August 7, 2018

Sefer Nishmat habayit

I. Introduction

Over many years I have developed a great passion towards the study of contemporary halakhah – and specifically – towards contemporary She’elot U’Teshuvot (responsa literature). This is due to the fact that while codified halakhah is often recorded by the author ‘after examining the halakhic materials from a theoretical point of view’[1], responsa ‘embody decisions in actual cases’[2] and they therefore reflect the practical application of halakhah in concrete situations. Given this, we often (although not always) find that the halakhic conclusions found in responsa are more lenient than those found in codes because the responsa writer is naturally more conscious of the human impact of their ruling than necessarily the author of a halakhic code. Though this applies in all areas of halakhah, it is specifically the case in the realm of Taharat HaMishpacha (The laws of family purity) where individualised rulings as presented orally or at times in written responsa often differ from the halakhah as recorded within codes addressing these halakhot.[3]

However, in addition to my passionate study of responsa I am also a strong supporter of women’s Torah scholarship, and this is why I invested so much time writing my lengthy review of Mah She’elatech Esther Vate’as[4] which was the first volume of women’s Orthodox responsa dealing with an assortment of halakhic questions as answered by Rabbanit Idit Bartov and Rabbanit Anat Novoselsky.[5] Similarly, when Malka Puterkovsky published her monumental Mehalekhet Bedarkhah[6] just two months later containing twelve detailed responsa essays on a range of halakhic topics, I also read the volume with care and subsequently published a review.[7] With this in mind, I was naturally thrilled to receive a copy of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit which is a 367-page book containing sixty-three responsa penned by seven graduates of the Keren Ariel Yoatzot Halakhah (‘halakhic advisors’) program at Midreshet Nishmat.

Like Mah She’elatech Esther Vate’as and Mehalekhet Bedarkhah, Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is unique as it joins this small but growing collection of women’s responsa volumes. At the same time it is different from these other volumes because it focusses almost all of its attention on aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha. Yet it is in this difference that we find its great importance, because by containing real answers provided by yoatzot halakhah to real questioners addressing concrete Taharat HaMishpacha questions, Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is truly unique among all other previously written halakhic works on this subject.

II. The structure of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit

In terms of the structure of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, it opens with five letters of approbation which are then followed by three forwards. We then get to the main body of the book which is sixty-three responsa divided into 5 subsections: (I) Pregnancy (8 responsa); (II) Birth (13 responsa); (III) Miscarriage (3 responsa); (IV) Breastfeeding (5 responsa) and (V) Contraception (34 responsa). This is followed by medical appendices arranged according to the five subsections of the book, a list of authorities cited, and a detailed index. However, before discussing some of the responsa in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, I would like to discuss the approbations and forwards as each have much to teach us about how Yoatzot Halakhah in general, and their responsa specifically, have developed and have been received.

III. Approbations

The first approbation in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit contains a short blessing from Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl who is the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, who both praises the clarity of the responsa and also emphasises the value of their publication which he hopes will serve to increase the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha in accordance with halakhah. Yet notwithstanding the fact that this book is groundbreaking in terms of it containing halakhic responsa written by women Torah scholars, Rabbi Nebenzahl’s letter is both generous in tone yet unremarkable in content, and I believe that this itself speaks volumes about the future of women’s responsa literature – at least in the field of Taharat HaMishpacha – which, if written with care and consideration for both psak and public policy – are likely to become important – if not the standard – sources of reference for those who study and practice these laws.

The second letter is from Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron, who begins by praising the teshuvot in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit as well as the yoatzot halakhah, ‘because it is much more comfortable for a woman to speak with a woman, heart to heart [on matters pertaining to Taharat HaMishpacha], and this generates a greater impact regarding the observance of [these laws]’[8]. He then writes comments about two of the teshuvot in the manner that Rabbanim do when writing approbations to responsa volumes which I shall be addressing a little later on in this essay. Though it will become apparent that I disagree with at least some of Rabbi Lior’s remarks, I believe that his engagement with these responsa is itself of great significance as it demonstrates how he regards them as equal to other responsa and therefore worthy to be addressed and critiqued.

This is followed by a letter by Rav Moshe Ehrenreich, Head of the Eretz Hemda Kollel, who not only emphasises the importance of a women’s Beit Midrash[9] and the value of yoatzot halakhah, but who also makes a powerful remark about these responsa which, as he explains, are not only written with clarity in a way that makes them accessible to all readers, but which also reveal ‘a relationship to the soul of the questioner’[10] and in doing so demonstrate the need for a Beit Midrash for women. This, along with the valuable medical appendices found at the end of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, ‘guarantees that [this volume] will be part of the rabbinic library of Torah scholars… [as well as part of the library] of young families dealing with [these and] similar questions’[11].

