Ill always remember the birth of our first child,
Sara. Due to particular obstetric circumstances beyond the scope of this sheet to
discuss, my wife had a rather agonizing labor; the Demarol they gave her didnt help,
and her doctor was reluctant to give her an epidural--that blessed miracle of modern
medicine which all but eliminates the curse spoken to Eve in Genesis, ...in pain
shall you bear children. (For the birth of our third child, it happens that my
wife did take an epidural, and she was so well anaesthetized that she literally laughed in
disbelief when they told her that the baby was ready to come out.)
Baruch Hashem, my wife made it through (as do most women), and Sara is a hearty three-and-a-half year-old...who, even postpartum, displays a talent for making us yell and scream. But that is another story.
Parshas Tazria features an interesting mitzvah which relates to the forementioned agonies of labor and delivery. The Torah commands a woman who has given birth to bring a special offering in the Temple at the completion of a designated period of spiritual purification:
After bringing the offering, she is once again permitted to enter the Temple, and to eat terumah (special food designated for the Kohen) and the meat of sacrifices-- activities prohibited to her during her period of purification. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch beautifully explains that this period is intended to allow the woman time to recover from the physically and emotionally draining experience she has gone through, including, as he puts it, the depressing after-effects of child birth. She cannot immediately jump from the helplessness and subordination to her physical self experienced in the birth process, to the complete confidence in her power of [moral] self-determination that, in Hirschs view, is the essence of the Torahs concept of purity. As a result, the Torah gives her a breather to regain her highest humanity. (Hirsch, Commentary to Vayikra: 325-29)
The question that interests us here, however, is why she needs to bring a sin-offering. The elevation offering we could well understand as an act of gratitude to Hashem for having brought her through the tribulations of birth successfully (Sefer HaChinuch and others), but what on earth did the woman do wrong that she should bring a chatas?
The Ibn Ezra notes that some explain the olah offering as being an atonement for negative thoughts she might have had because of the pain of childbirth. (An olah offering must be brought for having sinful thoughts.) The chatas was to atone for negative things she might have actually spoken in her suffering. In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai explains that she might have actually sworn not to have relations anymore with her husband, and the chatas offering would be to atone for such an oath! (Niddah 31b)
Neither I, nor the Torah, is passing judgment: it obviously can hurt so much that one might say or think anything... even something one would later regret. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I heard everything my wife said during that first labor, and I can declare confidently that she spoke no oath, nor did she blaspheme. She insulted neither doctor, nor hospital, nor hubbie. (What she was thinking, I cant say for sure.)
Its amazing, though, how accurately the Torah sizes up the situation, and understands what might well be in awomans mind or on her lips during the ordeal of birth. Not in the spirit of punishment (as we think of the word) does the Torah prescribe this offering, but because it wants her--and us--to reach the highest level of purity in our lives as servants of Hashem. The possibility of atonement is surely one of G-ds greatest blessings bestowed on mankind. (Along with the epidural.)
In the lovely words of Ramban, at the end of his discussion of this offering: G-ds thoughts, blessed be He, are deep, and His mercies are bountiful, for it is His desire to make righteous His creatures.
Edelstein is Director
of the Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP). Phone: 912-355-0157;
Please be in touch
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