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Why do Sepharadi keep a minimum of four days and Ashkenazi keep a minimum of 5 days before hefsek tahara? What is the underlying reason behind this difference?

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Can you cite that this difference actually exists and that it parallels this difference in ancestral homelands? –  Double AA Sep 29 '13 at 17:21
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The difference of minhagim is already mentioned in the Remah himself, see here. Rabbi Wosner in Shiurei Shevet Levi mentions that Yemenites wait 7 days.

The reason for waiting before doing a hefsek taharah is because there is a halacha that a woman who discharges live semen is considered tameh (just like any man who emits semen) and that such a tumah disrupts her counting of seven clean days. Therefore, since any semen that is older than three days is not considered viable, a woman must wait at least three days before beginning to count her seven clean days. This is true even if she did not have relations with her husband before becoming a Niddah (and even if he was out of town and couldn't have relations with her, but if he was forbidden to her, then some hold that those days of abstinence can count for these three days). In order to ensure that there were three full days (i.e. three periods of twenty-four hours, not calendar days), we make her wait four days according to the Shulchan Aruch. The Remah adds that since if they had relations during bein hashmashos one might make a mistake in counting the three days, one should be stringent and wait five days before counting the seven clean days (unless she became a niddah through virginal defloration, in which case even the Remah agrees she could wait a mere four days).

I hope I made this clear enough.

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Why would one need to wait 7 days? –  Double AA Sep 29 '13 at 18:44
    
I assume that it would be as a zecher to the halacha min hatorah of a niddah being tmeah a flat rate of seven days after which she could go to the mikva, so they make her wait seven days after which she could begin the process of counting seven clean days to go to the mikva (see Taz YD 196:6 for a similar custom) –  Reb Chaim HaQoton Sep 29 '13 at 18:56
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@RebChaimHaQoton It's hard for me to believe that Taimanim wait seven days, as they typically follow Rambam's Mishna Torah, and he specifically condemns this practice as being mistaken: mechon-mamre.org/i/5111.htm#13 –  Robert S. Barnes Sep 30 '13 at 17:57
    
Well that's what it says in Shiurei Shevet HaLevi on pg. 297 second paragraph. I will try to speak to my Yemenite friends and ask them if this is true. They don't ALWAYS go with the Rambam. –  Reb Chaim HaQoton Oct 1 '13 at 5:56
    
@RebChaimHaQoton True - I don't think anyone ALWAYS follows a single authority. –  Robert S. Barnes Oct 1 '13 at 6:34
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Reb Chaim HaQoton's answer is a very good explanation, but I would like to add a couple of details. As he says:

The reason for waiting before doing a hefsek taharah is because there is a halacha that a woman who discharges live semen is considered tameh (just like any man who emits semen) and that such a tumah disrupts her counting of seven clean days. Therefore, since any semen that is older than three days is not considered viable, a woman must wait at least three days before beginning to count her seven clean days. ... In order to ensure that there were three full days (i.e. three periods of twenty-four hours, not calendar days), we make her wait four days according to the Shulchan Aruch.

What this means is that a woman who has marital relations, and then has her period start, must wait 72 hours (three 24-hour days) from the time she had relations so that any semen that drips out from her is no longer viable, and then if she makes hefsek tahorah, she can start counting her seven clean days from the following night. These three 24-hour periods are called "four days," because they always comprise parts of 4 different calendar days: the day she had relations plus 3 calendar days following that. Only after those 4 days can she start counting seven clean days.

Reb Chaim HaQoton then goes on to write:

This is true even if she did not have relations with her husband before becoming a Niddah.

That's not strictly true. The Mechaber allows one to count 4 days including the day of her last martial relations, exactly as I have written above. (R' Ovadia Yosef is one contemporary posek who poskins l'halacaha that Sepharadim can count this way.)

The Rema brings a stringency: in order that women should have a uniform way of counting, the 4 (actually 5, as I'll explain below) days should start from the day that she first saw her period. I believe that all Ashkenazic poskim rule this way, as well as many contemporary Sephardic poskim (e.g. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and the poskim of the American Syrian community). It's this opinion that Reb Chaim HaQoton's answer reflects.

Reb Chaim HaQoton then writes a separate stringent custom that the Rema holds:

The Remah adds that since if they had relations during bein hashmashos one might make a mistake in counting the three days, one should be stringent and wait five days before counting the seven clean days.

It's this stringency which is why (some) Sepharadim keep 4 days, and Askhenazim keep 5 days. It should be noted that many Sephardic poskim poskin by this opinion as well, and hold that one should keep 5 days. (e.g. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Ben Tzion Abba Shaul, and the poskim of the American Syrian community.)

Of the Sephardic poskim I've seen and listed so far in this question, they either hold by both stringencies of the Rema, or they don't old by either. There is one other contemporary Sephardi posek who I've seen who holds by only one of these stringencies: The author of HaBayit HaYehudi holds that one can count 4 days, but they start from the day the woman sees her period.


All of this only matters if the woman stops bleeding before those 4 or 5 days up. If she bleeds for longer than that, then she can't start counting 7 clean days before she stops bleeding anyway anyway (though it's worth asking she'ilot about questionable bedikot after those 4 or 5 days, even if you're inclined to look at them and be stringent about the color). I was told by my rav (a talmid of R' Ovadia Yosef) that practically speaking I probably wasn't going to run into a situation where my wife could make hefsek tahorah on the 4th day.

Both the halacha that the seven days have to start after the woman stops bleeding, and the halacha of semen (requiring a minimum of 4 or 5 days before hefsek tahorah) have been adopted into hilchot niddah from the biblical requirements for a zavah. (A question that I see you've asked elsewhere on this site in a couple of different forms.) The reason for this is that it's difficult to distinguish between zavah and niddah bleeding.


If you're interested in great detail about the biblical sources of everything, Gemaras, and the opinions of the Rishonim and Acharonim, I recommend The Laws and Concepts of Niddah by Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. I've only skimmed that sefer myself, but here is a review.

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You wrote that practically speaking I probably wasn't going to run into a situation where my wife could make hefsek tahorah on the 4th day. Actually, it's quite possible for women to get a clean bedika by the end of the fourth day since they can make as many attempts as needed, and then as long as they don't have any discharge after that ( and can get clean bedikot the following seven days ) then it's not a problem to keep 11 days instead of 12. –  Robert S. Barnes Apr 17 at 19:24
    
I think my rav was telling me that I shouldn't get my hopes up that it would happen every time, since many times women actually do bleed for 5 days. –  Chanoch Apr 18 at 13:13
    
One more thing - it's very easy to distinguish between niddah bleeding and zavah bleeding with 100% accuracy with a simple ultrasound or blood test. –  Robert S. Barnes May 28 at 8:25
    
@Robert, Really? Can you provide appropriate halachic sources that explain the physiological differences between these types of bleeding? –  Chanoch May 28 at 12:18
    
The Mishnah says that the first seven days of the womans menstrual cycle is the time of niddah, and the 8th to 18th days are the time of potential zavah bleeding. These times are mutually exclusive and cannot overlap. It says in the mishnah that this is torah l'moshe m'sinai. It's very easy with an ultrasound or blood test to determine when menstrual bleeding has started. –  Robert S. Barnes May 28 at 12:56
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