Discharge: Leviticus 15

The first 15 verses of this chapter of the purity code start with zav, or discharge from a penis. The word is different from that in v16 for semen. This concern for what issues from a man requires setting him apart for a week of cleansing, but also for rousting all his bedding, and anyone who has come in contact with him or his spittle.

If it helps you to ‘get your giggles out’ early today, ‘short arm inspection’ was a routine in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War at least, I was told by survivors: ‘drop trousers, and present arms’ so that open sores could be identified, from ‘crotch rot’ in the trenches to ubiquitous STD venereal diseases.

Verses 16-18 deal more gently with emission of semen, with or without a partner, requiring a day of being unclean, bathing, and cleaning clothing or leather in contact with the semen. Again, we’ve been exposed to prurient humour about ‘Onanism’ and the ‘spilling of seed’ in masturbation or homosexual behaviour. Try reading this in the context of Leviticus’ worldview.

Only after half a chapter of dealing with zav and semen does Leviticus turn to women’s menses. Verses 19 to 30 are a complex of rules of niddah, relating to menstrual bleeding. Reading them slowly, you might imagine that more is involved than routine healthy menses, just as the first half of the chapter distinguished male zav from emissions of semen. What boundaries are suggested to distinguish and protect each gender from the other equally? Is it not a crime to recklessly transmit HIV to a partner in our world?

Derisive dismissals of these texts allege sexual inhibition and misogyny. As Glib Liberals Reading Leviticus in Tory Times, we can confess our own inhibitions and prejudices, but we might still consider the text in the context of an overall section about purity, a different worldview than scientism, merging qualitative with quantitative elements of boundaries, distinctions and reconciliations.

Is safe sex and good sex more than infection control? Are these rules about when you can or must have sex, and when you may or should refrain, all anti-woman? Torah is sometimes just about the discipline of restraints of appetite by will, without reason, like safe sex or STDs. More importantly, this is an affirmation of human dignity, integrity and autonomy at an intimate level, through modest mutual accountability.

The Jewish traditions of niddah, and the use of mikveh baths, have returned to media attention occasionally as Hasidic, orthodox, conservative and reform communities sort out use of a common bath – like the scandals of Christians of varying gender and sexual ethics. Some apply zav rules to niddah, most strictly – God forbid we should presume to challenge anybody else’s continence norms!

1 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 

2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any man has a discharge from his member, his discharge makes him ceremonially unclean. 

3 The uncleanness of his discharge is this: whether his member flows with his discharge, or his member is stopped from discharging, it is uncleanness for him.

4 Every bed on which the one with the discharge lies shall be unclean; and everything on which he sits shall be unclean. 

5 Anyone who touches his bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.

 6 All who sit on anything on which the one with the discharge has sat shall wash their clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 

7 All who touch the body of the one with the discharge shall wash their clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 

8 If the one with the discharge spits on persons who are clean, then they shall wash their clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.

 9 Any saddle on which the one with the discharge rides shall be unclean. 

10 All who touch anything that was under him shall be unclean until the evening, and all who carry such a thing shall wash their clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.

 11 All those whom the one with the discharge touches without his having rinsed his hands in water shall wash their clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 

12 Any earthen vessel that the one with the discharge touches shall be broken; and every vessel of wood shall be rinsed in water.

13 When the one with a discharge is cleansed of his discharge, he shall count seven days for his cleansing; he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in fresh water, and he shall be clean. 

14 On the eighth day he shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons and come before the Lord  to the entrance of the tent of meeting and give them to the priest. 

15 The priest shall offer them, one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on his behalf before the Lord for his discharge.

16 If a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water, and be unclean until the evening. 

17 Everything made of cloth or of skin on which the semen falls shall be washed with water, and be unclean until the evening. 

18 If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them shall bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.

19 When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.

 20 Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. 

21 Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening.

 22 Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening;

 23 whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 

24 If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean for seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

25 If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, for all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 

26 Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity.

 27 Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. 

28 If she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 

29 On the eighth day she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting.

30 The priest shall offer one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf before the Lord for her unclean discharge.

31 Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.

32 This is the ritual for those who have a discharge: for him who has an emission of semen, becoming unclean thereby, 

33 for her who is in the infirmity of her period, for anyone, male or female, who has a discharge, and for the man who lies with a woman who is unclean.