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The Torah teaches us, "Do not draw close to a woman when she is a niddah; relations are forbidden [at that time]." (Leviticus 17:18). From this, the laws relating to ritual purity and niddah are derived.
First, note that the extent to which these laws are followed depend on the movement. These laws are followed in the more traditional movements, and are often reinterpreted in the progressive movements such as Reform as a mechanism of rediscovering female spirituality.
So, what is "niddah". Simply put, a woman becomes a niddah when blood comes from her womb. She might see the flow, or she might see a stain on her clothing. The blood must come from her womb. If she cuts her finger, she does not become a niddah. If she finds blood on her underclothing, and she does not know if it is from a cut or from her womb, she needs to check with her Rabbi.
Being niddah should not be looked at as a time of negativity. The traditional perspective is that this is when a woman's body is renewing itself, getting ready to produce fresh ova so that she will be able to fulfill the commandment of having children.
A woman is a niddah until she undergoes "taharah." The taharah process involves a minimum of twelve days, most often thirteen. These are divided into two sets of time, the first five days, and seven days of taharah, after which she must immerse properly in a mikvah (ritual bath).
A woman who does not go through the taharah process cannot become tahor (the opposite state from niddah). It does not matter if she not seen blood in ten years. No matter how long ago she last had her period, if she has not immersed properly in the mikvah, she is still a niddah.
First, however, to the other aspect of being niddah. Recall the Torah verse above. It says "Do not draw close." Traditionally, this is tied in with marital relations, and the view is that any act that could lead a person to marital relations is forbidden. A husband and wife are very accustomed to being physically intimate with each other, and therefore they must take great care during the time the woman is niddah.
While a woman is a niddah, she and her husband must relate completely on a non-physical level. Traditionally, they do not hug or kiss each other (or do more).
How is the niddah period, and the various time periods determined? The first five days begin when a woman first sees her flow. She counts from the beginning of the flow, and continues until the flow stops. If it takes less than five days for her flow to stop, she still has to wait until five days are over. Even if she saw blood for only one day, she must wait five days until she can begin the seven-day taharah process. The five days need not be complete five days. The first day might start in the middle of the day, if she first saw her flow in the afternoon. But whenever they began, they end on the night after the fifth day.
If she sees blood for more than five days, the "five" days end when she has definitely stopped seeing. Once she has stopped seeing blood, she can begin the count of the Seven White Days. "stopped seeing blood" means that she has stopped seeing either a flow of blood or stains on her clothing
completely. These days begin when the woman, before sunset, takes a shower or bath, and cleans herself thoroughly, everywhere. She then waits a few minutes, and inserts a cloth and checks herself. If it comes out clean, then the next day is the first day of the Seven White Days. During this period, the woman must check herself twice a day: when she gets up, and just before sunset. Checking is done with a white, absolutely clean piece of cloth. Often, such cloths are available at the local mikvah. The woman first checks the cloth very carefully to make sure it is clean of any marks. She then places her finger in the center of the cloth, and allows the cloth to wrap around her fingers, and the pushes the cloth so that every surface inside her is touched by the cloth. She removes the cloth, and checks it very carefully. If it comes out free of any mark, no problem. If the cloth has a mark, she looks at the color. A red or black mark means there is still discharge of blood. White or pale yellow is not a problem. Colors like brown, dark yellow, gold, and pink, are very problematic. Traditional women would then bring the cloth to a competent local Orthodox Rabbi who looks at the cloth and is able to determine whether it is Niddah blood or not. Orthodox rabbis have special training that allows them to make this determination.
Traditionally, during these days, the woman should wear white underwear and uses white bed linens. Of course, any staining during this period must be considered, as above.
When the Seven White Days are over, that night, the woman goes to the mikvah. This is the same day of the week the Seven White Days began. To prepare for the mikvah, after checking, the woman takes a bath, followed by a shower, and other careful preparations. She cleans and cuts all her nails, both finger and toe, as well as making sure there is no food between her teeth. She cleans her ears, and every body cavity. She removes all makeup, and combs her hair completely. Many women take the bath at home, and do the follow-up shower at the mikvah.
When going to the mikvah, she may not have anything between her and the water at any part of her body. Therefore she must remove all jewelry, makeup, etc. There is usually a woman attendant at the mikvah to help the woman check that she is ready for the mikvah. During the immersion, the woman makes sure that she is completely immersed (including all hair). There are appropriate blessings said.
The woman then returns home, and informs her husband that she is now in the tahora state. Marital relations are then permitted (in fact, tradition dictates they occur that night). Biologically speaking, the best night to conceive is usually mikvah night.
Note: The Torah also forbids relations on the day that a woman expects her period, called her "veset". She knows when to expect her period by keeping a careful record. Usually, a period of 30 or 31 days since the first sighting of blood is used.
A vital factor of the Laws of Family Relations "tznius", or proper attitude. Jews do not make jokes about private bedroom matters. A woman's personal matters are nobody's business but hers, her husband's when he needs to know, her doctor's, and her Rabbi's when and if the rabbi needs to know. Women do not discuss these matters with others. Some specific aspects of this are discussed at http://www.milknhoney.co.il/holy/19.html
Why does Judaism have niddah? These laws are Laws of Holiness, and serve to elevate the physical to the highest spiritual level. It takes a phyiscal aspect and adds holiness to it, allowing us to use the physical for spiritual gain. As society has rediscovered the importance of spirituality, these laws are being rediscovered, and are even being adopted, to varying extents, by the progressive movements in Judaism.
In Judaism, marital relations are a gift from G-d. They are neither shunned nor avoided. However, they are not debased either. Rather, Judaism provides a way to use sex to elevate us. By following Torah laws, we develop the self-control and discipline that can lead us to holiness. During the time that a man and woman are forbidden to have relations they are forced to relate to each other in non-physical ways. They must see each other in other terms, and develop their relationship with each other on a spiritual and emotional footing. Is this the reason G-d gave us this law. We cannot know. However, understanding this effect often provides additional understanding for following the law.
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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