Faith

This Week's Torah Portion: Childbirth and Holiness (Part 26)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Ki Thazria (Leviticus, 1-XIII, 59)

Last week’s parasha ended with a discussion of the laws of kashruth, laying out which animals are kosher and which not, in the general context of tum’a and tahara.

 These two terms are hard to translate accurately into English. Tum’a is a sort of metaphysical defilement or pollution which can affect inanimate objects and animals as well as human beings, which renders them incompatible with sanctity and hence unsuitable for any aspect of Divine service. Tahara is the absence of the state of tum’a. Something affected by tum’a is said to be tamé; something completely suitable for Divine service or sacrifice (whether it is so used or not) is tahor.

A human being who is afflicted with tum’a is therefore restricted from contact with holy and pure things. As we read at the end of last week’s parasha, Israel is therefore constrained “to distinguish between the tamé and the tahor.

Which brings us to this week’s parasha. Moshe is enjoined to tell the bënei Yisra’él:

When a woman conceives and bears a male [isha ki thazra vëyalëda zachar], she becomes tamé seven days; like the days of her menstruation, she will be tamé. And on the eighth day [the father] will circumcise the flesh of [the baby’s] foreskin; XII, 2-3).

Even after the eight-day period, the woman is not completely tahor until thirty-three days later, during which period “she will not touch anything holy and she will not come to the Temple” (ibid., 4). However:

“If she bears a female, she will be tamé two weeks like her menstruation, and sixty days and six days will she sit on the blood of tahara” (ibid., 6).

In either case, her “rehabilitation” is not complete until she brings a chattath (“sin offering”) and an ‘ola (“burnt offering”) in the Temple at the end of the extended period.

Think about this for a moment: childbirth is the supreme fulfillment of a woman’s nature, the task for which her body was plainly and obviously designed. In giving birth, the woman in question has just helped her husband perform the first commandment in the Torah, that of being fruitful and multiplying, which he cannot possibly perform without her help.

Why, then, should she become tamé as a result?

What is more, why should the period of tum’a for a girl be twice as great as that for a boy? Lastly, why is it necessary to bring a chattath? What sin is there in performing a commandment?

The Talmud provides us with an explanation which demonstrates, as one of my revered mentors was fond of saying, that “our Sages of blessed memory were the best psychologists”:

It is taught, Rabbi Mé’ir used to say, why did the Torah say that a menstruant has [a period of] seven days? Because [her husband] has got used to her and come to loathe her. The Torah has said [that] she will be tamé seven days in order that she will be as dear to her husband as at the time of her wedding (Nidda 31b).

The Torah speaks in uncompromising language, but even in English we have the expression that “familiarity breeds contempt.” It is certainly true that if his wife is available to him at all times, the husband is quite likely to come to take her for granted. This, the Talmud tells us, is why the Torah has decreed this monthly “cooling-off” period of enforced separation: to allow youthful ardor to reassert itself.

The Talmudic passage cited above goes on to derive this principle from our parasha. From the fact that the word tazria seems unnecessary (since, after all, she can hardly give birth without first having conceived), the Talmud understands that it is the marital act which leads to pregnancy and birth that is behind the enforced separation.

How much more is the separation necessary after pregnancy, since the woman has not menstruated, not had her monthly “break,” for nine months in a row? If the Torah is concerned that he will “loathe her” after a month, how much more likely is he to take her for granted after nine of them?

This then is why the main point is stated in connection with childbirth: because the husband is so much more likely to take her for granted after this longer period, despite their mutual joy over the new arrival, the Torah nonetheless enforces the seven-day break.

Reconciliation is also an underlying motive of the qorbanoth, the sacrifices, which the new mother brings. On the same page in Nidda we find the following passage:

“His students asked Rabbi Shim‘on ben Yochai, Why did the Torah say that the new mother brings a qorban? He told them, When she squats to give birth, she jumps up and swears that she will not [again] resort to her husband.”

The Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria 4) adds the detail that “she screams a hundred times.”

Ever since Mother Chavva (“Eve”), childbearing has been an immensely trying experience for women. Not for nothing do we find the verb paqad (“commandeer”) used in the Holy Language in conjunction with becoming pregnant (cf. e.g. Genesis XXI, 1, Rashi ad loc.; I Samuel II, 21). The new baby quite literally takes over the mother’s system, her hormonal balances undergo wild swings, and the moodiness, odd cravings, and so forth which frequently result are proverbial, and have been the stock of humorists down through the ages. The final process of labor contractions is painful and exhausting, and it is highly questionable how many men would have the courage to endure it.

Throughout all of this, the woman has said things about her husband, “screamed a hundred times” at him, sworn “Never again!”, and of course meant not a word of it. Confronted by her little miracle the day after, if she even remembers the things she said, she is ashamed. The qorbanoth complete the reconciliation process, the ‘ola for the unkind thoughts she had, the chattath for the words she said (cf. Even ‘Ezra ad loc.).

So we understand the reason for the break and the reason for the qorbanoth. But why is it that a girl needs twice the period that a boy does?

That childbirth tum’a has a deeper significance than the enforced “vacation” discussed above (important as that is) is attested by another statement from the Oral Torah, this one a midrash in Torath Kohanim: “Bënei Yisra’él defile at birth; idolators do not defile at birth.” Why should this be?

In answer, the great early 20th Century Rabbi Shëmu’él Borenstein, in his classic work Shém miShëmu’él, quotes his father (who in turn cited the Zohar as his source) concerning the underlying reason for a different sort of tum’a, that associated with a human corpse, tum’ath méth (cf. Numbers XIX,14-22):

“[T]hat the place which has been emptied of sanctity — the human soul — the forces of tum’a desire to settle there. So it is with the new mother. Insofar as the Holy One, Blessed is He, was the Opener [of her womb], when the Divine Presence departs [after the birth], the forces of tum’a yearn to cling to her.”

Like flies descending on the remains of a sumptuous banquet, once the baby — the vessel berring another precious Jewish soul — has left the womb, what the Zohar terms “forces of tum’a” descend on the former “container.” The Talmud (Yëvamoth 61a) explains that the term adam used in the passage from Numbers cited supra refers to a human being functioning at his full spiritual capacity; hence the distinction between Israel and idolators.

What has this to do with a girl baby incurring two weeks of tum’a as opposed to a boy? For that we turn to an illuminating comment by the great 18th Century Sephardic scholar and qabbalist. Rabbi Chayyim Yoséf David Azoulai, affectionately know by his initials as the Chida:

He begins by noting that the initial letters of the words ki thazria vëyalëda zachar at the beginning of our parasha form an anagram of the Hebrew word zëchuth (“merit”). He sees in this a hint that the righteousness of sons is generally dependent upon their mothers. He cites various examples from Biblical history in which the fathers of illustrious sons had had incorrect thoughts at the moment of conception and that it was the women who “refined [their husbands’] thoughts and sanctified them in tahara, and therefore their sons were holy. The merit of their mothers stood by them.

As is evident from the Chida’s comment, this power of refinement and sanctification is inherent in the female nature, should she choose to invoke it. Every soul which passes through their wombs can benefit from it. Surely this is one of the reasons (in my humble opinion) why a miqveh, the ritual bath which ends the tum’a of menstruation and in which every convert to Judaism must immerse himself before assuming the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, is built to dimensions symbolic of such a womb.

Building on the principle enunciated in the commentaries that the greater the level of sanctity, the greater the level of tum’a that it attracts, it seems to me that the “double” tum’a incurred by a girl is indicative of her greater sanctity as a potential mother, refiner and sanctifier of her children, guarantress that the sons will be holy.