Considering Rabbi Meir’s Famous Statement Concerning Why the Torah Stated that Niddah is for Seven Days
תניא היה רבי מאיר אומר מפני מה אמרה תורה נידה שבעה
מפני שרגיל בה קץ בה
אמרה תורה תהא נידה שבעה
כדי שתהא חביבה על בעלה ביום טהרתה כיום כניסתה לחופה
It was taught: Rabbi Meir used to say: “On account of what did Torah say a woman is considered a menstruant for seven days?
Because he is accustomed to her, he will loathe her.
Torah said ‘a menstruant should be seven’,
In order that she be beloved unto her husband on the day of her purification like the day of her entering into the marital canopy.”
The first thing to note about this text is that Rabbi Meir is not discussing why niddah exists;4 rather, he is speaking on why menstrual impurity lasts for that particular period of time. Of course, the easy answer is that the Torah typically speaks of time periods of seven days each, so this is just one segment of time.5 However, Rabbi Meir opts for more of a psychological reason: that, otherwise, men would get too used to their women and they would seem repugnant to them. Indeed, this is the one time he employs the phrase “מפני מה אמרה תורה”, which is, as I have written, “focussed neither upwards towards heaven nor is it simply accepted as a meaningless mitzvah, but rather that it has a personal or social benefit or meaning.”6
Of course, this text is unquestionably androcentric, which can be especially helpful for men to hear(/read) for their relating to niddah and having to hold off for a week in their sexual relations with their women – that there is something beneficial to them in their adhering to it. Of course, this is fine for men, but, as I’ve written elsewhere, “would women relate to the seven days of the menstrual separation in this same way?”7 My supposition was that “it’s likely that a gynocentric position might be something along the lines of opportunities – whether of connecting with one’s husband in different ways, of not thinking about sex, etc.” Indeed, it might be a nice opportunity for her to be in the relationship with her man without worrying about any sexual relations.
The matter of one week, per se, is, unfortunately, rather unexplained: why is seven days the time for a man’s desire to re-set itself? Why not five days, why not ten days, why not eight? Also, is less than seven days not enough time for this re-setting? Conversely, is eight, nine or ten days too much and could be too much of a desire building up for him? Furthermore, is one-quarter of one’s relationship supposed to be sex-free (and touching free) a good thing, but either more or less detrimental to the relationship? It’s unclear.
Finally (for now), the day of her purification being comparable to the entire day of her entry into the marital canopy is not only a beautiful emotional setting, but Rabbi Meir also makes it about the entire day: just as there was a lot of anticipation and excitement leading up to and culminating in the day of their wedding, so, too, is there anticipation and excitement leading up to and culminating in their physical/sexual reunion. This is simply a lovely parallel.
1. Yes, writing on this particular text is part of my many anticipated posts on niddah↩
2. Indeed: “This passage has gained particular fame in the contemporary polemic and apologetic literature.” (Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 25.)↩
3. I believe this is the best version of the text. For various Talmudic manuscripts and my discussion on them concerning this text, see my “Considering the Manuscripts on Rabbi Meir’s Statement on bNiddah 31b [Talmud Tuesday]”, Matters of Interest (16 September 2014) [http://mattersofinterest.info/rabbimeir-niddah31b-mss/]↩
4. Leviticus 20:18 provides the reason: “וְגִלָּה אֶת-עֶרְוָתָהּ אֶת-מְקֹרָהּ הֶעֱרָה, וְהִוא, גִּלְּתָה אֶת-מְקוֹר דָּמֶיהָ”↩
5. Cf. Richard Whitekettle, “Levitical Thought and the Female Reproductive Cycle: Wombs, Wellsprings, and the Primeval World,” Vetus Testamentum 46, no. 3 (July 1996): 390:
…the numbers seven and forty carry connotations of wholeness and completeness. During the seven and forty day processes described in Gen. i/vi-ix, the physical structure of the geological, reproductive environment was wholly transformed from an unhabitable configuration to a habitable configuration. If we assume the homology mentioned above, it follows that such a notion of wholeness lies behind the use of these numbers for the duration of menstrual and post-partum impurity. Seven or forty days was how long it was thought to take for the physical structure of the dissolute, unhabitable, menstrual or post-partum womb to be reconstructed into a habitable configuration. This, then, explains why Levitical thought established the duration of menstrual and post-partum impurity at seven and forty days.
6. “An Initial Look at מפני מה אמרה תורה in Tannaitic Use [Talmud Tuesday]”, Matters of Interest (9 September 2014) [http://mattersofinterest.info/onaccountofwhatdoestorahsay-tannaitic/]↩
7. “Just Because Some Rabbinic Texts are Androcentric Doesn’t Mean There Aren’t (Or Can’t Be) Gynocentric Correlates”, Drew’s Views (11 February 2014) [http://drewsviews.info/whataboutgynocentrictexts/]↩