ה׳ באב ה׳תשע״ב (July 24, 2012)

Nidda 64a-b: The Symbolism of Menstrual Blood

The Mishna that closes the ninth perek of Massekhet Nidda waxes poetic in describing vaginal bleeding in a woman. The Mishna teaches:

Women in regard to their virginity are like vines. One vine may have red wine while another has black wine, one vine may yield much wine while another yields little.

In response, the Gemara quotes a baraita where a different metaphor is used to describe a menstrual period:

Rabbi Ḥiyya taught: As leaven is wholesome for the dough so is menstrual blood wholesome for a woman.

It appears that of the Mishna took their muse from passages in the Tanakh and in midrashic works. According to the Tanna Kamma  a woman is compared to a grapevine based on the verse in Sefer Tehillim (128:3) Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house; thy children like olive plants, round about thy table.

The verse is understood as teaching that if one’s wife is similar to a fruitful vine – one that gives much wine – in that her menstrual flow is strong, she will be able to have many children. Rabbi Hiyya, on the other hand, borrowed his material from the midrashic interpretation of the Yosef story, where we find that Yosef’s master trusted him with everything “save the bread which he did eat” (Bereshit 39:6). The “bread” is understood to refer to his wife, as we find when Yosef rebuffs his master’s wife’s advances with the argument that Potiphar trusted him with everything “save thee, because thou art his wife.” Thus, Rabbi Hiyya’s metaphor compares a woman to leaven. Just as leaven makes the dough rise and become bread, similarly menstrual blood ensures pregnancy and childbirth.

The Arukh LaNer suggests that Rabbi Hiyya’s metaphor is necessary because it adds an element of clarification to that of the Mishna. The Mishna’s parallel between blood and wine is not perfect inasmuch as the blood is not good in itself, it is only good to the extent that it aids in successful childbirth. This stands in contrast with grapes that are good in-and-of themselves. Rabbi Hiyya draws a parallel with leaven, which is not good in itself, but its impact on the dough is a positive one, just like menstrual blood and birth.

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