Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Jewish marriage

Due to the steady flow of emails from readers requesting me to share about Jewish married life, I finally decided to try and approach the topic; I will try to do that in a tactful and sensitive way, carefully choosing the words I use and the details I discuss.

The Jewish married life is built around the woman's monthly cycle. As soon as the woman gets her period she becomes "impure", because the blood that comes out of her body signifies the loss of potential for the creation of new life. When this happens, it is forbidden for the wife and husband to be physically intimate. In fact, no touching at all is allowed, along with a row of other restrictions - husband and wife don't sleep in the same bed, don't eat from one plate, don't pass items directly from hand to hand, and more.

After a few days (depending on the length of her cycle), the woman inspects herself to make sure the bleeding has stopped. Anyway it can't be less than 4 or 5 days. When she did that, she will count seven "clean" days, and inspect herself again each one of those days. Then she will go and immerse in mikveh, which is like a small pool of natural water. And only then husband and wife can resume relations.

As you can understand, this isn't easy. It means husband and wife remain physically separated roughly half of the time (unless the wife is pregnant, which obviously means no bleeding is supposed to occur). Some couples are in even more difficult situations, for example if the wife has her period not once in a month, but once in 3 weeks, or if she experiences heavy mid-cycle staining that might give her the same status of being "impure". Sometimes the counseling of a rabbi is required for these matters. There can also be situations when, for technical reasons, no place can be found where a woman can do her purifying immersion. Or a husband is away from home for extended periods, and comes back only for a few days once in a while, and cannot touch his wife because his visit falls precisely on the wrong time of the month... the list of possible complications is long.

However, there are also enormous benefits to the couples that stick to the laws of family purity. The most obvious is health reasons. During menstruation and a few days after it, the womb is irritated and there's a higher risk for infections. Jewish women who separate from their husbands during their monthly bleeding and for seven days after have a substantially lower rate of infections.

The fact that husband and wife can't touch each other for nearly two weeks re-ignites the fire in the most spectacular way when this period of time is over. Physical intimacy doesn't become a routine, and the husband and wife feel like a bride and groom again, every month. I think that's one of the factors (obviously not the only one) that contribute to the low divorce rate within traditional Jewish communities.

Of course it can become frustrating. On a website for Jewish women dedicated to these matters, I've read a letter from a 40-year-old woman: "My husband and I find it so hard to stay away from each other each month! I crave the touch of my husband so much that it drives me crazy!" - they have been married for nearly 20 years. They have six children. And look at the passion between them - so very rare.

Of course, the reason Jews stick to these laws isn't because of health issues or as a means to enhance intimacy. We follow them because we believe they were given to us by God Almighty. This subject of purity in physical connection between husband and wife is a complex one, and includes a lot more than what I briefly mentioned here, but I think I will stop for now.

15 comments:

Diana said...

I can fully understand what you are saying about having no physical contact during mensturation.
and as they say, "Absence makes the Heart grow stronger!"
I think you're doing wonderfully, sharing with us about Jewish married life.
Until i found your wonderful site i actually knew very little about the Jewish faith.
Blessings to you and yours
x

Sarah K said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, a fascinating insight into a way of life and set of rules I know nothing about.

Buffy said...

I think of lot of this makes sense, although I must admit I wouldn't like to do without cuddles for that long.

However you mark this regular period of time I think the acknowledgement that something is going on is very healthy. It really is a time for women to "power-down" physically in every sense. I don't like the way that women are made to feel they have to pretend otherwise.

Mia said...

Indeed, it is very interesting to read about the Jewish life. As a Christian, it is good for me to learn about Jewish ways, as all Christians' ancestors were Jews. Thanks for your lovely website. I enjoy it very much.
Blessings,
Mia

deb said...

There is a wonderful book that I used to own called How to Run A Traditional Jewish Home. The author, a female, spoke about the fact that Orthodox Jews abstain for a period each month. SHe was very positive about the whole experience.

One of the aspects of ORthodox Judiasm that impresses me is how every activity serves to remind the person of their relationship with God. I suppose that periods of nonsexuality and not touching remind a person that God is foremost in their relationship also.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! I've always wondered about this practice. I found some really interesting information on a website called
beingjewish.com

It was also very informative.

Thank you Anna!

Shannon

Anonymous said...

Anna, thank you for sharing. I have a question. According to Exodus, you are impure for 40 days after giving birth to a son, but for 80 days after giving birth to a daughter. Why is this? It doesn't seem fair.

Thanks!
Marie

Anonymous said...

Anna,

Do you think that staying apart during this time keeps so many from getting pregnant sooner? You really only have a short time that you can get pregnant? You are saying that your are apart 2 weeks out of a month?

Thank you for sharing and Thank you for being so open and honest:)

Renee

Lady-in-the-Making said...

Truly intriguing post! Thank you for your open honesty. I'm sure it does keep the sexual spark lit!

Ahuva said...

Nice post... Just a random thought: "impure" and "the loss of potential for the creation of new life" is a common explanation given, but it's not the only one.

Another take on it is that a woman is actually closer to G-d during that time because the blood is a link with Creation. It's a minority opinion, I think, but one that helps women who aren't comfortable with the idea of niddah as a time of loss.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is a sensitive subject, but you opened the discussion for us in a most thoughtful & careful manner. This topic, among many others in Orthodox life, I have wondered about for a while now. I'm happy to read about the benefits to the marriage (in addition to the inconveniences you've outlined) of abstinence during the woman's cycle. The sweetness & wonder of coming together again, after the "unclean" portion of the month, must be wonderful indeed.

Brenda

Anonymous said...

I am bothered by the idea of menstruation being seen as 'unclean', which makes it sound dirty and shameful. I accept that this is my personal point of view and I do not mean to offend or insult, and I am always interested to learn about other people's thoughts, reasoning and lives.

I can understand how an enforced 'no touching' rule would ignite some pretty amazing sparks. In the time of separation, who sleeps in the marital bed? Hopefully the person who sleeps elsewhere has a comfortable settled place! If people have space in the house, does this mean that they have separate bedrooms?

Please read this in the spirit of interest and honest thought sharing it is intended to show.

Talitha

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to thank you for sharing all this. I know you have been tired and not feeling your best recently, and I hope that it either clears up soon or there is a joyful reason for it to continue! :)

Anonymous said...

Hello Anna,
As soon as you spoke about this Orthodox Jewish "rule", for lack of a better word, I figured that God knew what He was doing to make sure that His chosen people were preserved and that this would actually increase that chances for "being fruitful and multiplying".

My husband and I are not Jewish, but do abstain from relations during my cycle. As much as I enjoy the intimacy that comes with marriage, I must admit that I also enjoy the time when I am allowed to rest from it. My husband is very loving and does not pressure me in any way. He knows that when the "all clear" sign is given, I am more than ready to resume intimate relations with him.

Thank you for giving us a glimpse into Jewish life.

ladyakofa said...

This is interesting, because by the time a Jewish married couple come together again for intimate relations, the wife, hopefully, would be in her fertile days.