Thoughts on Judaism

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Daat Emet - Niddah

Originally, I had wanted to do a full examination of the DaatEmet pamphlets and essays. DaatEmet is a former yeshiva talmid in Israel, who publishes his questions and runs an organization that helps charedim leave the charedi world. From his writing and goals, he seems to be a "weak atheist" type, who rejects Judasim as internally inconsistent. Implications have been made that the site is connected with hate organizations, and I have no doubt that antisemites use some of this type of information to nefarious ends, but I do not really have indication of the truth or falsity of any of this.

However, our esteemed orthoskeptic sites have tackled many of these issues. So, I will take some select essays to examine and make a brief explanation of a few of the issues. The first is his essay on Chazal and the laws of niddah. His essay is here.

His main charges are that Chazal did not understand the structure of the female anatomy and paskened based on complete falsity. However, on careful examination, with an understanding of how this matter was understood by the sages, we will see what we would expect to see, that the Chazal were not infallible in their knowledge of anatomy nor their acceptance of common superstition, but that the basic pesak, the mesora is not materially affected.

His scientific examination is factual. Menstrual blood is not different from any other blood, though it was commonly believed to be an evil omen in ancient times, and it was commonly believed to be materially different than regular blood. The Ramban in Acharei mos 19:18 is one that I have mentioned before in this blog. The Ramban does seem to have been receptive to certain superstitions, among them that a woman who is bleeding can kill with her stare and can see the blood spots in a mirror. As I mentioned, this was more likely related to the poor quality of mirrors at that time than to any apparition. He also brings down the Chasam Sofer, who states outright that there are parts of the niddah description that to not mesh with the reality, especially according to Rashi and Tosfos. However, a look at the Rambam should show us where the real problems are.

The Mishna states that "The chachamim created an analogy", comparing the female lower abdominal anatomy to a three tiered building. Here is the text and below is a fair translation from Rambam halacha Issurei Biya 5:3-4:

3 The chachamim created an analogy regarding a woman: The womb, where the child is born, is called the "source", and the place where the blood of regular and irregular menstruation exits is called the "room", because it is inside. And the neck of the womb (Rebel notes: the cervix), which is the place which is constricted at its head (Rebel notes: the mucus plug) at the time of pregnancy so that the fetus will not descend and it opens wide at the time of birth, is called the "hallway" because it is an entry way to the womb. At the time of full insertion, the "limb" enters the "hallway" but does not reach its head inside, but is short by inches.
4 And above the room and the hallway, between the room and the hallway, is the place of the two "testicles" of the woman, and the paths in them prepare her seed. This place is called the "attic". And there is a semblance of a hole open from the attic to the roof of the hallway, and this is called the "holding pen". And the limb enters beyond the holding pen at the time of full insertion

At this point, the Rambam explains that blood from the "room" causes impurity. Blood from the attic doesn't cause impurity, and blood from the "hallway", if it is beyond the holding pen, causes impurity, since it is assumed to be from the womb, and if it is in front of the holding pen, it is a safek or doubt whether it came from the room or the attic. The DaatEmet wonders at this, and says that it does not fit with reality.

However, it does for the most part with an obvious observation. The Rambam describes the "head of the hallway" and the "roof of the hallway". What is the difference between the two, as the head must also be the roof. However, visualize the woman laying on her back, and we have a direct correlation of all the elements. The womb is still correctly placed. The hallway is the vaginal cavity. The head of the hallway is the outside of the cervix. The "testicles of the woman" are the ovaries. The "paths" are the Fallopian tubes, albeit incorrectly described as being in the ovaries. (The ancients probably visualized the process of female seed emission as blood being emitted at orgasm, just as the male process works with sperm, only inside.) The attic is the bladder, albeit incorrectly described as containing the ovaries. (Given the actual proximity, the unskilled viewer might think that the ovaries were inside the bladder.) The "holding pen" is the urethra. Thus, blood emanating from the reproductive system causes
impurity, while blood from the urinary system does not.

There are other descriptions in the Gemora which I will mention briefly. There are said to be "teeth" near the cervix. I think this refers to roof of the vaginal cavity, which might be described as teeth. The Rambam, in his explanation of the mishnah, has the Fallopian tubes connecting at the cervix, whereas they actually connect at the top of the womb.

DE also brings other points of contention showing that the Chazal thought some common misconceptions of their day, that menstrual blood turns to breast milk, that the fetus dwells in different places, and the Rishonim as well, had some common superstitions and misconceptions about menstruation.

In the end, however, the Rambam in halacha is essentially correct, and his imprecise knowledge of the anatomy does not really affect the halacha. DE tries to build this into a case where the psak has nothing at all to do with the reality, but we see that essentially, we can say that blood that is related to the reproductive system is impure, and blood related to the unrinary system is not. Doubt goes to the stricter side, since the matter is from the Torah.

