that various scribes and printers took this approach, I understand the word as “the fields” both on the basis of the immediate context and the fact that of all the four talmudic anecdotes depicting a sage in a field (bShab 127a, 147a, bA.Z. 35b, and bNid. 66a), all concern Rabbi.[10]

While the geographical significance of Rav Yehudah quoting Rav’s reporting about this legislative activity could simply be taking note of where Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was when he made it,[11] it seems more likely that he did so for the legislative activity to take place specifically in fields. Although it’s not totally clear what life was like for the Jewesses in the fields,[12] perhaps they were more involved with their agricultural affairs and less connected with life in either the towns or cities. It is curious that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi made it only for these Jewesses and not for a broader demographic; not for those in the towns, cities, or other more populous locations. Was it because he was used to the Jewesses in those locations being more calendrically-connected, socially-aware, or some sort of biological reason to be more concerned with the boundaries of menstrual impurity as set up by the tannaim?


What was Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s Action?

What was it that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi enacted? The verb employed, התקין “enacted”, means “the enactment of an innovative item of law involving the improvement of a condition. The word comes from the root תקן tikken, meaning to fix or repair.”[13] This action was found in places throughout the Mishnah, which Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was reported to have published,[14] which is not out of place. Another formulation is that “Takkana is an amendment of early law, either Pentateuchal or halaka, introduced by the sages generally or the purpose of harmonizing religion and life. They did not hesitate to amend a Pentateuchal law if such was life’s demand.”[15]

In this adjusting of practice, it seems that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi flattened the distinctions between the three categories of menstrual discharges. The three distinct categories that were established by the tannaim – niddah, zivah gedolah, and zivah ketanah (regular menstruation (uterine blood during one’s normal menstrual period)) and two categories of uterine bleeding not at the appropriate time – were to be erased.  These three categories were to be chronologically distinct. One thing that is unclear is whether Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s enactment in the fields was to cover only uterine bleeding during the zivah days or if it was any time (both zivah and niddah).[16]

Going through each of the three lines of what Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi was reported to have enacted in the fields will help us get a specific understanding of what it is that occurred. His first line, “If she saw [blood on] one day, she should sit six [days] in addition to [the first day]” seems to take this woman from being either a zavah ketanah or niddah and simply placed her in the category of niddah, since, perhaps she might have miscounted and actually have been in the days of niddah when she saw blood.[17] Of the two possibilities, this is certainly taking the stricter option. If Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi had meant for this enactment to have taken place during the zivah days, then this is surely a strict route just to ensure that these Jewesses in the fields are not actually bleeding during niddah days. If it was meant for anytime, then it seems that he’s just trying to err on the side of safety.

Similar to the first line, the second line, “[If she saw blood for] two [days], she should sit six [days] in addition to [the first two days]” adds on six days to her two bleeding days. This is a bit peculiar – either she is in the status of niddah and should only have to wait five further days or she is in the status of zivah ketanah and just needs to make sure she doesn’t bleed again, so why does he state that there should be six days of waiting? One possibility is that it really should only be five days, as some medieval commentators have written,[18] which would make sense that she is really just in niddah. However, since none of the manuscripts or printed versions state five days, we will stick to understanding his statement to have been six days as in the manuscripts.

Going with along with the miscounting theory again, one possibility is that maybe the first of these two days of bleeding was really part of her zivah days, but the second day was the first of her niddah days, requiring her to wait a further six days.[19]  Again, she could have been considered as a zavah ketanah or a niddah, but the option is to place her in the stricter of these categories. If this enactment was meant to govern only the zivah days, then Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi is significantly making it stricter for the women, with them having to wait six more days without blood, versus just waiting one more day to make sure she is no longer bleeding.[20] Clearly, this is the stricter option here. If this enactment was made for anytime, then it is quite curious why a menstruating Jewess would have to be in her impurity for an additional day beyond what was required either before or for the Jewesses not in the field.

