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Class Notes - Class #4

Just as there are avot hatumah caused by genital secretions of men, there are avot hatumah caused by genital secretions of women.  These avot hatumah need some introduction.  Consider two areas of halachah that are conceptually different from each other.  First are categories of tumah and taharah as they relate to entering the Temple, etc.  These are mostly no longer in force.  Second are categories of forbidden sexual relations.  Some of the forbidden sexual relations parallel situations that cause of tumah.   These forbidden sexual relations are still very much in force.  It is sometimes hard to keep track of which topic a given text is talking about.  Our author, despite his careful precision, does not always make it easy to keep them straight.  Our focus here will be on the tumah and taharah aspects, but there may be some overlap.  We will return to the forbidden sexual relations aspects several classes in the future.

            8.  Niddah.” (Mitzvah #181.)  A woman who has a normal menstrual discharge becomes t’meiah as a niddah.  (As we will see later, the status of niddah effects her sexual activity also.)

            The niddah potentially transmits tumah in ways parallel to the ways a zav transmits tumah.  Tumah is transmitted to someone or something she touches or someone she has sex with.  Her menstrual blood, urine and saliva also transmit tumah.  She also transmits tumah to anything she sits on, leans on and anything she rides on if those things are m’kabel tumah.

            9.  Zavah.” (Mitzvot #182 and 183.)  A woman who has bloody vaginal discharge that is not considered her normal menstrual flow becomes a zavah.  Note the conceptual parallel between niddah and shichvat zera, who have genital secretions that are normal and healthy bodily functions, and the zav and zavah, who have genital secretions that are not considered entirely normal and healthy.  For men, the halachah can tell the difference by the color of the secretions.  For women, though, the actual secretion appears identical.  So the halachah has an elaborate process for distinguishing dam niddah, ordinary menstrual flow, and dam zavah, unusual bloody vaginal discharge.  (A woman who has a vaginal discharge of a color that clearly is not blood is neither a niddah nor a zavah, and that has no impact on her status of t’meiah or t’horah.)

            The author explains how to distinguish dam niddah from dam zavah in mitzvah #182; it is a complex system which the author attributes to halachah l’mosheh misinai. Let’s start with what the author sees as the halachah’s standard case.  On day 1 a woman has bloody vaginal discharge.  This makes her a niddah.  Let’s say the discharge stops within the first seven days.  If so, on the evening preceding day 8, she immerses in a mikvah and is t’horah, both for ritual and for sexual purposes.  (The timing of the days and her immersion in the mikvah must be carefully coordinated; it may take some time after she immerses before she is t’horah.) If she has a discharge on any of the following eleven days, she becomes a zavah.  If that discharge lasts two days or less, she is a zavah k’tanah.  She waits one day and if she sees no further discharge, she immerses in the mikvah and is t’horah.  If the discharge lasts three days or more, she becomes a zavah g’dolah.  When that discharge stops, she waits until seven full days pass without a discharge, then goes to the mikvah and is t’horah.  Once the eleven days pass, the next time she sees discharge that discharge is considered dam niddah. 

The author distinguishes this from an opinion that sees the cycle of seven days/eleven days continuing indefinitely; whether any discharge makes her a niddah or zavah depends on when in the cycle the discharge occurs.  The author thinks that opinion is incorrect.

            This description of niddah and zavah does not match current practice as it applies to sexual prohibitions.  The author says he will bring things up to date in mitzvah #207.

            A woman who is a zavah transmits tumah in the same way as a woman who is a niddah.

            Like the zav, a zavah is required to bring a hattat and an olah of birds after she becomes t’horah.  The author explains that there are four such cases:  zav and zavah, which we have already seen; yoledet (a woman who has given birth) which we will see shortly; and a m’tzora, male or female, which we will see in our next class.  We saw that the author thinks a man becomes a zav by eating and drinking too much.  Here he says the zavah brings a hattat to atone for the urge to overindulge.

The author also comments on why the mitzvah for the zav to bring a sacrifice is a separate mitzvah for the zavah to bring a sacrifice.  He explains that the zav status is established by a different type of discharge than the zavah status, so each gets a separate mitzvah.  There is no parallel to a yoledet for men.  There is only one mitzvah for the sacrifices of a male and female m’tzora because there is no difference in the circumstances that trigger the need for the sacrifices.

10.    Yoledet.” (Mitzvot #166 and 168.)

A woman who gives birth becomes t’meiah.  Our author discusses the complex structure of when she is t’meiah and when she is t’horah, and considers how those details fit into our understanding of the shoresh for this mitzvah.  We will start with the practical description and then come back to the shoresh.

