Parshat Metzorah: The Sacrifices of Childbirth

“And when the days of her purification have been completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep in its first year as a burnt offering, and a young dove or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the entrance of the Ohel Moed, to the Kohen. And he shall offer it before Hashem and atone for her, and she will be purified from the source of her blood. This is the law of a woman who gives birth to a male or to a female.
And if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves: one as a burnt offering and one as a sin offering. And the Kohenshall atone for her, and she shall become pure.” (VaYikra 12:6-8)

This week’s parasha opens with an explanation of the various laws regarding childbirth. Among the laws discussed in the parasha is the requirement for the mother to bring a number of sacrifices. The Torah does not provide an explicit explanation for this requirement. This issue is discussed among the commentaries. Our discussion will not focus on this issue. Instead we will focus on an element of the parasha that is often neglected or only superficially studied – the Torah’s description of these offerings.

The above passages explain that the woman is required to bring two offerings – a burnt offering and a sin offering. In this instance, the Torah provides two options for fulfilling this obligation. Ideally, the woman brings a sheep as the burnt offering – the Olah. A young dove, or a turtledove, is brought as the sin offering – the Chatat. However, if this combination is beyond the financial means of the woman, she may bring two young doves or two turtledoves. One is offered as the Olah and the other as the Chatat.

In discussing this second alternative, the Torah tells as that the two young doves or turtledoves are offered “one as an Olah and one as a Chatat.” This phrasing seems to imply that the Olah is offered first and then the Chatat. However, this is not the case. The Chatat must be offered first and then the Olah offering. Why then does the Torah mention the Olah first?

In his comments on the Chumash and Talmud, Rashi generally expresses himself with brevity. His comments are often an allusion to, or summaries of, very difficult and deep concepts. His understanding of these concepts is often not apparent from his comments. This is a fundamental difficulty that the student encounters when studying Rashi. However, the simple meaning of Rashi’s words is generally very clear. In other words, the student may be left with many questions on Rashi’s comments. But the student does know what Rashi is saying. However, there are some instances in which it is difficult to unravel Rashi’s meaning even on a superficial level. Rashi’s response to our question is one of these instances. Rashi’s comment on our passage: “The Torah places [the burnt-offering] before [the sin-offering] only insofar as how they must be read. But the sacrificing of the sin-offering precedes [that of] the burnt-offering.” Rashi asks why the Olah is mentioned first in the passage. The reason cannot be because it is actually offered before the Chatat. The law is that the Chatat is offered first. Rashi responds that the Olah is mentioned first only so that in reading the passage it should be read first.

Essentially, Rashi asks why the Olah is mentioned first in the passage and responds that it mentioned first so that it should be read first. This seems like the ultimate example of circular reasoning.

In fairness to Rashi, it must be acknowledged that he is merely quoting the response of the Talmud to this question on the passage. So, the difficulty is really in the meaning of the Talmud’s response.[1]

Rashi’s comments on the Talmud text are not very helpful. Basically, he indicates that the Talmud’s explanation should be understood literally. But, he does provide a clear explanation of the precise literal meaning of the Talmud’s comments.[2]

Because of these difficulties, Tosefot suggest an alternative explanation of the Talmud’s comments. Before an animal or bird can be offered as a sacrifice, it must be designated for this purpose. In other words, before a sheep is offered as an Olah, it is must be designated to be offered as an Olah. Tosefot’s explanation of the Talmud is based on an ambiguity in the Talmud’s response. The exact wording of the response is that the Olah is given precedence only le’mikra. Rashi interprets this term to mean “in reading.” In other words, in reading the passage, the Olah is to be mentioned first. Tosefot suggest that the term should be translated as “in calling” or “designating”. In other words, the bird that will be offered as an Olah must be designated first. Only after the Olah has been designated can the second bird be designated as a Chatat. However, Tosefot reject this interpretation of the Talmud’s comments. It seems clear that, in fact, the law requires the birds to be designated in the order that they are to be offered. The Chatat is offered first. So, the bird that will be offered as a Chatat must be designated before the bird that will be offered as the Olah.[3] Tosefot’s comments are widely quoted among the commentaries and these Sages come to the same conclusion. Although Tosefot provide a comprehensible interpretation of the Talmud’s comments, the suggested interpretation must be rejected because it does not conform to the actual law.

As a result, the commentaries offer a number of novel interpretations of the Talmud and Rashi’s comments. One of the most interesting is provided by the Torah Temimah. Shulchan Aruch explains that each morning a person should read the sections in the Torah concerning the various offerings. According to Shulchan Aruch, the section of the Torah concerning the Olah sacrifice is read prior to the section concerning the Chatat sacrifice.[4] The commentaries are disturbed by this order. When an Olah and Chatat are offered, the Chatat is sacrificed prior to the Olah. The Talmud in Zevachim explains that the Chatat is an atonement and Olah is a devotional offering. Before offering a devotional sacrifice a person should atone for his sins. Therefore, the Chatat should precede the Olah.[5] If this is the case, why in reciting the sections of the Torah describing these sacrifices is the Olah section recited prior to the section describing the Chatat?

