One of the most widely misunderstood concepts in the Torah is contained in the words tum’ah and taharah. Translated as “unclean” and “clean,” or “impure” and “pure,” tum’ah and taharah—and, by extension, the laws of niddah and Family Purity—often evoke a negative response. Why, it is asked, must a woman be stigmatized as tamei, “impure”? Why should she be made to feel inferior about the natural processes of her body?

It might be said that, at bottom, these objections arise from a fundamental misunderstanding. Tum’ah and taharah are, above all, spiritual and not physical concepts.

The laws of tum’ah, niddah and mikvah belong to the category of commandments in the Torah known as chukkim—Divine “decrees” for which no reason is given. They are not logically comprehensible, like the laws against robbery or murder, or those In essence, tum’ah, “spiritual impurity,” is definable as the “absence of holiness” commandments that serve as memorials to events in our national past such as Passover and Sukkot. The laws of tum’ah and taharah are supra-rational, “above” reason. And it is precisely because they are of such high spiritual level, beyond what intellect can comprehend, that they affect an elevated part of the soul, a part of the soul that transcends reason entirely.1

But even if the human mind can’t understand these Divine decrees logically, we can nevertheless try to understand them spiritually and search for their inner meaning and significance. In this endeavor, the teachings of chassidic philosophy are of invaluable aid, for the study of Chassidut reveals the inner aspect of Torah, its “soul,” and can guide us through realms where unaided human intellect cannot reach. Chassidism strives for the direct perception of G‑dliness underlying everything, and illuminates the spiritual sources of all physical phenomena.

Tumah As the Absence of Holiness

Chassidic teaching explains that in essence, tum’ah, “spiritual impurity,” is definable as the “absence of holiness.” Holiness is called “life,” “vitality”; it is that which is united with and emanates from the source of all life, the Creator. Chassidic philosophy further elucidates that true union with G‑d, true holiness, means that one’s own independent existence is in a state of bittul, “nullification” to G‑d.2 On the other hand, that which is distant or separated from its source is called “death” and “impurity.” According to Torah law, death is the principal cause of all tum’ah; the highest magnitude of tum’ah comes from contact with a dead body.

The forces of evil are, in kabbalistic and chassidic terminology, the sitra achara, the “other side.” They are what is “outside,” what is far from G‑d’s presence and holiness. They flourish in the realm where He is most concealed and least felt, where there is least holiness. In a place where G‑d is least felt, there is naturally more room for “opposition” to Him. Spiritually speaking, what is most evil and most impure in a person is, above all, the assertion of self: one pushes G‑d’s presence away and creates a void, a vacuum where His presence should be.

That is the deeper meaning, according to chassidic teaching, of the phrase “to cause a chilul Hashem,” to desecrate G‑d’s name: it means to make a chalal (void), a place empty of His presence. Holiness is synonymous with bittul: it has no sense of any true existence independent of G‑d. That is why, our sages tell us, arrogance is equivalent to idolatry—for idolatry, in essence, means that something is regarded as independent of the Creator and asserts itself in place of Him.

Hence, if we strip the words “pure” and “impure” of their physical connotations, and perceive their true spiritual meaning, we see that what they really signify is the presence or absence of holiness.

An Important Distinction Between Two Types of Tum’ah

At this point we must ask: why must tum’ah exist at all? What purpose can it have in G‑d’s creation?

“The Almighty has created one thing opposite the other,” the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, and as chassidic teaching interprets this verse, everything in the realm of holiness has its counterpart in the realm of unholiness.

Only through its struggles here can the soul rise higher

On the one hand, these opposing realms are created so that we may have “free choice” in our behavior. On a deeper level, as Chassidism explains, when we reject the evil and choose the good and, moreover, when we further transform the evil itself into good, we effect an elevation not only in ourselves but in the entire world, bringing it closer to its ultimate perfection.