In his letter of approbation, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitz of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Adumim begins by referencing Niddah 13b which states how a particular woman who was deaf would not only render halakhic decisions about her own Niddah status, but who would also do the same for her friends as well. In light of this, Rabbi Rabinovitz seeks to bring to the attention of the reader that the practice of women ruling on questions of Taharat HaMishpacha is, in fact, ‘an ancient tradition (mesoret atika)’[12]. In addition to this, Rabbi Rabinovitz also praises the inclusion of medical information and he stresses the value of this work for everyone, especially male Torah scholars, who ‘can increase their understanding from the study of these responsa on these vital topics’[13].

The final letter of approbation is from Rabbi Aryeh Stern, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who also emphasises the value of yoatzot halakhah since women ‘would prefer to turn about these matters to a woman and not a man’[14]. Yet notwithstanding his praise for the programme and especially for Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbanit Chana Henkin and Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig, Rabbi Stern emphasises how ‘the yoatzot themselves acknowledge the boundaries of their role and know what they can answer by themselves and when they need to ask the Rabbanim who will render a halakhic ruling for questions that require a decision’[15]. This itself is not necessarily a remarkable statement since this is the framework under which the yoatzot halakhah service operates. Still, by making this point, as well as from the remarks towards the end of his letter, it is clear that Rabbi Stern is highlighting a concern that none of the previous letter writers explicitly voice.

As previously noted, both Rav Moshe Ehrenreich and Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitz stated that Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is a valuable addition to both the rabbinic and layperson’s bookshelf. Yet in his final paragraph, Rabbi Stern offers readers a word of warning:

‘It appears to me that this excellent book needs to be directed to Rabbanim and to Yoatzot Halakhah and to whomever else is involved in the study of the topic of Taharat HaMishpacha, and there is no doubt that this book will be very beneficial to them and I would therefore like to congratulate both the writers and editors. Nevertheless it appears to me, and this needs to be said, that this book is not suitable for all women to have in their home, and concerning [non-expert women] the general rule remains that we should encourage such women to turn to a Rabbi or to a yoetzet halakhah with their question and who will answer the question in a way that suits the questioner – though they will naturally be delighted to be assisted by the Sefer Nishmat HaBayit’[16].

This point is of considerable interest to me, and while many may agree with Rabbi Stern, I believe that the fact that he made these remarks highlights his concern about the shifting of decision-making on matters of Taharat HaMishpacha from halakhic authorities (be they either Rabbanim or Yoatzot Halakhah) to the general population who, in our modern world of the information age, wish to live an autonomous halakhic life with halakhic information in their own hands without needing to defer to another about such personal matters.

In summary, what these five letters highlight is the growing acknowledgement within the rabbinic community that yoatzot halakhah are a valuable addition to Jewish communities and that yoatzot halakhah enable and encourage the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha. Moreover, it is also clear that all five authors regard the responsa contained in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit as authentic responsa that have a rightful place on the rabbinic bookshelf. However, what is also clear is that there are levels of disagreement about the role yoatzot halakhah can play in rendering halakhic rulings, and while some people regard Sefer Nishmat HaBayit as a book that should appear in all homes, some are concerned that this may encourage women make their own decisions about these laws rather than seek the advice of a halakhic expert.

III. Forwards

Following these letters of blessing and approbation are three forwards by Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig, Rabbanit Michal Roness and Rabbanit Chana Henkin, and each tell a slightly different part of the story about the origins of yoatzot halakhah, the creation of the yoetzet halakhah program, and the publication of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit. Here are just a few pertinent points which are worthwhile mentioning:

In his forward, Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig begins by describing the changing role of women in society and how the explosion of women’s Jewish learning opportunities has enabled numerous women to achieve halakhic expertise. Yet notwithstanding the fact that Orthodox Jews turn to rabbis to address their halakhic queries, many women have felt uncomfortable turning to male rabbanim for guidance concerning question of Taharat HaMishpacha because ‘notwithstanding his breadth of knowledge and analysis, though a Rabbi can provide a halakhic ruling, he is still incapable of feeling what a woman feels and quite often the halakhic considerations [involved in answering a question] must take into consideration the feelings of the woman and her experience in observing these laws.’[17] Given all this, Rabbi Warhaftig explains why the yoetzet halakhah program was established although he goes out of his way to stress that ‘the purpose was not to train poskot (female halakhic decisors), and therefore we decided to use the term ‘yoetzet halakhah’ (halakhic advisor) [because] our intention was that the yoetzet would work together with a local Rav and act in accordance with his rulings’[18]. Noteworthy are the facts on the ground which, as Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig records, by the date of publishing over 250,000 questions have been asked to the over 100[19] yoatzot halakhah worldwide.

