Orthodox Judaism prescribes a recurring period of physical separation (niddah) between couples. It begins with the commencement of a woman’s menstrual period and continues until after her ritual immersion in the mikveh seven days after her period ends. Also known as taharat hamishpacha (family purity), this practice is based on laws outlined in the Torah beginning in Leviticus 15:19.
While its origins relate to ritual purity, niddah also has effects on relationship harmony. Some descriptions are reproduced below, followed by links to their sources.
Note: This tradition does not recommend (or forbid) non-goal oriented Synergy-style sex, but its practitioners have observed that its intimacy restrictions help maintain attraction between mates.
Effects on relationships
Niddah proponents often argue that the practice promotes healthy marriages, because by restricting physical intimacy to a specific window of time, it prevents sex from becoming boring or routine. The practice also generally results in more success with conceiving a baby, since it encourages the couple to resume relations at a time in the cycle when a woman is usually ovulating.
Jewish couples have observed the laws of (literally, separation) to sanctify their sexual relationship. “Why Some Jewish Women Go to the Mikveh Each Month”
The Torah does not specify the reason for the laws of niddah, but this period of abstention has both physical and psychological benefits.
The fertility benefits of this practice are obvious and undeniable. In fact, it is remarkable how closely these laws parallel the advice given by medical professionals today. …
In addition, women who have sexual intercourse during their menstrual period are more vulnerable to a variety of vaginal infections, as well as increased risk of cervical cancer.
But the benefits that the rabbis have always emphasized are the psychological ones, not the physical ones. The rabbis noted that a two-week period of abstention every month forces a couple to build a non-sexual bond as well as a sexual one. It helps to build the couple’s desire for one another, making intercourse in the remaining two weeks more special. It also gives both partners a chance to rest, without feeling sexually inadequate. They also emphasized the value of self-discipline in a drive as fundamental as the sexual drive. Issues in Jewish Ethics: “Kosher” Sex
Downside of separation
I sometimes receive calls from brides (and friends) soon after the wedding voicing their struggles with the newly “inflicted” rubric of hilchot niddah, often feeling broken by the physical and emotional distance put upon them by these laws. “I felt utterly abandoned, as if I was a newborn left to impossibly fend for myself,” relayed one bright, resourceful, and mature new bride. I do my best to listen intently and validate their feelings, assuring them that time often acts as a healant in this case by giving the couple opportunities to learn how to live with the law. But the conversation always leaves me shaken long after the young woman has hung up. After being married for a good number of years and the mother of children, the deepest parts of myself identify with their distress.
While most couples do not continually experience this monthly absence as traumatic – some couples even experience niddah as a welcomed break – others, like my husband and me, feel that a place deep inside of us withers during those two weeks despite our best efforts to make time for hand-holding-less date nights and empathic verbal communication. …
Physical touch is every human being’s primal love language. We are conceived through physical touch, arrive in the world through touch, bond with our parents as newborns through touch, and continue to receive healthy doses of physical contact from loved ones throughout our childhood. … Yet despite this fundamental truth regarding our basic human need, halakha dictates that we do just that each month. I believe that there is deep wisdom in the “off” concept and that it has the potential to greatly renew the intimate life of a married couple, but eleven or more days “off” a month is a break from physical contact which sometimes feels extreme. …
But sometimes I feel unworthy serving as their public face to such intelligent and insightful women laws which cause both my husband and me loneliness and longing that often feels more harmful than helpful to our marriage. When a Kallah [Bride] Calls to Cry
Background – the role of sex in Judaism
The primary purpose of sex is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. The first and foremost purpose of marriage is companionship, and sexual relations play an important role. Procreation is also a reason for sex, but it is not the only reason. Sex between husband and wife is permitted (even recommended) at times when conception is impossible, such as when the woman is pregnant, after menopause, or when the woman is using a permissible form of contraception.
Sex should only be experienced in a time of joy. Sex for selfish personal satisfaction, without regard for the partner’s pleasure, is wrong and evil. A man may never force his wife to have sex. A couple may not have sexual relations while drunk or quarreling. Sex may never be used as a weapon against a spouse, either by depriving the spouse of sex or by compelling it. It is a serious offense to use sex (or lack thereof) to punish or manipulate a spouse.
Sex is the woman’s right, not the man’s. A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her. He is also obligated to watch for signs that his wife wants sex, and to offer it to her without her asking for it. The woman’s right to sexual intercourse is referred to as onah, and is one of a wife’s three basic rights (the others are food and clothing), which a husband may not reduce. The Talmud specifies both the quantity and quality of sex that a man must give his wife. It specifies the frequency of sexual obligation based on the husband’s occupation, although this obligation can be modified in the ketubah (marriage contract). A man may not take a vow to abstain from sex for an extended period of time, and may not take a journey for an extended period of time, because that would deprive his wife of sexual relations. In addition, a husband’s consistent refusal to engage in sexual relations is grounds for compelling a man to divorce his wife, even if the couple has already fulfilled the halakhic obligation to procreate.
Although sex is the woman’s right, she does not have absolute discretion to withhold it from her husband. A woman may not withhold sex from her husband as a form of punishment, and if she does, the husband may divorce her without paying the substantial divorce settlement provided for in the ketubah. Issues in Jewish Ethics: “Kosher” Sex