The third line of his statement takes us into a new possibility: what happens if she bleeds for a third day? Normally, if this were to take place in the days of niddah, she would still be in that state for four more days; if this were to take place in the days of zivah, she would be considered a zavah gedolah and she would wait seven blood-free days. On this account, this part of the enactment suggests that the greater concern is that she is in zivah and not niddah,[21] causing her to wait seven clean days.  In other words, this move on his part, “turns a woman into a full-fledged zavah who must then wait seven days before returning to a state of ritual purity, in all, a ten-day separation.”[22]

What is so striking about this change of his for the Jewesses of the fields is that it essentially demolishes the standard menstrual impurity of niddah and replaces it with the longer zivah. This move removed these Jewesses in the fields “from the regular menstrual category and placed them in the abnormal status of zava because most normal periods last at least three days.”[23]  To clarify, these seven days “are the seven clean days of the zavah, not the seven days of menstrual impurity, and certainly not seven clean days after the seven days of menstrual impurity.”[24]

One of the interesting aspects of this third line of the statement is that it does not follow the same language of the first two lines – in the first two, the language employed is “six and them”, whereas this line uses the phrase “seven clean days”. I think it should be helpful for us to consider this phrase and how it is used here. The phrase שבעה נקיים has only one earlier mention in the Babylonian Talmud – a beraita that discusses zivah (Niddah 37b):

דותה תטמא – לרבות את בועלה
דותה תטמא – לרבות את הלילות
דותה תטמא – לרבות את היולדת בזוב שצריכה שתשב שבעה נקיים

“Her sickness shall she be unclean” (Lev. 12.2) – to include her male sexual penetrator;
“Her sickness shall she be unclean” (Lev. 12.2) – to include the nights;
“Her sickness shall she be unclean” (Lev. 12.2) – to include a parturient in zivah who is required to sit seven clean days.

In this text, which is the only tannaitic mention of this phrase in the Babylonian Talmud,[25] the term שבעה נקיים “appears in reference to a woman who experiences a zivah discharge some time before she gives birth. Such a woman must count an extra seven days at the conclusion of her seven or fourteen impure ‘days of birth (yemei leidah)’ – the requisite days of impurity following the birth of a male (seven days) or female (fourteen days) child.”[26] Since this is the only employment of the term שבעה נקיים in tannaitic literature, it would appear that this term is only used in this specific case of a parturient zavah having to wait a full bloodless seven days at the end of her parturient impurity. However, that means that this term is not used in typical zivah cases: “in classical rabbinic literature, the term ‘shiv‘ah Neqiyyim’ is never used to describe the standard requirement of a zavah to wait seven days following the cessation of discharge.”[27] Why the phrase שבעה נקיים would be employed in our text is unclear.


Why Did Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi Make This Enactment?

Why did Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi make this enactment for the Jewesses in the field? It would seem the most likely possibility was lack of good calendaring in the culture of the fields – whether a general sense of time-keeping or a more particular menstrual impurity-focussed according to the rabbinic system.[28] Indeed,

His statement reflects the possible confusion in keeping track of one’s period, especially in light of the new system of pithei niddah. If a woman erred in her menstrual history, she might end up having sexual relations at a forbidden time. If this was done intentionally, the punishment was karet; if done accidentally, the woman was obligated to bring a sin offering. Atonement by sacrifice, however, could not be made after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70.[29]

It would seem that one possibility for Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s motivation in making this move was that “given the complex clarifications needed to decide when one is niddah and when one may be a zava, one might come to make a mistake with grievous consequences.”[30]

The serious consequences of messing up one’s own counting of menstrual impurity for these Jewesses in the fields was evident, although, it would seem, it was owing to their lack of calendrical awareness. Owing to a different cultural sense of calendarizing than those in more urban environments, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, according to what we’ve seen, was reported to have made this enactment in order to allay the calendrical concerns of these Jewesses and just to focus on each and every instance of their uterine bleeding and count according to consecutive days of bloodflow – moving it from an objective mapping onto a social calendar towards an individualized counting.


[1] In truth, most of my research into menstrual impurity took place in 2006-2007, but my putting this particular essay together took place in the summer of 2017.

[2] For one description of this system, see, for instance, the formulation of Shai Secunda, “‘Dashtana – “Ki Derekh Nashim Li“‘: A Study of the Babylonian Rabbinic Laws of Menstruation in Relation to Corresponding Zoroastrian Texts,” (Ph.D. diss., Yeshiva University, 2007), 142-144.

[3] While the printed editions include רב יוסף as quoting רב יהודה quoting רב, this is entirely missing in the manuscripts, so it “was probably added from a previous, unrelated line in the sugya” (Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 144, n. 325).

[4] See discussion further on about variant spellings in medieval citations; however, there are no variants in the Talmudic manuscripts.