In her forward, Rabbanit Michal Roness who is both a yoetzet halakhah whose rulings are found in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit as well as the coordinator of this project, explains the process of responsa writing, noting how each responsum was checked by Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig (Dean of the Yoatzet Halakhah Institution) and edited by Rabbanit Chana Henkin (Founders & Dean) and Rabbi Yehuda Henkin (Halakhic Authority for Nishmat). Among the many others that she thanks is Dr. Deena Zimmerman, herself a yoetzet halakhah who contributed much of the medical information found in the responsa and specifically in the medical appendices, as well as the late Rabbi Eitam Henkin hy’d who assisted with the editing of some of the responsa.

Finally, in her forward Rabbanit Henkin further stresses how considerable care was shown when choosing the term yoetzet halakhah ‘in order to express a sense of modesty and care towards the world of pesikat halakhah (halakhic decision-making).’[20] However, she also raises a significant point about the responsa in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit which I believe is crucial to bear in mind.

In general, classic printed responsa contain questions that have been written to a decisor and the rulings that they wrote back to the questioner. However, as Rabbanit Henkin explains, Sefer Nishmat HaBayit contains responses which were originally communicated through ‘personal [phone] conversations and at times through written responses to those who turned to our website’[21]. In both cases, ‘the conversation between the questioner and the respondent was conducted in a personable manner including clear and empathetic explanations where the [halakhic] concepts and the halakhah were delineated in accordance with the woman’s understanding of halakhah and her desire to receive further information. [In fact] on numerous occasions the yoetzet halakhah would broaden the conversation to include good advice and emotional support where necessary. However, in order not to wear down the readers, we have chosen to provide just a summary of the conversation in a short responsum, with a specific focus on the halakhic considerations, and we have then explained the responsum in greater detail in the discussion that follows.’[22]

To my mind this remark is essential important because it serves to remind us that the responsa found in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit are not necessary illustrative of the full answers provided by the yoatzot halakhah to their questioners, and that while the study of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is valuable in terms of understanding halakhah, the responsa contained therein may not contain some of the personal interactions between the yoatzot halakhah and their questioners.[23] As a reader it is hard to know how much of these personal touches have been left out, and it is difficult to evaluate what they would add if left in. Still, I believe that a unique aspect of this work is to remind its readers, both male and female, that ‘halakhic considerations [involved in answering a question] must take into consideration the feelings of the woman and her experience in observing these laws’[24]. Given this it is possible that the excising of these more personal interactions may, in fact, detract from this important work.[25] However, in order to reach any such conclusions, I now turn to the responsa.

 IV. Responsa

As previously mentioned, the 63 responsa in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit are divided into 5 subsections: (I) Pregnancy, (II) Birth, (III) Miscarriage, (IV) Breastfeeding & (V) Contraception, and in terms of the responsa themselves they are divided into three parts: The she’elah (question), the teshuvah (the basic halakhic answer, which I have referred to below as being the ‘core responsum’), and the harchavah (additional detailed explanations that explain the basis of the ruling in the teshuvah). Notably, each responsum concludes with the abbreviation of the yoetzet halakhah who penned the responsum[26]. Given all this, and in order to attempt to do justice to this extensive work, I have provided a detailed overview of 5 responsa, with one originating from each of the 5 different subsections of the book. In each case I have loosely translated the she’elah (question), summarised the teshuvah (the core reponsum), highlighted the key issues addressed in the harchavah (additional detailed explanations that explain the basis of the ruling in the teshuvah), and then made a few personal reflections about the responsum.[27]

(a) Mikveh Immersion during Pregnancy (Responsa No. 8)[28]

SHE’ELAH: I had bleeding during the fifth month of pregnancy and I am set to go to mikveh this evening. However, I am worried by the fact that my mikveh preparations require that I bathe in a bath for a while, and I also worried about contracting an infection when immersing in the mikveh. Is there any leniency with respect to the preparation requirements and the immersion in a mikveh for a pregnant woman?

TESHUVAH: A pregnant woman who becomes a Niddah must count and immerse like all other Niddot and she must cleanse herself thoroughly prior to immersion. However, there is no need to bathe in a bath and a shower is sufficient. Moreover, even if someone immerses multiple times in a Mikveh, in this situation you can immerse just once. In terms of the worry about remaining in water, medical opinion states that this only arises if the water is above 39 degrees which is not the case with Mikvaot. Regarding your concern of contracting an infection, this is unlikely given that mikveh water is regularly changed and the water often contains disinfectant. Still, you can coordinate with the mikveh attendant to be the first woman to immerse after the water has been changed.

