Spiritual metaphysics is never easy to rationalize. Our Western sensibilities may initially recoil at the remarkable notion of tumat leidah, the ritual impurity that commences precisely at the moment a mother gives birth.
In brief, Tazria introduces the halacha that accords automatic impurity for seven days to a woman who births a boy – rendering her the halachic equivalent of a niddah. Subsequently, the Torah accords her automatic purity for the next 33 days, even if she experiences uterine bleeding. This blood is called dam tohar (1). As a result she may have physical contact with her husband. For the birth of a female the numbers are doubled – 14 days of impurity and 66 days of purity.
We are confused: Why should the most powerful creative action known to humanity be shrouded in tumah? Coming to terms with that notion merely begs the next enigma as our egalitarian Western sensibilities take yet another beating, for why should the mother’s personal ritual impurity and subsequent purity be differentiated by the sex of her child?
While the male might be quick to point out that he evinces less impurity. The female may retort that she ushers in greater holiness. It brings to mind the following vignette:
An English professor wrote the words, “Woman without her man is nothing” on the blackboard and directed his students to punctuate it correctly. The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” The women wrote: “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”
Political correctness aside – what’s going on here?
Many explain that the tuma’ah associated with childbirth is connected to loss of life(2). This may be a general conception of tuma’ah as well (3). A mother who gives birth has “lost” her child in the sense that the singular intimate closeness that she experienced as her child was safely ensconced in-utero is now over. Her child has left her world for the world. This may serve as a cogent psychological explanation for the phenomenon of postpartum depression.
When the mother gives birth to a boy – she lost a life force from her midst – which is marked by an automatic seven day period, evoking an obvious comparison to shiva. When she gives birth to a girl – then she has lost a creative life force – for the child in her midst can also carry life. It is the personal loss of that life along with its potential to carry more life that explains the double tuma’ah.
This explains part one of the equation. Why however is there a double purity associated with the birth of a girl?
In 1267 Ramban was forced to make aliyah at the age of 73(4). Upon finally arriving in Jerusalem, he describes the sorry state of Jewry and in an epic letter to his son he writes:
Many are [Israel’s] forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all.
Ramban’s one liner appears to be a guiding principle in Torah. That which carries within it the greater potential for kedusha ipso facto can become more profane. Conversely, greater profanity bespeaks a greater loss of resident purity. It must follow that a woman, because she has the creative life force ability has a greater resident purity. They are utterly interconnected.
This principle is at the basis of the laws of rital purity and impurity. Rambam codifies this notion with great clarity(5). The rule goes as follows: (a detailed explanation is beyond the scope)
הראשון שבחולין טמא ומטמא, השני פסול ולא מטמא ואין שני עושה שלישי בחולין
הראשון והשני שבתרומה טמאים ומטמאים, השלישי פסול ולא מטמא ואין שלישי עושה רביעי בתרומה
הראשון והשני והשלישי בקדש טמאין ומטמאין, הרביעי פסול ואינו מטמא
With chullin (unconsecrated food), a 1st degree tuma’ah can be contracted and can infect (others). A 2nd degree tuma’ah can be contracted but can not infect.
With terumah (consecrated for the kohen), a 1st and 2nd degree tuma’ah can be contracted and can infect (others). A 3rd degree tuma’ah can be contracted but can not infect.
With kodesh (consecrated to the beit hamikdash), a 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree tuma’ah can be contracted and can infect (others). A 4th degree tuma’ah can be contracted but can not infect.
One final question and here we get to tachlis: Why must there be a commensurate relationship between tuma’ah and tahara – and when did it begin?
Incredibly, Chazal state that following his sin, Adam Harishon developed an orlah – a foreskin. That is, he entered the world circumcised and then became uncircumcised. Perhaps the deeper idea being that post the primordial sin, the new world order required a different type of work. Exiled from Gan Eden, our job is not to preserve, l’avdah ul’shamra – but rather to uncover.
The curse of work is not the rumination of a capricious ruler, but rather a precise paradigm and prescription of the task that now lies ahead. You can no longer eat bread off the tree. B’zeiat apecha tochal lechem. You need to sow, till, water, thresh, harvest, winnow, select and sift and finally get to the kernel, then knead and sift some more before you get to the essence. The new destiny of humanity is the inexorable process of constant revelation and refinement.
And so it is with all of life. Darkness is a creation. Hashem was borei choshech. We need to be goleil choshech, to roll away the darkness to get to the light. The tuma’ah is that darkness – those layers (kelipos) we strip away.
In a nutshell – our life’s work is to dig deep within. The more we peel away, the greater illumination we reveal (6).
Good Shabbosת Asher Brander
1. This status is in fact a quasi-purity as may not yet have ritual contact with korbanos etc. even as she may be intimate with her husband.
2. The classic midrashic explanation is that it evokes the sin of Adam and Chava. See Ramban & Ohr Hachaim
3. Thus the ultimate source of tuma’ah is the meis – who is called the avi avos hatuma’ah. Animals can only bring tuma’ah if they are dead. Only humans can be alive and create tuma’ah. Yet, it is readily understood why a nidah, or ba’al keri bring ritual impurity as they have lost their life giving forces for but a period of time.
4. An aftermath of his famous debate with Pablo Christiani.
5. Rambam, Shea’r Avos Hatumah Ch. 11
6. My Rebbe once explained (I believe in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov) that the deeper meaning of the Talmudic statement that the world is 2,000 years tohu, the 2,000 years of torah and 2,000 years mashiach is not a statement of chronology but a process – the tohu being the outer shell to Torah and the Torah being the outer shell for redemption.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.