[5] See my “Initial Considerations of Occurrences of Incidents in Which Rav Yehudah Quotes Rav and Shmuel”, Textual Insights (23 July 2019) [http://texts.rabbidrew.info/initial-considerations-of-occurrences-of-incidents-in-which-rav-yehudah-quotes-rav-and-shmuel/].

[6] Secunda notes that “this tradition appears nowhere in Palestinian literature and, for this reason, should be treated with some skepticism” (Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 146).

[7] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 144, n. 326.

[8] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 146, n. 333.

[9] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 144, n. 326.

[10] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 146, n. 333.

[11] A possibility floated by Tirzah Meachem, “משנת מסכת נידה עם מבוא: מהדורת ביקורתית עם הערות בנוסח, בפרשנות ובעריכה ופרקים בתולדות ההלכה ובריאליה” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1989), 175. Another formulation of this: “it is unclear whether Rabbi intended his enactment to be limited to ‘the fields’, or that he happened to have made the decree while in the fields but wanted it to apply generally” (Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 146-147).

[12] Although, for a brief description: “In rural areas, they assisted their husbands in agricultural work (Yeb. 15.2; Eduy. 1.11 B.M. 76) and could be seen carrying water jugs to and from the village well (Jn. 4.7f).” (Léonie J. Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies: The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 249.)

[13] Dov Zlotnick, The Iron Pillar – Mishnah: Redaction, Form, and Intent (Jerusalem, The Bialik Insitute, 1988), 118.

[14] See Saul Lieberman, “The Publication of the Mishnah,” Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962), 83–99.

[15] Solomon Zeitlin, “The Halaka: Introduction to Tannaitic Jurisprudence”, Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, vol. 39, issue 1 (July 1948), 23.

[16] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 145:

it is unclear whether we are dealing with a case in which a woman menstruates during her regular time of the month, or during the eleven “days of zivah.” Although Judith Hauptman has claimed that indeed, Rabbi enacted this decree specifically for women who menstruated during the eleven “days of zivah,” all traditional and modern commentators assume that the enactment is in effect regardless of whether she menstruates during her regular time of the month, or during the eleven “days of zivah.” Indeed, the very fact that the law contains no condition, supports the latter understanding. Unfortunately, this ambiguous enactment does not allow for any firm conclusions about its legal extent.

[17] Rashi, Niddah 66a, s.v. ששה והוא.

[18] “R. Yizhaq of Fez (Rif. Sheb. 4a) and R. Aharon Halevi of Barcelona (Ra’ah) as quoted in Rashba, (ad loc.) both witness ‘חמשה (five)’.” (Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 144, n. 327.)

[19] Rashi, Niddah 66a, s.v. שנים תשב ששה והן.

[20] “However, according to the reading preserved in Rif and Ra’ah, Rabbi is not concerned with this possibility” (Secunda, “‘Dashtana’“, 146, n. 331).

[21] Cf. Rashi, Niddah 66a, s.v. שנים תשב ששה והן.

[22] Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 157-158.

[23] Tirzah Meachem, “Appendix”, in Woman and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Rahel R. Wasserfall (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 255.

[24] Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis, 158.

[25] A parallel text of this is found in Sifra Tazria‘, Par. 1:13-14: “דותה תטמא לרבות בועלה, דותה תטמא לרבות כל הלילות, דותה תטמא לרבות את היולדת בזוב שלא תהא טהורה עד שתשב שבעה נקיים.”

[26] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 161.

[27] Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 161. Secunda explains that

Contra Hauptman, Rereading, 158, who claims that “in fact, the term ‘seven clean days,’ as it appears in the Talmud, refers in all instances to the days following zivah, not niddah [emphasis is the authors].” While I do agree that the tannaitic source and accompanying amoraic material refer to days which a zavah must wait after the impure “days of birth”, significantly, it never refers to the standard period of waiting immediately following the cessation of discharge. In fact, the standard requirement for a zavah to count seven days free of discharge is not expressed through the use of the phrase, “shivaah neqiyyim;” but rather, it is simply assumed in mNid. 10:3 and referred to in Sifra Zavim, Parsha 5, Pereq 9 by different terms. (Secunda, “’Dashtana’”, 161, n. 377.)

[28] Rashi, Niddah 66a, s.v. בשדות actually specifically mentions that the lacked “בני תורה” and didn’t know which days were niddah days and which days were zivah days.

[29] Tirzah Meachem, “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws”, in Woman and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Rahel R. Wasserfall (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 31.

[30] Meachem, “Appendix”, 255.