“The attempt to locate menstruation in the mythical beginnings of humankind is…a peculiarly Babylonian development”

In contemporary English slang, menstruation is sometimes referred to as “The Curse.” Interestingly, the idea that Eve, and by extension womankind, began to menstruate as a punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge first appears not in Christian literature—a most vital source of Western linguistic habits—but in the Babylonian Talmud. As I will try to demonstrate, the attempt to locate menstruation in the mythical beginnings of humankind is, at least at first, a peculiarly Babylonian development, absent from earlier strata of Palestinian rabbinic literature. Its appearance in some late rabbinic texts may be attributable to the Iranian context of the Babylonian Talmud.

Any discussion of Eve’s curses begins with Gen. 3:16:

And to the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply your suffering and your pregnancy.  In pain shall you bear children, yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.

This verse and its early interpretation were extremely influential upon gender politics in Judaism and Christianity. Ancient exegetes read it as a catalogue of various female “disabilities,” which were now linked to the first sin and its punishment. Yet, despite the gendered gaze of these male interpreters, menstruation is surprisingly absent from virtually all Second Temple and late antique interpretations and retellings of Eve’s punishment. Even in sources where we might expect menstruation to come up, it does not.

The Babylonian Talmud, however, preserves the following statement, attributed to the third-generation Babylonian amora R. Yitzhak b. Avdimi:

Did R. Yitzhak b. Avdimi not say: Eve was cursed with ten curses, since it is written: And to the woman He said, “I will greatly increase”—this refers to the two drops of blood, one being that of menstruation and the other that of virginity; “your suffering”—this refers to the pain of raising children; “and your pregnancy”—this refers to the pain of carrying a child; “in pain shall you bear children” is to be understood in its literal meaning; “yet your urge shall be for your husband” teaches that a woman yearns for her husband when he is about to set out on a journey; “and he shall rule over you” teaches that while the wife solicits with her heart the husband does so with his mouth, this being a fine trait of character among women.

Shai Secunda, “The Construction, Composition and Idealization of the Female Body in Rabbinic Literature and Parallel Iranian Texts: Three Excurses”, NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Studies No. 23 (Spring-Fall 2012), 67-68.