Hence, the ultimate purpose of tum’ah, the “other side,” is for us to achieve higher levels. As the well-known chassidic saying has it, “Every descent is for the purpose of a greater ascent,” and all concealments of G‑d make way for a greater revelation. When the soul comes down to this world, for example, to be vested in a material body, it undergoes an incomparable descent from its previous purely spiritual existence. The purpose of this descent, though, is that the soul may rise even higher in its apprehension of G‑d and attain a more elevated rank than it had before it descended to this world. It can attain this elevation only through the vehicle of the body, through serving G‑d in this lower physical world.

On the one hand, there is concealment and impurity in this lowly material world; on the other hand, only through its struggles here can the soul rise higher.

We must distinguish, then, between two types of tum’ah, two types of “descent.” There is the tum’ah that we ourselves create when we intentionally push G‑d’s presence away and create a void; and there is the tum’ah that G‑d creates as part of nature.

This distinction is crucial to our understanding of niddah (laws pertaining to menstruation). The tum’ah, the impurity that attaches to a sin, is a void we create and by which we degrade ourselves. The tum’ah of niddah, however, is a built-in part of a woman’s natural monthly cycle. Her “descent” from a peak level of potential holiness (i.e., where the creation of a new life is possible) does not mean that she is, G‑d forbid, “sinful” or “degraded,” “inferior” or “stigmatized.” On the contrary, precisely because there is such holiness involved in a woman’s possession of the G‑dly power to create, as if ex nihilo, a new life within her body, there is the possibility for greater tum’ah—but also a great elevation.

Let us try to understand further the idea that the more holiness, the more opportunity there is for the forces of impurity to enter. This is no contradiction to what was stated earlier—that the forces of the “other side” can flourish in the absence of holiness. The forces of evil are also called kelipot, “husks” or “shells,” not only because they cover over and conceal the inner sparks of holiness that gives life to all things, but also because—like the husks or peels of a fruit—they can derive whatever life they have only from this inner spark, the truly living part. When separated from the inner part, they have no more sustenance and “die.”

The birth of a female involves a longer period of niddah, because a female contains within her the G‑dly power to create yet another new life from “nothing”

An excess of holiness can provide “room” for the extraneous forces to derive sustenance, just as, for example, if a barrel is filled to the top, some water will spill over and water weeds as well.

In this light we can further understand the explanation of the Kotzker Rebbe3 that tum’ah can set in only where holiness has been and gone. We can connect this with our understanding of the kind of tum’ah that is part of niddah.

The Torah says that when a woman gives birth, she is in a state of niddah for a variable amount of time: if the child is male, she will be tamei for seven days, and if female, fourteen days.

Why should there be tum’ah at childbirth? The Kotzker Rebbe explains that tum’ah can set in only when holiness departs. As the Talmud tells us, G‑d is directly involved with every childbirth and does not delegate any powers to His “messengers.” Thus, there is a very great level of holiness at birth: the birth of a child involves one of the most sublime powers of G‑d, the ability to create ex nihilo—something from nothing. After birth, this intense holiness, this powerful force of G‑d, “departs” and there is greater potential for tum’ah.

One might conjecture further that the reason the birth of a female involves a longer period of niddah is that a female contains within her the G‑dly power to create yet another new life from “nothing.” Because of this higher potential for holiness, there can be more tum’ah.

The same is true of a woman’s monthly cycle. Every month, this great potential for holiness, a woman’s potential to engage in the sublime power of creation, reaches a peak in her body (an “ascent”). When the potential is not fulfilled and the holiness departs, the now-lifeless remnants leave the body. And this “descent” is susceptible to tum’ah. It is precisely because of the high level of G‑dliness involved in the procreative process that tum’ah can occur at all.

But here again, this “descent” into niddah is for the purpose of a higher ascent, through purification in the mikvah and a new cycle of building up to a higher level of holiness the next month. The mikvah—as will be presently explained—enables one to ascend even higher than the previous month.

