By Fruma Landa, News Editor
This month, I started learning Masechet Niddah as part of the Daf Yomi cycle. The first night started off strong — I sat with four friends on the floor of a Brookdale room and we began to learn the first daf. After an engaging hour and a half of raised and passionate voices, arguments, opinions, and speculations, we finished the daf. I left feeling exhilarated and complete, the way you feel after you take something foreign to you and work to make it your own. I made a kinyan on the first daf: I learned it. I can now call it my own. I learned the next few dafim on my own, between classes, on the shuttle, in the Beit Midrash, and in my room. In short, my Masechet Niddah and designated Gemara pencil now accompany me everywhere. Learning it on my own is not comparable to the way I learned the first daf, but the sweet memories of the Torah learned on the old wooden floor of a Brookdale dorm room, late into the night, carries me through.
The first daf, 2a, discusses whether a woman with a set menstrual cycle who finds blood through a bedika (checking) or a stain becomes teme’ah (impure) retroactively, thus passing tumah onto objects she touches during that retroactive period. As always, there are a few opinions. Beit Shamai says she does not become retroactively teme’ah, but she becomes teme’ah from the moment she finds the blood and onwards. Beit Hillel says she retroactively becomes teme’ah from the moment she finds the blood, back to the last time she did a bedika. The chachamim say she becomes retroactively teme’ah from the moment she finds the blood, to at most the last twenty-four hours, but if she did a bedika within the last twenty-four hours, she is only retroactively teme’ah until the last bedika. The laws outlined in this first daf sets the stage for the next few dafim.
The Gemara on daf 6b relates the story of Rabban Gamliel’s maidservant who was baking terumah bread, and between each loaf she washes her hands and checks herself for blood. When she completes her last loaf she finds blood and thus becomes teme’ah. The maidservant goes to Rabban Gamliel to ask about the status of the terumah loaves, and he tells her that all of the loaves are considered teme’ah because they have now been teme’ah retroactively for the past twenty-four hours. The maidservant respectfully informs Rabban Gamliel that she checked herself between each loaf she touched. Rabban Gamliel retracts his claim and revokes the status of tumah on all of the loaves except the last one she touched, because she is only teme’ah retroactively from the last bedika, which in her case, was more recent than the last twenty-four hours.
Two things struck me while reading this story. The first was the openness in which menstrual blood was spoken about. This can be attributed to the fact that the laws of tumah and tahara were relevant to every aspect of Jewish lives. Therefore, the laws of one’s menstrual cycle needed to be spoken about frequently. This message is bittersweet. I appreciate the normalization of the discussion of menstrual cycles, which are a natural part of the lives of many women, yet I still do not know how to process that this God-given cycle is something that can define tumah. Additionally, the willingness of Rabban Gamliel to change his ruling after the maidservant specified that she checked herself between each loaf shows me that women did play a role in the halachic ramifications of the laws of niddah. It is hard to learn a masechet which predominantly deals with the female body and yet almost completely cuts out the female narrative. While I truly do love learning Torah, I cannot ignore the fact that every line, especially in Niddah, cannot be learned without the acute pain that accompanies the lack of the female voice.
It can be agonizing to learn with the knowledge that an entire conversation about the bodies of women can go on without the women. Here, in Masechet Niddah, where the laws of niddah pertain to women directly, women are not a part of the conversation, and they are not needed for it to occur. Stories like that of Rabban Gamliel’s maidservant ease the pain. Stories like this prove that women were there, that they took on the laws of niddah with strength and dedication, and that their actions played a role in determining the halachot.
The maidservant did a bedika after each and every loaf, which must have added a significant amount of time to the baking process. Rabban Gamliel didn’t expect that she did a bedika between each loaf and assumed all the loaves were teme’ah. It was the devotion to the laws of niddah that she chose to do a bedika after each loaf, and the courage to tell Rabban Gamliel that she did indeed do a bedika between each loaf, changed the status of the loaves from teme’ah to tehorah (purity).
At times learning Niddah can be a tough pill to swallow, but learning the daf has significantly transformed many aspects of my day. My day feels more Torah-centered, my mind often strays to the last few lines I learned, and I carry my Masechet Niddah around with me just in case the opportunity arises to learn a few more lines. The daf is something I discuss with my friends; we ask questions, share insights and discuss the many topics and ideas found within the pages of the Gemara. We share the struggle of finding time to finish the daf during our hectic midterm schedules and the joy and accomplishment of finishing a daf, a perek, and God-willing, a Masechet.