Our author is aware that the bloody discharge of a yoledet is the same for as long as she continues to have that discharge.  Nevertheless, sometimes that discharge makes her t’meiah and sometimes it does not. 

When a woman gives birth, the bleeding she experiences makes her t’meiah.  Even if no bloody discharge is seen, the halachah assumes that every birth involves some bleeding.  The author considers cases that do not result in a live birth; many of the cases he considers result in the woman being t’meiah.  One exception is when the pregnancy lasted less than 40 days.   The author lists questions for further study related to cases where the fetus is severely deformed, asking whether we assume bleeding in those situations.

 If the woman gives birth to a boy, she is t’meiah for seven days.  If the woman gives birth to a girl, she is t’meiah for fourteen days.  In cases that do not result in a live birth, if it is not possible to determine if the fetus was male or female, the woman is considered t’meiah for fourteen days, as if the fetus was a girl.

After this seven day or fourteen day period ends, the woman immerses in the mikavh and becomes t’horah.  If the baby was a boy, she is t’horah for 33 days; if the baby was a girl, she is t’horah for 66 days. In cases that do not result in a live birth, if it is not possible to determine if the fetus was male or female, the woman is considered t’horah for 33 days, as if the fetus was a boy.  This is true whether or not she is still having bloody discharge. 

The author is aware of how odd this arrangement is.  He says that, just as it was the Torah that declared that the woman’s bleeding makes her t’meiah, the Torah declared that the yoledet bleeding during this subsequent period of time does not make her t’meiah.

The author has an extended discussion of the shoresh of this mitzvah, which he connects to his understanding of human biology.  The laws he explains seem to fit well into his understanding of medicine. 

One topic of introduction for woman learning Sefer haHinnuch.  One of the many joys of learning this work is that the text usually is gender neutral.  The author treats women as one of many categories of people.  Although he clearly envisioned a male audience for his work, that vision is less obvious in the work than the same vision is in other medieval works on halachah.  But that changes when the author discusses prohibited sexual relations.  It is very hard to talk about those in a gender neutral way.  As we will see a few classes from now, the Biblical verses are addressed to men.  Our author writes about prohibited sexual relations from a male point of view.

The author thinks illness is often caused by imbalance of the constituents of the body.  When discussing prohibited foods, the author said that God wants the best for us.  The author understood prohibited foods as being bad for our health, albeit in ways we do not necessarily understand.  He takes the same approach to some of the prohibited sexual relations.  Menstrual bleeding, whether dam niddah, dam zavah or dam yoledet, is the woman’s body eliminating unhealthy excess.  The author posits that it might be unhealthy for a man to have sexual relations with her while that is happening.  The yoledet is t’meiah longer when she gives birth to a girl because the imbalance is greater when the mother has carried a girl.   This is related to the balance of warm and cold in the woman’s body, and that is related to the gender of the child.  A zavah g’dolah has to wait seven days without discharge before she can become t’horah, since she is experiencing greater imbalance.

None of this science seems convincing to us.  We might be warned by this discussion.  When we make our understanding of why the Torah mandates what it does dependent on current science, we run a risk.  Science changes.  As we learn more about the world, some doctrines that seem absolutely fixed turn out to be wrong, and new doctrines replace them.  Cosmology, in the last decade, has had to “invent” dark matter and dark energy to accommodate the situation that our theories did not explain new evidence.  When we link our understanding of the Torah to scientific theory, we risk finding our understanding subverted by developing science.

At the end of the shoresh hamitzvah section, the author discusses other approaches to the categories of niddah, zavah and yoledet.  He makes several suggestions.  First, he says, women with menstrual discharge may get light-headed or overly conceited.  He might mean that that is why those women ought to stay away from the Temple ritual during those times.  Then he focuses on the prohibited sexual relations.  He suggests the Torah prohibits men from having sexual relations with those women lest men get too involved with sexual thought and activity.  But he says the plain meaning is that there is a great benefit to married couples; when there is a break in their sexual activity, their sexual life together remains more vibrant.

Like the zav, zavah and m’tzora, the yoledet is required to bring sacrifices.  Until these people bring their required sacrifices, they are considered “m’husar kaparah,” lacking in forgiveness.  The yoledet brings a lamb as an olah and a bird as a hattat.  If she cannot afford the lamb, she can bring a bird for the olah.  She brings her sacrifices on the forty-first day after the birth of a son and eighty-first day after the birth of a daughter.  If she does not bring the sacrifices promptly, she brings them thereafter.  In the meantime, while she is m’husar kaparah, she may not eat sacrificial food, although she is t’horah in other respects.   The last sentence of the essay says, “Woe to her should she die before bringing [her offerings], and bearing the sin on her soul.”  Apparently the author takes the terminology m’husar kaparah at face value.