HARCHAVAH: In this section detailed explanations are provided concerning the temperature of mikveh water and the regularity of its being replaced; the cleansing requirements of a woman who is about to immerse in a mikveh, and the number of times a woman needs to immerse in a mikveh to fulfil her duty.

REFLECTIONS: This is a clear and helpful responsum in answer to a question that has been addressed, at least in part, by some halakhic codes. Yet the simple interlacing of halakhic guidance and medical information makes this responsum far more helpful than the guidance found in a halakhic code. Though it is likely that some of the personal interactions between the yoetzet halakhah and her questioner have not been reproduced in this responsum, through directly addressing the various concerns raised by the questioner, the yoetzet halakhah shows ‘consideration to the feelings of the woman and her experience in observing these laws’[29], which therefore makes this responsum not only a clear source of halakhah, but also – like the best responsa – a wonderful example of how to render halakhah.

(b) Assistance of Husband in the Delivery Room (Responsa No. 13)[30]

 SHE’ELAH: I hope to be giving birth in the coming weeks, God willing. I wanted to know what my husband can do to assist while I am giving birth. Is there a problem with him being with me [in the delivery room] while I give birth? Is it permitted for him to physically help me such as through providing a massage or helping me find a comfortable position while I cope with my contractions etc.?

TESHUVAH: Your husband can physically assist you during your early contractions up until you see blood or until the later stages of labour [when your cervix has dilated[31]] at which time physical contact is forbidden because you are considered as a Niddah. From then on, your husband can assist and encourage, but he can’t touch you. The presence of your husband in the delivery room is permitted as long as he doesn’t touch you or look closely at the private parts of your body. Given this, some people hire a doula to assist them during birth. However this may be a financial stretch for some, unworkable for others, and is certainly not halakhically required. It is also important to know that a woman giving birth is classified as a chola sh’yesh ba sakana (an invalid in imminent danger), and furthermore, halakhah acknowledges the importance of maintaining the yishuv hada’at (peace of mind) of a woman giving birth. What this means is that if you need physical assistance requiring touch during your early contractions and no other woman is able to assist, then your husband can fulfil your request in order to help you maintain your peace of mind. However, this is only if you ask this of him (ie. he shouldn’t voluntarily do so – JS).

HARCHAVAH: In this section detailed explanations are provided about the stages of childbirth, the medical interventions available at each stage, and the types of physical assistance that are often requested by a woman giving birth such as moistening her lips, putting some pressure on her lower back during contractions, and providing back massages to ease the pain of childbirth. While men were previously not allowed in the delivery room, this is now the norm in many places, notwithstanding the fact that Rabbi Yitzchak Weiss rules in his Responsa Minchat Yitzchak that a husband should not be present for the birth itself.[32] This ruling is challenged by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who states that there is no reason why a husband cannot be present in the room as long as he doesn’t look directly when the baby comes out.[33] In terms of a husband physically assisting his wife during childbirth, the Shulchan Aruch[34] sides with the Rambam[35] that this would be forbidden, whereas the Rema[36] would permit such intervention if there is no other to assist. Though some may claim that there are always people available to assist in a hospital delivery room and therefore there is no basis to rely on the Rema, ‘in reality, we well know that even today the medical team are not always available to fulfil all the needs of a woman giving birth. In most places, the midwives are only available intermittently whereas the easing of the pain of childbirth is generally performed by the person who has accompanied the woman and not the medical staff’[37]. Significantly, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin rules that if a woman is worried about being alone from her husband he must stay with her and anything that she considers as necessary for her to have peace of mind is regarded as an act of pikach nefesh (lifesaving).[38] Given this, Rabbi Shlomo Deichovsky permits a man to physically assist his wife in childbirth while wearing medical gloves[39] because even though she is considered a Niddah, if she needs his help he should help her.

REFLECTIONS: This responsum is a wonderful example of what Sefer Nishmat HaBayit uniquely contributes, which is the fusion of halakhic rulings – including some positions which may be less well known in the Orthodox community and would be unlikely to be recorded in contemporary halakhic codes – with medical knowledge and practical perspectives that reflect the physical and emotional needs of women as understood and reflected by the guidance they have been given by women. At it is with this in mind that I now return to the letter of Rabbi Dov Lior which, as previously noted, includes comments about two responsa, and it is in response to this question and its answer that he writes:

‘It seems that all of this issue has come from America and does not reflect the boundaries of modesty and sanctity of the Jewish people. The husband needs to accompany his wife to the delivery room and no further. In the delivery room her mother, friend or assistant (ie. doula – JS) can be with her – but not the husband. It is not appropriate to place the husband in a situation where he cannot touch or assist his wife, and this should be explained to woman giving birth and thereby allay her yearning [for her husband]’[40].

