In Talmudic Times, Jews Shared Laws of Menstrual Purity with Their Gentile Neighbors

November 12, 2021 | Leah Sarna
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To outsiders, the complex system of laws concerning menstruation observed by Orthodox Jews can seem, as Leah Sarna puts it, “outdated, misogynistic, and extreme.” And even those raised in communities where these practices are standard sometimes find them outlandish:

When I teach soon-to-be-marrieds about these laws, I try to pass along my pride that God’s holy commands stretch even to the most private and intimate spaces in our lives; nothing is too messy for Jewish law, and we should not be embarrassed. That would be an easier sell if most of us didn’t have a voice in our heads that says, “This is even weirder and harder than waving palm fronds on Sukkot.” What we might call the goyish gaze pervades our ritual consciousness. But now imagine a world in which the goyish gaze was altogether different, say the world of the Babylonian Talmud.

In his book The Talmud’s Red Fence, Shai Secunda seeks to understand how menstrual purity was understood in that world—that is, Persian-ruled Mesopotamia during the 3rd through 6th centuries.

In one of the most eye-opening sections of the work, Secunda guides his readers through the different menstrual practices of various populations in the . . . Sasanian empire. He introduces the readers to Mandaean, Zoroastrian, and early Christian texts that compare their impurity observances with those of their neighbors.

Secunda sets [these] texts . . . next to talmudic passages in which rabbis compare Jewish menstrual practices to those of non-Jews. In one, we find Rabbi Ashi [ca. 352–427] suggesting that the Persians learned their menstrual laws from the matriarch Rachel because the Persian word for menstrual impurity, dastan (which the Talmud Aramaicizes as dashtana), supposedly derives from the excuse she gave her father Laban for not rising, “ki derekh nashim li” (“for the way of woman is upon me,” Genesis 31:35). An ordinary reader of the Talmud will read this as typical talmudic wordplay, but Secunda detects a game of playful cultural one-upmanship.

One imagines Jewish and Gentile women doing their laundry on the banks of the Tigris, sharing tricks for keeping their headscarves tied and their bedrooms pure, each feeling a sense of pride in her own religious tradition as seen in the eyes of the other.

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