The author wonders why the yoledet is required to bring sacrifices.  He suggests that she is giving thanks for the birth of her child.  That does not explain why she brings a hattat, though, since she does not seem to have done anything wrong.  The author suggests that during the pain of her labor, the woman might have vowed to refrain from sexual relations with her husband thereafter, and perhaps she needs forgiveness for such a rash promise.

11.   M’tzora.”  We will discuss this final av hatumah in detail in our next class.


In addition to the eleven avot hatumah d’oraita, there are several avot hatumah created by the rabbis.  The rabbis sometimes extend the avot hatumah d’oraita.  For example, they extend the av of neveilah to bird carcasses.  The rabbis also create new categories.  For example, items used for or associated with avodah zarah are avot hatumah d’rabanan.  Also, d’rabanan, a non-Jew is treated like a zav.  Thus, a Jew who was preparing to go to the Temple would have had to limit contact with non-Jews.


Finally, we need to consider how someone or something that is tamei becomes tahor.  The process of something or someone tamei becoming tahor always involves immersion in a mikvah, and the author covers this in mitzvah #175.  (He also has relevant material in mitzvah/essay #173, which we will see next class.)   There are sometimes other requirements before the person or thing becomes tahor, and we will discuss some of them shortly.

            First the author describes what constitutes a mikvah.  The Torah describes a mikvah as a gathering of water.  Lev. 11:36.   That gathering of water cannot itself become tamei.  Although d’oraita people could gather the water, for example by collecting it in buckets and pouring it in, the rabbis required that the water gather naturally.   People could provide a holding pen and arrange for naturally flowing ground water or rainwater to flow into it.   Certain natural bodies of water also constitute mikvaot.   In the dinei hamtizvah section of this mitzvah, the author has an extensive list of questions for further study on how the water for a mikvah may or may not be gathered.

            The mikvah must contain enough water for all of someone’s flesh to immerse in it.  As to natural bodies of water, as long as there is enough water for someone to immerse his or her body or the object all at once, that immersion will make the person or object tahor.  As to man-made mikvaot, they must contain at least 40 se’ah of water, about 292 liters, for immersion to be valid, even if only a small object is being immersed.

            Although a mikvah cannot become tamei, it can be disqualified if it is polluted by something that changes the appearance of the water.  If some substance other than naturally flowing water gets into the mikvah water, it does not disqualify the mikvah if it cannot be seen, even if it changes the smell or taste.  The exception is manually collected water, which can disqualify a mikvah under certain circumstances even without changing the appearance of the water.            The author quotes the Rambam on the topic of the nature of this mitzvah.  The author is returning to a topic he discussed earlier, that Rambam has a distinct mitzvah covering each of the avot hatumah.  (Earlier the author made it clear that he agrees with Ramban that these are not separate mitzvot.)  There is no positive mitzvah for people to immerse in a mikvah.  This mitzvah instructs us how to behave if we wish to go from being tamei to being tahor.  But a person need not choose to become tahor, and that is fine.  The author even quotes the midrash halachah in support of this opinion.  But the author does not entirely agree with this last point.  He asserts tumah is repulsive and taharah is beloved, so a pious person would want to avoid being tamei.

            The author discusses the shoresh of this mitzvah at length in mitzvah/essay #173, which we will see next class.  The author says here that immersion in the mikvah is a reminder to the person immersing that he or she should cleanse himself or herself from sins, just as water cleanses things from dirt.  In referring to his discussion in mitzvah #173, the author says here that he wrote straightforward explanations that would be satisfying to children.  Apparently he anticipated adults reading his work, not just the teenaged audience we knew about until now.  Perhaps he was thinking of this as a curriculum that other adults would teach to young people.  We wondered earlier whether the author expected his son to read this book, or whether it was a teaching outline for the author to discuss with his son.  Perhaps the author has come to expect adults would read his work for their own purposes, just as we have been doing.

            The author describes how a person should immerse in a mikvah.  The person should be naked so the water can reach all parts of his or her body.  If the person immersed clothed, and the clothing was loose and of a fabric that would allow the water to flow through, the immersion is valid. 