Personally, I find the absoluteness of Rabbi Lior’s remarks to be astonishing – both in terms of the insistence that the desire of a woman for her husband to be present is merely a Western fad, as well as the implicit dismissal of other positions such as those of Rav Ovadia Yosef cited above. However, it is precisely given these remarks which makes Sefer Nishmat HaBayit and yoatzot halakhah so invaluable because, to again quote Rabbi Yaakov Warhaftig, ‘notwithstanding his breadth of knowledge and analysis, while a Rabbi can provide a halakhic ruling he is still incapable of feeling what a woman feels and quite often the halakhic considerations [involved in answering a question] must take into consideration the feelings of the woman and her experience in observing these laws’[41].

(c) Reducing Internal Self-Examinations following a Miscarriage (Responsa No. 24)[42]

SHE’ELAH: I had a miscarriage which was, in actuality, an induced birth for a dead fetus at 27 weeks. Two weeks passed and the bleeding finished and I want to count seven clean days. Can I avoid doing internal checks given my concern of contracting an infection after the difficult medical procedure which I am very worried about?

 TESHUVAH: A woman is obligated to perform a hefsek taharah[43] before counting her seven clean days, and ideally (lechatchila) she should also employ a moch dachuk[44] and perform two checks each day throughout the seven days. In a situation of great need or limited opportunity (bedieved) one can reduce the number of checks and forgo the use of a moch dachuk. Either way, gentle checks may be performed. In the instance of a miscarriage during the later stages of pregnancy, a woman physiologically undergoes the same process as giving birth while, at the same time, having to cope with her loss. Still, after two weeks there is no concern that internal checks will cause an infection. This means that a woman should perform a hefsek taharah she need not perform a moch dachuk, and she should minimally check herself on Day 1 and Day 7 of her seven clean days, and it is recommended that she does a further check on Day 3 or 4. If necessary, in the case of dryness, a woman can moisten the bedikah cloth or use a water-based product like KY jelly. These leniencies can only be applied to the situation you have described and they should be evaluated anew before the next time you count your seven clean days.

HARCHAVAH: In this section detailed explanations are provided about the process of a woman checking herself before and during her seven clean days, and the absolute halakhic necessity for the hefsek taharah.[45] At the same time, we are told that the use of a moch dachuk, though mentioned in the classic halakhic writings, is a halakhic preference rather than an absolute requirement, which means that it can be dispensed of in cases of miscarriage or following childbirth. Further details are also provided about the quantity of checks during the seven clean days and the minimal necessity to check on Day 1 and Day 7,[46] and though some disagree with this position, ‘given the sensitivity of the region of checking following the miscarriage, and taking into consideration the emotional state of the woman, we can reduce the checks to the minimum’[47].

REFLECTIONS: This is a clear and practical responsum addressing a woman who has undergone a painful loss which attempts to strike the delicate balance between requiring her to perform internal checks, offering reassurance that the checks are unlikely to trigger an infection, while also stating that she is only required to perform the minimum number of checks. In so many ways, this advice would not be found in halakhic codes, while a woman would likely be very uncomfortable to turn to a male Rabbi with such a question. Moreover, beyond the ruling itself, the practical suggestion of using a moist bedikah cloth or KY jelly are unlikely to have been considerations presented by a male posek. Here too, I wonder what further ‘emotional support’[48] was provided by the yoetzet halakhah to the questioner in this situation. Nonetheless, this responsum clearly demonstrates how the yoetzet halakhah was sensitive to the physical and emotional trauma that the woman had experienced, while also providing her with coherent and practical halakhic guidance.

(d) Blood on Toilet Paper (Responsa No. 27)[49]

SHE’ELAH: I am breastfeeding and I have not had my period. Yesterday I saw blood on a wipe when wiping myself in the toilet, and today I again saw blood, this time on toilet paper. Have I now become forbidden [to touch my husband]?

TESHUVAH: Toilet paper and moistened wipes do not contract impurity and therefore, unless you have experienced a hargasha (bodily sensation), even if you see blood on them at least in principle you are not forbidden. However, if the wiping occurred within seconds of urinating, Ashkenazic halakhic authorities suggest that it is possible that the blood came from the uterus and that the woman misattributed her bodily sensation to urination. Consequently, a woman would be forbidden [to touch her husband] given this doubt. If, however, there was a delay of more than 15 seconds between urinating and wiping herself, this doubt no longer applies and we treat this like a regular stain on any item that is not susceptible to impurity and you are not forbidden. Contrasting this, Sefardic halakhic authorities rule that a woman who sees blood on toilet paper is always considered pure. Therefore, if you follow Sefardic customs, there is no concern. And if you follow Ashkenazi customs, and presuming that there was less than a 15 second delay between urinating and wiping, you should wait five days including the day when you saw the stain, perform a hefsek taharah, count seven clean days, and then immerse in a mikvah.