DE adds that menstrual blood is not materially different than the blood of wound and should not be impure. IMO, this is unfounded. In halacha, we make reasonable assumptions all the time. If we can reasonably assume that the woman had some externally caused wound, we can differentiate between that and the menstrual type bleeding. Again, halacha is described so that a layman observer can make a determination, not so that a scientist is required to describe what is really going on. Fundamentalists will still have trouble with DE on this, but halacha does not. If you disagree, please comment and state why. If there are points in the essay that I have not covered or have covered insufficiently, also please comment.


  • Rebel,

    Thank you for that thoughtful essay - I've been waiting a long time for it. Just a quick question thought:

    You note the oft-repeated idea that "halacha is described so that a layman observer can make a determination, not so that a scientist is required to describe what is really going on", but has it ever occured to you that the "layman" you mention was once considered a scientist? The educated layman today is far better informed than the "scientist" of old, yet halacha's criteria depend upon old scientific definitions. So wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that from a modern standpoint, the halachic observations ought to be made from a modern scientific standpoint as well?

    By Anonymous Yaakov, at 11:22 PM  

  • Well put, yaakov. Even education is more educated than it was then. But halacha is a legal deermination. The facts have to be determined by the observer, whomever he may be. It seems that Chazal were more concerned with allowing for error and still getting it legally right than discerning actual scientific facts.

    Therefore, even though the 8th grader of today has more scientific knowledge than the scientist of 1000 years ago, we are more concerned with why he might come up with a bad leniency. This is intended as a series, and I think we will find that most of the cases do not rely on the science, outdated or otherwise. It matters what the average person thinks they are seeing when they look at something.

    For instance, with spontaneous generation, I can halachically determine SG if the larval stage is microscopic but the adult stage is visible. The microscopic bugs in the NYC water were not deemed unkosher. They are halachically determined in the same way that they scientifically determined in the old days, by what the observer thought he was observing. Today's scientist has more sophisticated tools, but in the times of the Rishonim, the scientist used the same tools as the layman, namely the naked eye.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 12:21 AM  

  • For instance, with spontaneous generation, I can halachically determine SG if the larval stage is microscopic but the adult stage is visible.

    It's arguable that the concept of spontaneous generation was only visible to the laymen *because* it was scientifically / culturally current. No laymen today, even an uneducated one, would ever think he is witnessing spontaneous generation (unless said laymen is from Crown Heights). So even if layman's perception is your matter of concern, the layman thinks in culturally determined concepts, so we are no better off than we were before: we should still determine halacha based on moder science, even if it is the pop version.

    By Anonymous Yaakov, at 1:19 AM  

  • First of all, DE is 1/2 of a team, and he was a maggid shiur at a Litvish yeshiva of note.

    Chazal clearly did not know anatomy. They made halakhic decisions with bad science as a base. And they were often wrong.

    You can play with their confusion over female anatomy all you want. They still were wrong.

    Does this change nidda law? No.

    But it says volumes about the men who made it.

    If DE wrote for an American audience, and dropped all the circular, flowery, imprecise yeshivish, the BT movement in America would collapse – except, of course, for those seekers looking for a cult to join.

    By Anonymous Shmarya, at 3:07 AM  

  • Daat Emet tries to get charedim toleave the charedi world and Jews altogether Judaism.
    Yisrael Asper again

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:21 AM  

  • yaakov
    That was not exactly the point. What I am saying is that ancient scientists believed, based on imprecise observation, that the bugs came directly from the trash, rather than from microscopic eggs and disimilar larvae. They believed in mice from the dirt, most likely because they saw the gerboa, a small rodent with developed front quarters and underdeveloped hindquarters. Thus, science concluded on direct observation and inference, and today has reconcluded, based on better observation, using microscopes and differentiating experiments, that this SG is appearance only, but that the underlying reality is otherwise, not withstanding the appearance.

    Halacha must be determined based on what the average observer OBSERVES, not what he KNOWS. The woman can feel the "teeth" on the roof of the vaginal cavity and can determine if the cloth went that deep or not. We observe a pregnant woman and see that in the first 3 months we cannot see the baby, in the second trimester the baby shows in the belly, and in the third the baby seems to be carried lower. The observer concludes that the baby is in three different places. He is not seeing the internal reality so it is not relevant to halacha. He must observe, infer, and conclude, just like the scientist of old.

    So Shmarya is right in that these men were not receiving some special science from Har Sinai. That point has been made thoroughly. They looked at a situation, made a simple, imprecise conclusion as to what happened, and concluded halacha valid for the observation, regardless of the theory behind the observation.