            If there was some substance on the person’s body or on the object being immersed, d’oraita that is not a problem provided that the substance covers less than half of the object or the person’s body.  If the person does not mind having the substance on the object or on his or her body, it can cover even more than half of the person or object and the immersion would still be valid.  D’rabanan, however, anything on the body or object invalidates the immersion.  The rabbis were very strict about this, lest people get careless and overstep even the d’oraita requirements.  However, even the rabbis will consider an immersion valid if there was a substance the person does not object to covering less than half of the body or object.  The author seems to describe an exception:  if a woman who finds any intervening object, no matter how small, whether or not she objects to it, her immersion is not valid and must be repeated. 

            In order to make sure an immersion meets these requirements, a woman is required to examine her body before she immerses to make sure there is no intervening material.  The author does not mention whether this also applies to men or objects.  The preparation required of women grew over time.  Ezra and his beit din required women to bathe in warm water, and wash and comb their hair.  (We take warm water for granted, but when the water had to be lugged from a well or cistern and then heated over the fire, a hot bath was a big deal and a lot of work.)  Women themselves decided to bathe their whole bodies in warm water and do all that preparation right before the immersion.  The woman would rinse her mouth and remove hair adornments and jewelry.  If the immersion was to take place on Shabbat or holidays, the preparation was to be done just before sunset.  The woman would stand when immersing in a position like someone who is weaving or nursing. 


There are several situations where something or someone becoming tahor is more complex than immersion in a mikvah.

Most people or things that are tamei may immerse in the mikvah during the day, although they are not tahor until sunset.  They are called “t’vul yom,” “someone who immersed during the day.”  The author says only a niddah and yoledet immerse at night.  A zav may immerse late in the day.

Sometimes there is a waiting period while the person is tamei and before the person can become tahor.  For example, someone who is tamei meit has to go though a week-long process to become tahor.  A zavah g’dolah must have a period of seven days without a discharge before she can become t’horah.

The author mentions that a zav must immerse in a natural body of water.

The process of a person becoming tahor from tumat meit requires the ashes of the parah adumah, red heifer, in water.  The mitzvot of parah adumah are complex and we will see them in detail later in our study.

Baked earthenware vessels become tamei when something tamei enters the interior air space of the vessel.  They become tahor when they are broken.  Actually, all keylim t’meiim become tahor when they are broken.  If someone would put the pieces of the broken baked earthenware vessel back together, the vessel would be tahor.  But is someone would put the pieces of a broken vessel make from other materials back together, d’rabanan it would still be tamei.

The process of a m’tzora become tahor is unique and complex.  We will discuss it in our next class.

We have already seen there are four cases where someone who has been tamei and becomes tahor must subsequently bring sacrifices.  These are the zav, zavah, yoledet and m’tzora.


When someone is tamei, the person may not handle terumah, agricultural taxes which individuals must give to cohanim and which must remain tahor.  We will see this in more detail later in our study.  Someone who is tamei may not enter the Temple, as we will see in mitzvah #362 and 363.

            Mitzvah #167 prohibits someone who is tamei from eating sacrificial food.  Before eating sacrificial food, the person must have immersed in the mikvah, waited for sunset, and, if sacrifices are required, the person must have brought those sacrifices.  The punishment for breaking this mitzvah is karet. That punishment is only in a case where the person is tamei d’oraita in such a way that the person would be subject to karet for entering the Temple. 

Through most of the mitzvot about tumah and taharah, the author has kept his explanations straightforward.  Here, though, the author introduces three complex details.  First, he explains how we know the punishment for this mitzvah is karet.  The midrash halachah relies on the fact that the prohibition on entering the Temple while tamei and on eating sacrificial food while tamei are mentioned in the same verse.  Hence, those two mitzvot must have something in common, specifically the punishment.  Second, he explains how the language in the source verse that says, “she may not touch any hallowed thing” is interpreted to be a prohibition on eating sacrificial food.  The alternative would be to say that the severe punishment involved would be for touching sacrificial food.  But the source verse also says “she may not come to the Temple.”  Since coming to the Temple tamei would be subject to dire punishment, the prohibition here must also be subject to dire punishment.  Touching sacrificial food is not that severe, so the prohibition must be on eating sacrificial food.  (The reasoning of the midrash halachah here seems a bit circular to me.  As we have said before, some midrash halachah is easier to understand than others.  Sorry I can’t be of more help with this one.)  Third, for sacrifices that someone is allowed to eat, that person may not eat the sacrifice until all of the necessary procedures are completed.  The author says violating this mitzvah is only punishable once the sacrifice involved has reached that point.  If the sacrifice involved is something no one is supposed to eat, though, once it is in a consecrated vessel, someone tamei who eats it is punishable.