HARCHAVAH: In this section detailed explanations are provided about the possibility of how a hargasha can be ‘hidden’ by the sensation of urinating and the justification of the measure of 15 seconds to presume that it is or is not uterine blood. In addition to this, references from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein[50] and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef[51] are also provided to explain how toilet paper[52] or moistened wipes are not susceptible to impurity and consequently, how blood found on toilet paper would not render a woman impure.

REFLECTIONS: Like the previous responsa, this is a clear and practical responsum that refers to the halakhic debates and considerations arising from finding blood on toilet paper. Yet here too Rabbi Dov Lior challenges the conclusion, noting that ‘in my humble opinion it seems that blood found on toilet paper should not be treated like a stain and, therefore, the rules that it can only render a woman impure if found in a material that is susceptible to impurity and is the size of a gris do not apply. Instead, this should be treated as blood that appears in the absence of a hargasha[53] which would mean that such a stain should render a woman impure. To support this contention, Rabbi Lior cites both the Shach[54] and Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshetz[55], and he also supports his argument based on the Ramban[56]. He then concludes his comments by stating that ‘I remember that many years ago Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv zt’l said to me that whomever renders [a woman] pure when she sees something when wiping is comparable to someone who turns their eye away from [Torah] prohibitions’[57].

Before continuing I feel it my duty to stress how the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha are complex, and I certainly do not regard myself as being qualified to challenge these specific arguments of Rabbi Lior. Notwithstanding this, having received some guidance on the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha from Mori V’Rabbi Dayan Gershon Lopian zt’l, who himself was both a venerated posek in the field of Taharat HaMishpacha as well as a talmid muvhak of R’ Moshe Feinstein zt’l, I can personally attest that the approach found in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is that which he would offer to women.

Given all this, I believe that the remarks of Rabbi Lior both here and above highlight a halakhic – and possibly even an ideological – difference between himself and the yoatzot halakhah who have written these responsa. In my opinion this further affirms the importance of this book since it provides the many Rabbis and the many women who have been taught the halakhah according to the approach outlined by Rabbi Lior that alternative halakhic positions – which may or may not appear in the classic halakhic codes. Of course, for those like Rav Moshe Ehrenreich who hopes that Sefer Nishmat HaBayit will be found in ‘the rabbinic library of Torah scholars… [as well as part of the library] of young families dealing with [these and] similar questions’[58] what this means is that some Rabbis and some women will now become acquainted with a more lenient view, and it is this consideration which I think was the impetus for Rabbi Stern to write that ‘this book is not suitable for all women to have in their home, and …we should, [instead], encourage such women to turn to a Rabbi or to a yoetzet halakhah with their question …who will answer the question in a way that suits the questioner’[59].

(e) Suspected Wound and Stain Location on Bedikah Cloth (Responsa No. 45)[60]

SHE’ELAH: I take combination pills to avoid becoming pregnant. I did a hefsek taharah and I started to count seven clean days. However, during each check I can see a small red spot on the bedikah cloth, on the side, and in the same place. I suspect this must be due to an injury. What should I do?

TESHUVAH: It is possible to presume that a small trace of blood on a bedikah cloth is due to an injury or lesion and there are situations when the place of the blood on the cloth helps us surmise that this is the case. From your description it is not sufficiently clear where you suspect you may have been injured, and it is possible that further information will help us reach a halakhic conclusion. If your suspicion that you’ve got an injury or lesion is only based on the fact that you’ve seen blood on the cloth, then you should bring the cloth to an expert of mar’ot (the different coloured stains that appear on bedikah cloths) or, alternatively have a medical check, and if this confirms that you do have an injury that may have bled then we can presume that this is the reason for the blood.