In this sense the mikvah and the monthly cycle of a woman may be compared to Shabbat and the weekly cycle of every Jew. The alternation of the holy day of Shabbat with the mundane days of the week is the same cycle of ascent and descent, reenacted every seven days. The six mundane days lead up to Shabbat, during which the world becomes elevated, purified, ascends to its source. Every Jew then receives an “extra soul,” which he loses as the Shabbat departs and he must “go down” again into the struggles of the coming week. It is the very struggle to purify ourselves and the world we confront during the six days that becomes elevated on the Shabbat, and enables us to ascend higher and higher every week, in constant progression.

The same way that a woman is renewed monthly, so will the Jewish people be renewed at the time of their redemption, which will culminate in their higher union with G‑d

Or, let us take another cycle: the daily alternation of sleeping and waking. According to Torah law, every person upon awakening must wash his hands, to remove the “impure spirit” that adheres to them during sleep. In sleep, there is a “departure of holiness” from the body—the soul, it is said, “ascends to its source” above. Again, this “natural law” allows for impurity to set in. Our hands are tamei upon awakening, to be sure, but they are not “evil.” The same is true of tum’ah during a woman’s monthly “natural low.” It is the result of a departure of holiness, but not a state of degradation, inferiority or shame.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, offers an even more profound understanding of the inner nature of these “lows,” these descents. Since, he says, the descent is in fact a necessary preparation for the ascent, and its ultimate purpose is the ascent, the descent is nothing other than a part of the ascent itself. The Rebbe explains4 why the Torah, in speaking of all the journeys of the Jews in the desert, also describes the places where they rested as “journeys.” Since the resting was a preparation for the journey that followed, the resting places are in fact part of the journey onward. Or as in our previous example: sleep gives strength to elevate oneself even more the following day, and is thus part of that ascent itself—though it appears to be a lower state for the body.

And on a broader level, the same is true, the Rebbe explains,5 of the exile of the Jewish people among the nations. If the exile were only for the purpose of punishing us for our sins, it should have lessened with time. Instead, it grows worse from day to day. (The concealment and darkness, however, are a preparation for—and their ultimate purpose is—a great revelation, the great light that will come in the era of Moshiach; and so the closer we approach that great light, the thicker the darkness becomes.) The inner purpose of the exile is that, through refining ourselves and the world, we will ultimately attain a higher level of holiness and unity with G‑d than existed even during the times of the First Temple.

A Comparison with the Moon

In essence, these “natural lows”—absences of holiness that G‑d has created within the monthly cycle of a woman, the weekly cycle of Shabbat, the nightly cycle of sleep, or the entire lifecycle of the Jewish people as a whole—are, in their innermost sense, all parts of the process of spiritual ascent.

Nor is the connection between these different cycles artificial. The Talmud compares the Jewish people to the moon, for just as the moon waxes and wanes every month, so too do the Jews undergo phases of concealment and renewal in exile and redemption. The appearance of the new moon, Rosh Chodesh, is a minor holiday, marking the beginning of a new month. And this day is also a special holiday for women, given to them as a reward for not participating in the making and worship of the Golden Calf. A woman’s body, of course, also follows a monthly cycle, and chassidic teaching illumines a deeper correspondence between the cycle of niddah and the new moon.

The third Lubavitcher Rebbe (the “Tzemach Tzedek”) explains6 that on Rosh Chodesh the moon is renewed, “purified,” and again “unites” with the sun; it again receives its reflection. This union of the sun and the moon on Rosh Chodesh corresponds to the union of man and woman after the days of niddah are over. And in the same way that a woman is renewed monthly, so will the Jewish people be renewed at the time of their redemption, which will culminate in their higher union with G‑d.