Torah Temimah suggests that the source for the order required by Shulchan Aruch is our pasuk. In our pasuk the Olah is mentioned prior to the Chatat. The Talmud explains that the precedence implied by the passage is in regards to “reading.” Torah Temimah suggests that according to Rashi the Talmud is not referring to the reading of the passage but to the reading of the sections of the Torah describing the Olah and Chatat. The Talmud’s interpretation of the passage is that when we read the section of the Torah describing the Olah and the Chatat, the section describing the Olah is read first.

Of course, this leaves a question. Why are do we offer the Chatat before the Olah but read the Olah section prior to the Chatat section? In order to answer this question Torah Temimah offers an interesting insight. We read these sections in order to replace the actual offering of the sacrifices. We do not have the Bait HaMikdash and we cannot actually offer these sacrifices. Our reading of the sections of the Torah that describes the sacrifices replaces the actual offering. However, the reading of these sections is generally an imperfect substitution for the act of offering a sacrifice. The Talmud explains that in order for a Chatat sacrifice to atone for the sin of the person who offers it, a portion must be eaten by the Kohen. In other words, the process of offering the sacrifice includes a spiritual and a material component. The fat of the offering are completely consumed on the altar. This is the spiritual component. But a portion of the offering is eaten by the Kohen. This is the material element. We cannot simulate this material element of the sacrificial process through reading the section of the Torah concerning the Chatat. Reading the section – learning Torah – is a purely spiritual activity. Therefore, reading this section is a fundamentally dissimilar process from the actual process of offering the sacrifice.

However, the Olah sacrifice is completely consumed on the altar. The process is completely spiritual. There is no material component in the process of offering and Olah. Therefore, reading the section of the Torah describing the Olah is a more precise substitution for the experience of offering the sacrifice than reading the section describing the Chatat.

Torah Temimah concludes that this insight explains why the section concerning the Olah is read before the section concerning the Chatat. The reading of the Olah section more perfectly substitutes for the experience of offering the sacrifice. Therefore, this section is read first.[6]

There are a number of objections that can be raised in this interpretation of the Talmud’s and Rashi’s comments. But perhaps the most significant objection is that there is little support for this novel interpretation in the text.

Malbim offers a more conservative explanation of the Talmud’s comments as understood by Rashi. He suggests that the Talmud is explaining that contextual consideration dictates that the Olah be mentioned first in the passage. He identifies a number of considerations that dictate the order of the sacrifices in the passage. One consideration is that the order reflects the relative significance of the offerings. In order to understand his comments, it is necessary to return to an issue discussed previously.

We explained above that there is a reason for the typical order in which an Olah and Chatat are offered. The Chatat is offered first in order to atone for the sins of the person before engaging in an act of pure devotion. Tosefot explain that this reasoning does not apply in our case. The Chatat sacrifice offered after childbirth is not an atonement in the typical sense. The mother does not need to atone before offering her Olah. Why does she offer her Chatat before her Olah? Tosefot explain that this order is required simply to maintain uniformity in practice.[7]

Malbim explains that when a Chatat is offered as an atonement, it takes precedence. Not only is it offered before an accompanying Olah, it is the more important of the pair. But in the instance of a woman who has given birth, the Chatat is not offered as an atonement. Therefore, although the Chatat is offered first – in conformity with the general principle – the Olah is the more significant, or important, of the pair. The Talmud is telling us that this is the message of the passage. The Olah is mentioned first in order to communicate the relative significance of the pair. The Olah is the more essential sacrifice.[8]

Hemek Davar offers a third explanation of the Talmud’s comments. He agrees with Malbim that in the case of a woman who has given birth, the Olah is the more fundamental offering of the pair. The Torah first mentions the Olah in order to communicate this message. However, he adds that this message has significance in halacha. He observes that if we study our passages carefully, we will note another oddity. In describing the preferred sacrifices after childbirth, the Torah indicates that a sheep should be brought as an Olah and a young dove or turtledove as a Chatat. The young dove is mentioned before the turtledove. In contrast, in describing the alternative sacrifices, the turtledoves are mentioned before the young doves. Hemek Davar explains that this reversal in order is significant. The turtledove is a more prized species than the young dove. Therefore, when functioning as a Chatat – a sin offering – the young dove is a more appropriate selection. The Chatat should reflect the imperfection of sin. The young dove reflects this imperfection more than the more beautiful turtledove.

In describing the alternative sacrifices, the Torah mentions the turtledoves before the young doves. This is because the Olah is the more fundamental sacrifice of the pair. The Olah is a devotional sacrifice and is not associated with sin. Therefore, the Torah gives precedence to the more perfect turtledoves. Because the Olah is the more significant sacrifice of the pair, this species is the more appropriate selection.[9]

[1] Mesechet Zevachim 90a.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Zevachim 90a.

[3] Tosefot, Mesechet Zevachim 90a.

[4] Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 1:5.

[5] Talmud Zevachim 7b.

[6] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer VaYikra 12:8.

[7] Tosefot, Mesechet Zevachim 7b.

[8] Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (Malbim), HaTorah VeHaMitzvah – Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 12:8.

[9] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer VaYikra 12:8.