Niddah: Using Jewish law as a Starting Point for a Deeper Self Care
How Judaism’s millennia-old laws of menstruation and intimacy provide a vehicle for positive body image, self esteem and deeper self care.
See glossary at bottom of page.
As a Kallah* teacher, I know firsthand just how much time is spent learning and integrating the Halachot* of Niddah*. The Jewish laws surrounding menstruation and intimacy are a topic of constant conversation for orthodox brides, and it doesn’t stop after the wedding. No matter how long you’ve been married, the regulated twelve days of separation each month bring their own set of struggles and triumphs for every couple. While there is a standard set of Halachot (laws), there’s no such thing as a standard relationship. Every marriage experiences niddah differently and every woman has her own concept of how this mitzvah* is both beneficial and difficult.
But when it comes to body image and niddah, there are many common struggles. From young brides and new moms to women transitioning into menopause, they have all approached me with the same question: How can I feel better about my body?
In a world that is steeped in consumerism and aesthetics, we are often left with the choice of two extremes. Some of us overemphasize our own physicality. A healthy pride turns into arrogance and materialism. We forget all of our varied contributions and potential and focus only on the beauty that we hold. Others nullify our bodies and deny them the care and pride they deserve. We focus on our intellectual capacity and accomplishments in work and communal life, forgetting that our bodies have helped us get there in practical and important ways. Neither of these properly reflect Torah values* or who we are as a whole.
Mikvah* is an opportunity to engage in a tangible Judaism that we are often without in our daily life. In the mikvah, our body takes center stage and any misconceptions we have become obvious. Within the extremely physical nature of this mitzvah, the religious impact of Mikvah is inaccessible to a woman who has negated or forgotten the value of her body. At the same time, we cannot exist in a purely physical world. A woman who has overemphasized her physical worth will likely also struggle to fully engage with this mitzvah.
With every year, life gets busier and we simultaneously move farther away from the structure of formal Jewish education. It can be easy to feel like our orthodoxy is more of a communal association than an intentional practice. In that context, mikvah offers us a rare and treasured opportunity. It allows us to take our internal faith and turn it into an external experience.
The physical experience of niddah provides the opposite transformation. Here we take an experiential relationship and conceptualize it. The twelve days of separation are without physical sex, but not devoid of sexuality. This side of niddah highlights our non physical assets- our actions and good deeds, our kindness, our observance- and requires us to view our bodies and our intimate relationship through the filter of these characteristics. It directs our focus on our internal relationship to our body and both the pleasures and frustrations it provides us.
Positive body image doesn’t happen overnight, but niddah can be the beginning. By reconnecting with religious practice and reassessing our bodies through the filter of intellectual understanding, we can come back from the mikvah with a new sense of appreciation for the full range of our own capabilities. Our intellect, our kindness, and our accomplishments are imparted into our every nerve. Our religious identity is enhanced through physical interaction. Our faceted and remarkable existence is realized, and in that climate of holy physicality we surface in our most honest form. A vision of ourselves that is real, flawed, and lovely. It begins with these twelve days of focus and can be the start of a long lasting shift in the way we live our lives.
Kallah- Jewish bride
Kallah teacher- a woman trained to teach brides about the laws of Niddah before their wedding
Halacha- Jewish law
Niddah- The Biblical commandments around intimacy and menstruation. During a woman’s cycle, the Torah dictates a physical separation between the couple. They abstain from sex and are careful not to touch. This status continues for twelve days, starting with the first day of her period, and ends when the woman immerses in a Mikvah (or ritual bath).
Torah- The Bible; Torah values, refer to the ritual commandments of the bible and their intended value systems
Mikvah- referring to the ritual immersion of a woman or man in a body of water or the body of water, an moving body of natural water, often done in a large warm bath like system