Despite one’s high spiritual state, one is not purified until “going out”—until affecting the “outside”

As the Talmud states, when the Jews were exiled, the Shechinah, the “indwelling presence” of G‑d, went into exile with them. And as the Tzemach Tzedek points out, the Hebrew letters of the word niddah also mean nod Hei, “G‑d wanders.” He is in exile with the people of Israel.

Hence the reunion of the sun and the moon on Rosh Chodesh reflects the union of man and woman, and of G‑d and the Jewish people whose relationship is compared to that of husband and wife.

Understanding Mikvah

We have seen that these natural descents are aspects of ascent. Why, however, must this process be accompanied by immersion in a mikvah, and what has water to do with changing one’s status from tamei, “impure,” to tahor, “pure”?

The chassidic masters explain7 that in progressing from one level to another, there has to be a period of “nothingness in between.” For example, when a seed is planted in the ground, it must first disintegrate, lose its first existence, in order to be able to flower. To reach a higher state, one must first lose or nullify his previous state.

This is the inner purpose of the mikvah: to enable one to attain this state of bittul, “nullification,” the “nothingness in between” the two progressive levels. As chassidic teaching points out,8 the letters of the Hebrew word for bittul, when rearranged, spell tevilah—“immersion”—a further indication of their spiritual interconnection.

To fulfill the mitzvah of mikvah, one must immerse completely, be entirely enveloped by the waters. This total immersion of self means losing one’s independent existence, going out from oneself, elevating oneself by becoming a vessel for holiness. Maimonides writes in his code of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah, that this immersion requires the intent of the heart, the intent to purify oneself spiritually from all wrongful thoughts and bad traits, to bring one’s soul into “the waters of pure understanding.”

Chassidut makes a further illuminating connection between this concept of mikvah and the nature of the great flood that occurred in the days of Noah.9 Why, the question is asked, was water the chosen instrument for removing the wicked from the world, and why did the flood have to last for such a long time, forty days and forty nights? Surely if G‑d simply wanted to punish the sinners, He could have done so immediately.

The answer, chassidic teaching explains, is that the flood was not just a punishment, but also a purification for the world. It completely enveloped the earth, and its forty days and forty nights correspond to the measure of forty se’ah of water required to make a ritually fit mikvah. The waters of the flood cleansed the world by immersion in the same way one is purified by immersion in the waters of the mikvah. The separation and removal of all extraneous and undesirable elements has the ultimate purpose of bringing the world (and a person) to a higher level.

And this brings us back to the beginning: the ultimate cause of tum’ah is separation from G‑d; and to be united means to be “nullified” to Him, to lose the sense of one’s independent existence and be attached to one's source.

According to Torah law, however,10 one is purified only upon leaving the mikvah, not while inside it. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains,11 this means that the ultimate purpose of our elevated spiritual states, our “ascents,” is not to be removed from the world; the purpose of creation is “to make a dwelling-place for G‑d in the lower worlds.” That is, we must affect the “outside”—bring holiness into the very lowest levels. Despite one’s high spiritual state, one is not purified until “going out”—until affecting the “outside.”

In practical terms, this means that “the essential thing is the deed”—action in the world, in the refinement of one’s inner self, and also one’s particular share of the world, to make a “dwelling-place for G‑d.” Just as the elevated state of Shabbat is called the “source of blessing” for the entire week, and Rosh Chodesh is the same for the entire month, so too the purification of oneself in the mikvah should permeate all one’s thoughts, words and actions when one leaves the mikvah.

Chassidut further explains12 that the performance of mitzvot provides “garments” for the soul. The moment of conception is particularly crucial, for the frame of mind and purity of the parents determines, to a great extent, what manner of “garments” that soul will have. In sum, not only do the laws of Family Purity have a deep spiritual meaning, but as the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains,13 the fulfillment of this mitzvah has a profound, direct influence on both the spiritual and the physical health of one’s children—and by extension, on all Jewish generations to eternity.

See also: The Mikvah

By Susan Handelman. Reprinted with permission from Di Yiddishe Heim and Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1996).