    We will see this clearly as we go on. The fun begins when the wrongness of theory gets in the way of the halacha. We'll look at the PI thing next.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:29 AM  

  • Do double check on the science. Daat Emet is not Einstein. Another thing that should be remembered is that you are not dealing always with modern definitions many of which were made and are made in modern times. A spider is an insect right-sure to a layman but not according to science. A whale is a fish-nowadays not according to nonlayman's language at least. "Jonah and the whale" is a passable title but not if the word fish would have strictly meant in the Bible what it means here. A hare is just as good a translation as a rabbit sometimes and certainly with old Biblical terminology.
    Yisrael Asper Again

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:27 AM  

  • YA
    Your point about laymen's terms (for halachic purposes) and professional terms (for scientific purposes) is largely my point. But the science that DE is speaking of is not controversial in the slightest. I think we can all agree that the blood of menstruation is just blood and that the "Science" of the sages is the same as the science of the times. It is the fundamentalist twists that DE is attacking. Without them, his arguments dangle a bit.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 12:24 PM  

  • I just meant be careful. His forte isn't science. His forte is twisting Halacha. By the way you are raising good points. Good job.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:35 PM  

  • Rebel,

    Doesn't chassidus demand the fundamentalist approach? For somebody who has a regular chassidus shiur, how do you understand it?

    By Anonymous Yaakov, at 9:57 PM  

  • RJ: You make an excellent point. Whether or not I accept halacha, I do understand it. One important thing to remember: as you say, halacha is legal definition, not necessarily physical reality. There are instances in which it is completely allowed to ingest a forbidden food, because the object of halacha is not for your body to avoid contact with certain substances, the object is for you to live your life according to certain laws. Many people miss this point.

    By Blogger The Jewish Freak, at 11:09 PM  

  • Halacha must be determined based on what the average observer OBSERVES, not what he KNOWS

    Another niddah example of the above : every woman in kallah classes is taught not to look at her underwear during the non-niddah days. If there is spotting, she won't see it and will not be niddah until she actually gets her period or does a bedika. Regardless of where the blood came from she is still tahor.

    It is hard to get used to and still feels like cheating. The woman can know with full certainty, for example, that she is spotting and yet, if she doesn't look - it didn't happen. Almost like a little kid who covers his eyes and says " you can't see me now".

    By Anonymous onionsoupmix, at 1:28 AM  

  • OSM
    Perfect example. If a woman has no reason to check, ie she feels nothing, she can ASSUME that she is tahor until she knows otherwise, regardless of the reality. In fact, my wife once asked a very knowledgeable well known chabad rav, during a period of difficulty, and he told her that she could rely on not checking under certain conditions, even if she did feel something.

    Well put.

    Chasidus also recognizes the difference between halachic chazaka and reality, just it asserts a different set of premises for reality. For instance, chassidus states that it is spiritually more advantagious for relatives to marry (which is why Avraham married his "sister" and Yitzchak and Yaakov needed someone from their own family, and as closely related as possible), but when it emanates down to asiyah, it is one of the highest crimes. Halachic Chazaka depends on not knowing, and chasidus depends on knowing even that which is not apparent. Is that coherent?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 6:21 AM  

  • About OSM comment, I thought that there are certain sensations when you HAVE to check, wouldn’t “know with full certainty” be one of them?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:49 AM  

  • anon
    Spotting, meaning leaving stains without feeling anything, is a less strict case. Sefarim tell us that she must check if she feels anything.

    However, one must ask a Rav. There are instances where a woman can be bleeding, and even though it is unlikely, she can rely on a source that is not niddah. A friend once told me that his wife had long term problems where she would have light bleeding every couple of weeks. Bad news for any couple. The Rav gave the wife many situations on which to rely, told her to check infrequently, and when she would actually see close to her mikva night, gave her many reliances that the blood was tahor. It was so against what the husband had learned that it made him nervous. So, he called the Rav, a very well known well respected charedi expert in niddah, and explained his questions. The Rav was very considerate and assured him that the pesak was correct and asked what he could do to calm his fears about it.

    But it isclear that there is more to the niddah story than the books that are read in chasan an dkallah classes.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 6:46 AM  

  • Menstrual blood is different, its incoagulable. It might be recognizable.

    Copepods are ubiquitous in outdoor water all over the earth, even leaf water. Whats more, there are accounts of copepods from the time of aristotle. The Chochomim almost certainly knew about them.

    By Anonymous mcn, at 11:58 PM  

  • mcn

    I am not sure what your point is in bringing the copepods here. Please elaborate.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 4:09 PM  

  • "Menstrual blood is different, its incoagulable. It might be recognizable."

    If this is what the chachamim intended, then they should have used it as the mark of distinction in halacha. If the blood coagulates, then it is tahor. If not, it is at least sofek. However, they used the place where the blood is found to determine if it was tahor or not.

    It is unlikely that the chachamim knew of such a distinction.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 4:34 PM  

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