The harchakot are hard. I often meet with women– kallahs, newlyweds, and congregants who had been married for years– who struggle with keeping the harchakot. ‘Harchakot’ refers to the distance we keep during niddah, the physical separation between a husband and wife and the general way in which a husband and wife interact during menstruation and the seven clean days that follow it. This includes but is not limited to physical touch and any actions, such as sleeping in the same bed, that can lead to physical intimacy. .
What makes the harchakot so hard is that touch is a major– if not primary– form of expressing love and affection. Women ask: . ‘What if I’m having a bad day and I need a hug?’ ‘What if something wonderful happens, and we want to embrace? Even if it’s not going to lead to sexual activity?’ ‘I was shomer negiah until marriage, and now I have to do it again with my husband?’ ‘I had a miscarriage– can my husband and I really not touch?’
All of these questions are real and get at the heart of the struggle: How do we deal with the fact that our tradition limits how we show love, comfort, and support to the person we love most during niddah?
I believe we each need to find our own answer to this question in order to feel fully satisfied. I will offer some possible responses, but I encourage each of us to talk with our spouse, friends, family, and trusted spiritual leader as well in order to begin piecing together an answer that is not apologetic, but that instead gives us strength and faith to approach this mitzvah.
- First, it is important to acknowledge that anyone struggling with the harchakot is not alone. Some of the greatest pain I see comes from people– men and women– feeling isolated and as a result deeply ashamed that they find this to be hard. Distancing from the person we love most is hard for everyone! And it should be– because that means we want to touch our spouse.
- Communication is key. During niddah, our halacha challenges us to find new ways to express love, support, and comfort. For example, when we argue, physical contact is usually our first instinct for reconciliation. But in niddah, we see the opportunity to exercise the muscle of communication. It’s supposed to make us think– How can I better express love and care through words? What behaviors can I do to show I care? It might be through sharing a deep conversation about Torah, our personal hopes and struggles, or even how hard the harchakot can be. Or it might be through a generous act, like washing the dishes, making dinner, or putting the kids to bed. Niddah offers us an opportunity to work on becoming better communicators. And communication in a marriage creates a profound and holy level of intimacy that enhances the rest of the month.
- View separation time as self-time.On Shabbat, we rest and take time to reflect, take stock, and rejuvenate. Niddah is the same. It is our time to reflect on our marriage, to recognize the gifts we have– including the physical touch that we might have taken for granted. And just like with Shabbat, the act of separating, of distancing, is what creates holiness. We need to rest in order to give fully, whether it be from Shabbat to the work week, or in our relationships. In niddah, we as women who often give endlessly, have to focus on ourselves. We focus on our physical vessels, on being in tune with what our bodies need and what they are telling us. This is such an important practice because it builds self-awareness that can be transferred to self-care physically and spiritually throughout our lives! When we keep the harchakot, we may be physically distancing from our spouse, but we are also drawing closer to ourselves and our needs– which in turn helps us better give to those we love and to serve God.
- Patience is more than a virtue; it’s a necessity. For some couples it can be hard to jump into keeping the full harchakot at the level of the Shulchan Aruch. As a general rule, if you are in such a situation, it is a good idea to build up in observance rather than to dive in and end up observing none of it. It is invaluable to be patient with yourself and with your spouse in this process. For a newly-wed, niddah is a brand new mitzvah! Think about someone taking on Shabbat for the first time– it takes effort, baby steps, and patience. And even if we have been married for years, we go in and out of niddah– from childbirth to nursing, women may not be in niddah for months at a time– so it can still feel new.
- It is important to note that in a case where there is great psychological pain, the halacha provides room for leniency in the harchakot. If you are in such a situation, it is important to consult your halachic authority as to how this can be done.
When we face our tough and real questions about the harchakot, these are just a few ways to look at them from a different angle. We can use niddah as a time to reflect on our relationship with ourselves, with those we love, and with God– for Whom we do all of it. And in the process we can develop self-compassion and new forms of intimacy in our marriages.
‘The harchakot are hard’.This is true. However, complete the thought: : ‘The fact that this is hard means I deeply love my spouse, and I am grateful for that awareness,’ or ‘I am going to use this opportunity to show love in new and creative ways, maybe in conversation or through a small act of love that only my spouse will understand,’ or ‘This separation is a way for me to care for myself, a Shabbat for my body that reminds me to practice self-care and that rejuvenates me to give with a full heart’?
May we find the answers, love, and comfort we need at the times when we need them.