Several years ago, I stumbled upon an online message board for ultra-Orthodox women. I immediately became absorbed in a zillion threads about the laws of family purity, or Taharas HaMishpocha (in Yiddish-inflected Hebrew).
I’d gone to Orthodox Day School as a kid. I’d known that in Orthodox Judaism there were times of the month when husbands and wives weren’t allowed to touch. I’d known that these times were called niddah, meaning “separation.” I’d known that they were tied to a woman’s menstrual cycle and that she had to visit the mikveh before having sex again. But I had no idea there was such a fetishistic level of rules-y detail! Repeated vaginal checks (hefseik tahara)! Heated debates about what was OK! Super-specificity! Reading these discussions was like reading the contract negotiation scenes in 50 Shades of Grey, except that 50 Shades of Grey had not been published yet.
The online forum taught me a whole lot more, too. I learned about “bedikah cloths,” squares of fabric to insert into one’s vagina to see if there might still be any lingering hint of red or pink within. (Bedikah means “check.”) I learned there was a job for women called “yoetzet,” which meant a trained expert in analyzing the cloths and helping women figure out if they were tahor or tamei (pure or impure, clean or unclean, sacred or base—depending on whose translation you use). There were strategies involving white and colored underpants and toilet paper (if you don’t see the stain, it’s not actually there!) and checking twice with a tampon and which circumstances dictated a discussion with a yoetzet or rabbi. It was so complicated!
Nowadays, fortunately, we have apps to help us know if we are tainted and vile. There’s a new one (for Android only) called “Niddah Stain Checker.” The description:
Want to know if you’re Niddah or not based on your stain, without involving other people in this most private issue? Do you feel uncomfortable checking the status of your stain via your local Rabbi or a female Halachic Adviser? Don’t want others to know when you’re going to go to the Mikveh? Now you can!
Yay! The app leads you through a “halachic analysis” so you’ll know whether a given stain is impure without having to ask anyone else. Because handling someone else your dirty laundry for analysis? What are you, a Japanese vending machine? “There is nothing more modest than this!” the app’s copy trumpets. (Plus it comes in both English and Hebrew.)
The app asks about your “feeling,” your hargashah, about your purity during your internal check, after urination and during sex. There are questions regarding the nature of the stain— might it be from some sort of wound? How big is it? What color is it? The app performs a color analysis of the stain “by displaying a variety of color shades (red, bordeaux, pink, brown, black, green, yellow, white and grey)…[t]he woman can compare and match her stain to one of the shades displayed, and the app will combine her choice with all the other data she entered in order to conclude if the stain is impure or not.”
As my Tablet colleague Elissa pointed out, it would be fun to play with Instagram filters.
Yoatzot are not thrilled with this development. As one pointed out, colors on screens are notoriously unreliable (witness “Dressgate”!). And sometimes you need to have a conversation with an expert to know whether you’re impure. Did you change birth control methods? Do you have post-partum depression? These questions “cannot be compared to outsourcing the thinking and the responsibility to a machine.”
But what if you are willing to outsource the thinking and responsibility to a machine, but do not have an Android-compatable one? Don’t despair! There’s an iPhone option! RustyBrick.com’s “Mikvah iPhone App—Taharas HaMishpacha for iPhone” steps into the breach, as it were. It doesn’t have color-matching tools, but it does have a GPS-based mikvah database, a do-it-yourself calendar to help you figure out your clean and unclean days, Rabbi Yitzchok Jaeger’s book, Guidelines to Family Purity in keyword-searchable digital form, and a checklist of what to bring to the mikveh.
No word on what you’re supposed to do if your rabbi has banned smartphones.
It’s easy for an outsider to be gobsmacked by this stuff. The text of Leviticus about men not lying with menstruating women and the expansion of this text by rabbis who codified the intricate rules that Orthodox women obsess over today is, shall we say, troubling from a feminist standpoint. Christian Grey would have been “cut off from among the people” after he pulled out Anastasia’s tampon because he was “revealing the fountain of her blood.” Fortunately, Christian Grey is Christian. And fictional.
There are arguments that the words tahor and tamei aren’t meant to be judgmental; that blood is holy; that the fact that a man can’t even touch his wife’s hand when she’s in niddah means that when they do get to have physical contact again it’s more special.
There’s an argument that bodily isolation is, like choosing to wear body-obscuring religiously mandated clothing, a valid choice and a celebration of women’s sacredness and mystery. Alas, I cannot get past the fact that a menstruating woman and a dead lizard are both called tamei. But hey, at least there’s an app for that.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.