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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

URL: www.scjfaq.org/faq/08-07.html
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Question 8.7:
What does clean/unclean refer to?

Answer:

The issue of "clean" and "unclean" usually refers to a discussion of the Jewish Laws relating to sexual relations. These laws are known collectively as toharat ha'mishpacha, family purity. These rules inform us that a women enters the state of "tameh" when she is "niddah" (menstruating). During this time the couple must refrain from all physical contact, especially sexual relations. After the cessation of her menstrual flow, the women counts seven days before immersing herself in a mikva, at which time sexual relations between man and wife can then continue.

This brings us to the subject of "tahor" and "tameh". Translating them as "clean" and "unclean" (or "pure" and "impure") is erroneous. These terms actually have nothing to do with physical cleanliness. Rather, they describe a state of ritual applicability in regards to fulfilling certain mitzvot, such as those associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, the cultic function of Kohanim (priests), or sexual relations within in a Jewish marriage. Thus, Tahor and Taharah actually mean "ritually pure" and Tamae and Tumah mean "ritually impure".

Conservative Judaism teaches that the laws of Tohorot HaMishpacha are binding. The movement's official stance is defined in detail in Rabbi Issac Klein's "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice". There is one notable difference between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism in this area: Some Conservative Jews note that the extra waiting period of seven days is not a Torah or Talmud requirement. It was initially discussed as a custom of the pious, and it was only later that this stringency was made mandatory. While the Conservative movement has not yet issued an official ruling in this regard, some American Conservative halakhic experts have individually written teshuvot (responsa) that these extra days are a chumra (stringency) and thus not mandatory. Instead, they say that a couple must abstain while a woman is niddah, but only have to wait one extra day before immersion in a mikveh - not an entire week. These rabbis include Joel Roth, Michael Gold, Susan Grossman and Talmud Professor Dr. David C. Kraemer. Some good sources on Conservative practice in this area are:

  1. "This is My Beloved, This is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations". Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff. The Commission on Human Sexuality of the Rabbinical Assembly, 1996. Available from the USCJ Book Service.

  2. "Does God Belong in the Bedroom". Rabbi Michael Gold, JPS, 1992. Although this book is not an official publication of the Conservative movement, its author is a member of the Conservative movement's "Commission on Human Sexuality of the Rabbinical Assembly", and represents a mainstream Conservative view.

  3. United Synagogue Review, Fall 2001, "Coming of Age: The Growth of the Conservative Mikveh Movement" http://www.uscj.org/item15_660_666.html

  4. Dipping Into Tradition: The Mikveh Makes a Comeback, JTS Magazine, Volume 10, No.3 http://www.jtsa.edu/news/jtsmag/10.3/dip.shtml

  5. Must a women go to the Mikveh after her period? A short responsa by Conservative Rabbi Daniel Kohn. http://www.jewish.com/askarabbi/askarabbi/askr875.htm

In recent years, there has been some increase in interest among younger Reform and Reconstructionist Jews in the area of toharat ha'mishpacha, family purity. While until recently the Reform movement had been fairly hostile to both the rituals of and philosophy behind toharat ha'mishpacha, the last couple of decades have seen a slow but steady turn towards traditional practices, often with new interpretations. Some of the younger American Reform rabbis are in fact moving for the Reform movement to officially reclaim this practice in an official manner.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to questions@scjfaq.org. The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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