HARCHAVAH: Following this ruling we find a detailed review about the possibility and permissibility of presuming that blood seen on a bedikah cloth is due to an internal injury or lesion and is not uterine blood, with the Sefer HaTerumah[61] and the Mordechai[62] claiming that we can only attribute the blood to an injury or lesion that is known to bleed, while the Rashba[63] asserts that we can attribute the blood to an injury or lesion even if we are not certain. Moreover, we find that the Terumat Hadeshen[64] argues that blood can be attributed to an injury or lesion based on the place of the blood on the cloth. In terms of how the Shulchan Aruch[65] is understood and how contemporary poskim rule on this issue there is some variation, with authorities like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef[66] ruling leniently, while Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner[67] only adopts a lenient position in some situations. In this case we must also take into consideration the fact that the woman is under the hormonal influence of pills. Therefore, where a woman is confident that the blood originates from an injury or lesion, we can presume that this is the case. Where she is not, a medical examination can verify whether this is the case.

REFLECTIONS: This is a clear responsum that addresses an oft-occurring problem amongst women and which provides a clear presentation of the different halakhic issues at play and how best to respond. Here too, classic halakhic codes generally treat this issue with greater stricture, and like some of the previous responsa above, it is evident that the awareness of the physiology of a woman and the impact that medication can have on bleeding highlights the added benefit of women answering these types of questions.

V. Conclusions

The publication of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is a monumental achievement reflecting the 17 years of yoatzot halakhah in the field[68], and it is a book of major scholarship which firmly demonstrates how yoatzot halakhah are best qualified to understand ‘how a woman feels and …the halakhic considerations [involved in answering a question]’[69]. As opposed to the many halakhic codes addressing the topic of Taharat HaMishpacha, Sefer Nishmat HaBayit is unique as it contains real answers to real question questions, and the inclusion of medical information and the reference to current medical practice makes this book truly invaluable. Though there were times when I expected to encounter more personal advice in the responsa, these omissions are likely due to editorial decisions. Still, especially when dealing with some of the more delicate questions, I would have liked to have heard how the yoetzet halakhah revealed her ‘relationship to the soul of the questioner’[70]. Yet despite this, each responsum undoubtedly overflows with sensitivity and understanding, and each affirms how yoatzot halakhah are truly best placed to answer these questions. In terms of the reception of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, the letters of blessing and approbation speak volumes about how leading rabbis regard yoatzot halakhah, and though the good news is that they each praise the contribution of yoatzot halakhah and the responsa found in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, some are clearly wary of their reach and of the way that Sefer Nishmat HaBayit may be used. Still, what is absolutely clear – especially from the comments of Rabbi Lior – is that yoatzot halakhah in general, and the rulings in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit specifically, outline positions that may not be being taught, shared or acknowledged in some communities but which most certainly address the needs of some women within those communities. Whether or not Sefer Nishmat HaBayit changes the way women in general and women in such communities specifically follow halakhah – only time will tell.


[1] Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society, 1994) p. 1456

[2] Responsa, Maharil No. 72, cited by Menachem Elon ibid. p. 1458

[3] On this and related topics, see Ronit Irshai (2014) ‘Public and Private Rulings in Jewish Law (Halakhah): Flexibility, Concealment, and Feminist Jurisprudence’, Journal of Law, Religion and State Volume 3 Issue 1, pp. 25-50

[4] This is an 85-page booklet produced in June 2014 by the Ohr Torah Stone network. It contains seven responsa and one halakhic essay by HaRabbanit Idit Bartov and HaRabbanit Anat Novoselsky, and it can be downloaded in full from—————.pdf

[5] For my review of Mah She’elatech Esther Vate’as, see JOFA Journal Fall 2014 (pp. 24-26) or download from

[6] This is a 567-page book produced by Yedioth Ahronot containing twelve detailed responsa essays.

[7] For my review of Mehalekhet Bedarkhah, see JOFA Journal Spring 2015 (pp. 24-25) or download from

[8] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 13

[9] He does this by referencing the Midrash’s comments cited by Rashi in his commentary to Bereishit 12:8 and then interprets the term ‘ohel’ to refer to a Beit Midrash, thereby leading him to the conclusion that not only did Sarai lead a Beit Midrash for women, but that it was established before Avraham’s Beit Midrash.

[10] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 14

[11] Ibid. p. 14

[12] Ibid. p. 15

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p. 16

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 17

[18] Ibid. p. 18.

[19] Though Rabbi Warhaftig mentions how there are over 100 qualified yoatzot halakhah, Rabbanit Henkin states in her forward that there are, in fact, nearly 120.

[20] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 21

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. pp. 21-22

[23] Of course, this may apply to responsa penned by any other posek whose answer is based on a human conversation rather than merely a physical or digital correspondence. However, I believe that its omission here is more significant.

[24] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 17

[25] This may be compared to Malka Puterkovsky’s Mehalekhet Bedarkhah who ‘in contrast to the classic method of presenting each she’elah with the barest of details beyond the halakhic question itself.. [she] begins each chapter by recounting  the  background to each she’elah and the human story behind each’ (Johnny Solomon, JOFA Journal Spring 2015 p. 24).

