Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

There are many who believe that Jewish law links a woman who is niddah with that which is dirty. This because the word tameh, associated with the niddah (see for example Leviticus 12:2) is often defined as unclean.

If this were true, taharah, the antonym of tumah, would by implication be synonymous with cleanliness. However, Phinehas ben Yair, in a famous comment that was to contribute the outline of Rabbi Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, said that Torah, precision, zeal, cleanliness, restraint, taharah, saintliness, meekness, and fear of sin in that order lead to holiness. We learn from this statement that cleanliness and taharah are two distinct categories. So too, is physical uncleanness not synonymous with tumah.

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The truth is that there are several terms in the Torah that have no suitable English equivalent. Such terms should not be translated. Leaving them in the original Hebrew makes the reader understand that a more detailed analysis of the word is necessary. Tumah is one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and requires a deeper analysis.

Rav Ahron Soloveichik suggested that the real meaning of tumah might be derived from the verse in Psalms “The fear of the Lord is tehorah, enduring forever” (Psalms 19:10) Taharah therefore means that which is everlasting and never deteriorates. Tumah, the antithesis of taharah, stands for mortality or finitude, that which withers away.

A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away

The metzora (leper) whose body is covered with skin lesions is also considered to be in a state of tumah. The leper is tameh because he is slowly disintegrating, while those who associate with him decline emotionally as they observe the wasting away of another human being.

No wonder, then, the process of purification involves immersion in the mikveh, a natural body of water. This is because water is the clearest symbol of life – an appropriate spiritual antidote to tumah, which is nothing less than what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik described as “the whisper of death.”

As much as we have tried to teach the real meaning of tumat niddah, there are still so many who believe that halacha links niddot with that which is dirty. This myth must be shattered, a myth that has made it emotionally difficult for many women to accept the laws of family purity. An appropriate understanding of niddah may lead to a greater observance of these important laws.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.