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Ask the Rabbi #23

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Ask the Rabbi

May 28, 1994; Issue #23

This issue is dedicated in memory of Rachmil Schwartz Z'L

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  • Why marital relations are forbidden during a woman's monthly cycle
  • Why we light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown
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  • Back issues are indexed both by issue no. and by subject
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  • Why marital relations are forbidden during a woman's monthly cycle

    Jeffrey from Michigan wrote:

    Dear Rabbi,

    Why are marital relations forbidden during a woman's monthly cycle? Is it not a natural phenomenon? Should we abandon loved ones during a period of time when they are "Undesirable" or have no reproductive function?

    Dear Jeffrey,

    The Torah writes: "Do not come close to a woman who is ritually impure due to her menstruation since this is a sexual offense."

    The Torah does not say that one must abandon his wife during this period, it merely limits sexual contact. Rather than ignoring what is a natural phenomenon, there is a respect for the cycle of life that the woman experiences. Her body had biologically prepared a foundation for life, and had then eliminated it. Whenever we come in contact with a loss of life we feel the need to step back, to be alone. That is not to say that we don't need companionship. We do need companionship, but of a different sort; i.e., love and comfort that respects our need to be introspective. Stereotypically this is the state of a menstruant woman, and our reaction to it is one of respect and empathy for her.

    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch throughout his commentary on the Torah makes the point that ritual impurity is a state induced by some manner of contact with death. "Niddah", this period of separation, is just one of the many forms of impurity that call for a person to step-back from contact with others, and deal with the issue of their mortality and frailty.

    Far from feeling a sense of harmful separation, couples generally find that the period of "Niddah" is a positive opportunity to relate to each other. And instead of breeding hurt and rejection, it generally refreshes and enhances the quality of their marriage.


    • Leviticus, 18:19.
    • Rabbi S.R. Hirsch - Commentary on the Torah.

    Why we light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown

    Mark Himelfarb wrote:

    Dear Rabbi,

    We light our Shabbat candles at least 18 minutes before the official sundown listed for our locale. Is there any significance for 18 minutes? If Shabbat begins at sundown, why should I light my candles 18 minutes before sundown and not just one minute before?

    Dear Mark,

    The Shulchan Aruch states that one should "add from the weekday onto Shabbat." (This idea is derived from a verse in the Torah.) This is called "Tosefet Shabbat" - an addition to Shabbat. The Shulchan Aruch suggests a variety of possibilities for how much time to add. It seems that the custom of 18 minutes arises from the Halachic time measure called a "Hiluch Mil," (pronounced he-looch meel), which means the time it takes to walk a Mil. The word "Mil" is derived from the Roman "Miliarium" which was 1000 paces (approximately 3000 feet). According to the ancient American commercial this would be the amount one would walk for a Camel. The Halachic Mil and the Roman Miliarium differ only slightly in length. The time it takes to walk a Mil is 18 minutes.

    Although the predominant custom is to light Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown, there are other customs. For example, the custom in Jerusalem and in Petach Tikvah is to light candles 40 minutes before sundown. Wherever you find yourself for Shabbat you should light according to the custom of that place.


    • Shulchan Aruch - Orach Chaim, 261:1-4.
    • Otzar Yisrael Encyclopedia, entry 'Parsah.'

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