[26] The seven Yoatzot Halakhah whose responsa appear in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit are: Zivit Berliner, Goldie Katz Samson, Shira Kfir, Ora Krauss, Noa Lau, Michal Roness and Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel.

[27] While I have done my best to summarise these responsa I have not provided a full translation or review of the many sources cited in the footnotes of Sefer Nishmat HaBayit, and while care should always be shown when deducing general halakhah from specific responsa, I feel dutybound to stress that it would be incredibly unwise to do so from my summaries.

[28] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit pp. 54-57. Responsum written by Shira Kfir and staff.

[29] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 17

[30] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit pp. 75-78. Responsum written by Zivit Berliner and staff.

[31] On this point see Sefer Nishmat HaBayit No.’s 9 & 12

[32] See Minchat Yitzchak Vol. 8 No. 30 section 2. Regrettably, while Rabbi Weiss is certainly against a husband being present in the delivery room, I think that his position – which seems to be absolute in this summation – is not fairly reflected as he actually writes that ‘here in the Sha’arei Tzedek hospital when people ask me about this I’ve said that it is forbidden unless there is a concern of danger if the husband is not present, and furthermore, I know that if this is permitted, it will lead people to stumble’ – which we presume means that he is concerned that if a husband is present, he will feel compelled to physically assist his wife when she is giving birth. In terms of distinguishing between a husband being present for contractions and birth, see his Shiurei Tahara Ch. 33 p. 682

[33] Taharat HaBayit Vol. 2 p. 166

[34] Yoreh Deah 195:15-17 (nb. Regrettably the footnote provided in the book itself merely states ‘ibid. 15-17’ without providing the full reference)

[35] Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:1. As noted by the Beit Yosef to Yoreh Deah 195, this position should be contrasted with that of the Ramban (Hasagot to Sefer HaMitzvot No. 353) who rules that the touching of a Niddah is a rabbinic and not Torah prohibition. Additionally, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 195 note 20) asserts that Rambam himself would not consider such non-sexual touching to be a Torah prohibition.

[36] Gloss to Yoreh Deah 195:16. Significantly, the Rema writes in his Darkhei Moshe that he based his remarks on the Shiltei Gibborim (Shabbat 69b note 5) who states that ‘those who are wary not to touch their wives who are Niddot when they are ill are pious fools’.

[37] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 77

[38] Bnei Banim Vol. 1 No. 33

[39] See his article Tehumin Vol. 23 p. 237

[40] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 13

[41] Ibid. p. 17

[42] Ibid. pp. 121-124. Responsum written by Rabbanit Noa Lau.

[43] A thorough internal check to establish with certainty that she is no longer bleeding.

[44] A bedikah cloth left in the vaginal canal to detect any traces of renewed uterine bleeding.

[45] See Yoreh Deah 196:1 based on Niddah 68a.

[46] See Yoreh Deah 196:4

[47] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 124

[48] Ibid. pp. 21-22

[49] Ibid. pp. 145-150. Responsum written by Rabbanit Michal Roness.

[50] Iggrot Moshe Yoreh Deah Vol. 3 No. 53, Yoreh Deah Vol. 4 No. 17 section 14

[51] Taharat HaBayit Vol. 1 Ch. 8 Section 10, note 10.

[52] Though not directly related to my analysis, it is worthwhile noting that the footnotes in Sefer Nishmat HaBayit contain numerous important observations. In this case, the discussion about toilet paper makes reference to the colour of toilet paper used, and refers readers to Iggrot Moshe Yoreh Deah Vol. 4 No. 17 section 28 where Rabbi Feinstein discourages women from using white toilet paper even during their seven clean days.

[53] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 13

[54] First Shach to Yoreh Deah 183

[55] Tifferet Yisrael 183 note 1

[56] Ramban, Hilchot Niddah Ch. 4 note 45

[57] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 13

[58] Ibid. p. 14

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid. pp. 230-232. Responsum written by Rabbanit Zivit Berliner.

[61] Sefer HaTerumah Ch. 92

[62] Mordechai Remez 735 note 3

[63] Torat HaBayit HeAruch Bayit 7 Sh’ar 4 23a

[64] Terumat Hadeshen, Psakim UKetvaim No. 47

[65] Yoreh Deah 187:7

[66] Taharat HaBayit Vol. 1 Ch. 5 Note 9

[67] Shiurei Shevet HaLevi Ch. 187 Section 7, 1-3 p. 77

[68] As noted by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 21

[69] Sefer Nishmat HaBayit p. 17

[70] Ibid. p. 14

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