Vayeitzei: Rachel and the Practice of Niddah by Ivy Helman

29662350_10155723099993089_8391051315166448776_oThis parshah contains the account of Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel, (who happen to be his cousins) as well as the birth of his 11 sons and one daughter.  It describes the long amounts of time Jacob worked for Laban in order to marry Laban’s daughters, and recounts the trickery of Laban giving first Leah, the older daughter to Jacob, before allowing Jacob to marry who he wanted to, Rachel.

Like the relationship between Hagar and Sarah, there is animosity between Leah and Rachel over Jacob’s love as well as the ability to bear children.  This animosity spreads to the maids of Leah and Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah respectively, as they are used by the sisters to conceive children on their behalf.  One can see also this animosity in how Leah and Rachel name their sons.  Yet, the parshah also contains two aspects that seem at odds with such a patriarchal perspective.  First, there are five named women who play key roles in the goings-on.  Second, Rachel is an active agent. 

The five women in this parshah are Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, Bilhah, and Dinah.  With the exception of Dinah, these women are central to the story, even if it is only their ability to have children, particularly sons, that is highlighted.  Their male children become the twelve tribes of Israel (once Benjamin is born).  Yet, even if their presence is predominantly marked by polygamy and sexual relations with Jacob, they are the ones who name their sons and thoughtfully, if spitefully, charge those names with meaning.

Now, Rachel’s character is more developed than the rest of the women in this parshah.  Rachel is a shepherdess.  She has responsibilities directly tied to the success and prosperity of the family as wealth was often understood to be found in the size of one’s herds.  Being a shepherdess seems commonplace as little fuss is made about it in the text.

The other active aspect of the portrayal of Rachel involves her stealing her father’s gods.  In fact, she does so behind Jacob’s back.  So, when Laban confronts him about it, Jacob calmly offers Laban the opportunity to search everything he owns to look for them and threatens to kill whosoever is found with them.  As Laban is going through the other tents, Rachel takes the household gods out of her tent and puts them in her saddle bags.  Cleverly, she then sits on the camel.  When her father comes to search the camel and its cargo, Rachel declares that he cannot because she is menstruating.

Why can’t he?  In the ancient world, menstruation was taboo.  Menstruating women were deemed dirty, polluting and often dangerous because their menstrual blood was understood to be such.  In other words, the ancient world feared what was seemingly uncontrollable.

As a product of the ancient worldview, the Torah continued such a tradition beginning with Leviticus 15.  The chapter starts with a lengthy discussion about the required separation of men who have ejaculated or have a discharge coming from their penis.  They are deemed unclean until certain steps are followed to ameliorate such a status.  The chapter continues with menstruating woman and it mirrors almost word-for-word what the section on men’s emissions says.

However, nowadays, Jewish men do not practice such separation.  Women do.  It is called niddah.  Modern forms of niddah have these ancient and biblical roots.  Even Rachel practiced some form of it, so clearly it predated the temple and survived its destruction.   Some Jewish sources suggest niddah continued because the Torah says menstrual blood is more polluting than semen.  I don’t see an argument there.

I also don’t see one regarding men’s separation deemed no longer applicable because of the destruction of the temple.  According to many Jewish sources, ritual purity for men was linked to temple purification requirements.  Without a temple, men’s separation was no longer required whereas women’s separation seemed necessary whether or not the temple stood.

I read an interesting article the other day by Rita Gross entitled “The Suffering of Sexism: Buddhist Perspectives and Experiences.”  In the article, she discusses gender in a way I had not thought of before.  Gross writes, “… much of the discourse on gender is still about what women would have to do to gain true equality and full representation in the broad range of important human activities.  One rarely hears discussions of how men are remiss in not stepping out of their conventional gender roles or of what they could do to improve human flourishing,” (76).  Think about it.  What if men worked toward human and planetary liberation by doing more tasks traditionally associated with women.  In the context of Buddhism, she questions why more men won’t wear skirts, and why more aren’t willing to participate in childcare.  Both of these are, by social construct, more associated with females.  Yet, as she reminds the reader, women have had little problem wearing pants or taking on employment outside the home.  Both of which have traditionally been associated with men.  Gross believes that, “… men’s unwillingness to take on things quintessentially associated with women—skirts and babies—forcefully demonstrates the depths of sexism and misogyny we still endure. Being a woman is so despised that men just can’t bring themselves to do things that are so much associated with women.” (77).

We could say similar things about traditional Jewish concepts of manhood.  Skirts aside, which we would be hard-pressed to find some Jewish men wearing, men do not practice separation on account of their own bodily emissions even though Leviticus 15 also requires it of them.  Perhaps like Gross says,”…being a woman is so despised that men just can’t bring themselves to do things that are so much associated with women.”

Unlike Buddhism, Judaism actually has parallel traditions for men and women.  It is just that men have found their tradition “no longer applicable,” probably because they realized the burden of such practices.  What if men practiced separation for seminal emissions as women do for menstruation?  Even if for just a month?  Then we could have a real discussion about what separation means, how it continues ancient prejudices toward bodies as sources of impurity and uncleanliness, and why the onus of the practice still falls on women.


Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

8 thoughts on “Vayeitzei: Rachel and the Practice of Niddah by Ivy Helman”

  1. Very interesting. I’m sure many members of this FAR community have noticed that the religious leaders of at least highly patriarchal religion do indeed wear skirts: we see Roman Catholic popes, archbishops, bishops, and priests wearing skirts all the time. But they’re not doing the holy work of the planet. Did the early patriarchs make a decision to dress like women?

    Thanks for suggesting that discussions are needed between men and women about traditions and practices that may not make sense in our modern world.


    1. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the clerical garb worn in Roman Catholicism is modelled on ancient Roman dress for men. The Roman men wore tunics (comparable to our conception of “dresses”) and they considered them very masculine attire -so much so that when the Romans went further north and encountered men wearing trousers in Gaul they thought it was a ridiculous and unmanly way to dress (though they eventually adopted the trousers too because it gets really cold up there and the trousers obviously kept their legs warmer). All that is to say that whether a skirt or pants are considered feminine or masculine attire is highly culturally-specific.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Ivy, you always invigorate the familiar stories for me, and make me think in new ways.
    I wonder if a tunic couldn’t be considered a “dress”. It is the laws around gender that create the injustice – longer “purification time” for male and female children, etc. For the RC hierarchy, I imagine the finery dates to the Royal Court of Constantine and is a sign of social status. While it has signaled a separation from the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, today I think most people think it’s just damned silly…as are most puffed up egos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sara, By key roles I mean how they figure in this particular parshah. Here, they are the women conceiving and birthing children as well as thoughfully naming them. They do have key roles here. Without them, Israel’s twelve tribes would not have existed.


  3. What a thought-provoking post! I’ve often wondered about feminist critiques of women who’ve accomplished something notable in the public sphere who then have something mentioned about their role in their family, such as in a brief biography or obituary (i.e. “she did all this amazing work in the world and she was also a great mother and wife”). I often hear the critique that “we wouldn’t say that about a man” -but shouldn’t we? If a man is a good husband and father shouldn’t we consider that as part of the whole of his life, just as worthy of note as his other accomplishments?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In general, I find it interesting that these comments went directly to Roman Catholicism. Yes, those with higher leadership positions do wear dresses of a sort, but they don’t consider them dresses. I think that is an important distinction. Also, from some Jewish perspectives, it is forbidden to wear clothes of the opposite sex (Here I speak in binaries because they do.)

    In the end though my post is not about dresses. In fact, I find the ideas of body, imposed separation and pollution considerably more important.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: