“Speak to Bnai Yisrael saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean.” (VaYikra 12:2)
The parshiyot of Tazria and Metzorah deal with various forms of spiritual impurity. In general, there a two means through which a person can acquire spiritual impurity: 1) through contact with an impure object, 2) through specific bodily functions or disease. Our parshiyot primarily deal with impurity acquired though bodily functions or disease. It should be noted that in this context “disease” does not refer to conventional disorders. This term refers to a skin affliction – tzaraat – that is contracted as a punishment for sinful behavior.
Most of the bodily functions that cause impurity are unique to women. These functions include menstruation and childbirth. The impurity that results from these events has two expressions. First, the woman is forbidden from entering the Mishcan or making contact with certain sacred items. Second, the woman and her husband may not be sexually intimate.
There is a variety of opinions regarding the reasons for associating these bodily functions with impurity. Many Sages contend that these instances of impurity reflect health considerations. In other words, these Sages contend that intimate relations during menstruation or immediately after childbirth carry health risks. Of course, these views are based on the medical knowledge and perspective of their times. We should not assume that if these Sages had access to modern science that they would come to the same conclusions.
Many students may be tempted to dismiss consideration of these opinions. They reason that because these authorities base their interpretation of these mitzvot on outdated and discarded theories there is not need to consider their opinions. This is a mistake. It is true that these Sages base their interpretation of these mitzvot on discredited theories. However, it is important to note and acknowledge that these Sages believed that it is completely plausible for mitzvot to reflect health considerations – not moral or spiritual issues.
In order to fully appreciate the implications of this perspective, some additional discussion is helpful. Most mitzvot are clearly associated with moral or spiritual concerns. We are commanded to serve Hashem, observe Shabbat, accept Hashem’s unity, to pray only to Him, to eat matzah, to dwell in the succah. All of these commandments, and many others, address spiritual issues. Other commandments deal with moral or ethical issues: we are not permitted to steal or deal dishonestly with others, we must return lost property, and build appropriate barriers around any dangerous area of our property. These are all examples of commandments that reflect ethical concerns. We think of Torah as a system for spiritual and moral advancement. We do not typically view the Torah as a system that also promotes physical health. Yet, these Sages accept that among the Torah’s objectives is the promotion of physical well-being.
Not all Sages accepted this perspective. Akeydat Yitzchak objects to the contention that the Torah contains mitzvot that address medical concerns. This discussion takes place in reference to last week’s parasha. The Torah permits the consumption of certain species and prohibits others. For example, we are permitted to eat the flesh of animals that have split hooves and chew their cud. A set of mitzvot in last week’s parasha outlines those species that are permitted and those that are prohibited. Many Sages explain that these mitzvot reflect health concerns. Consumption of those species that are prohibited is unhealthy. However, Akeydat Yitzchak disagrees with this approach. Akeydat Yitzchak argues that it is inappropriate to explain that these species are prohibited because of health concerns. He offers a number of arguments:
The Torah’s objective is to provide us with spiritual and moral guidance. The Torah should not be reduced to a medical work.
If the prohibited species present a health threat, this concern could be countered through proper preparation.
There are many other foods that, if prepared improperly, are harmful. Yet, these foods are not prohibited by the Torah.
Our own observations confirm that the non-Jews who do not observe these prohibitions are healthy. If consumption of these prohibited species is unhealthy, then those who consume these species should experience health consequences.
Sefer HaChinuch is one of the authorities who suggest that the some of the commandments in our parshiyot regarding defilement are based on health concerns. In his comments he responds to Akeydat Yitzchak’s objection to assuming that that Torah addresses health issues. He comments that the body is the receptacle of the soul. In order for the soul to function, the body must be healthy.
This response requires careful consideration. Sefer HaChinuch accepts Akeydat Yitzchak’s assertion that the Torah’s objective is to provide spiritual and ethical instruction. However, he argues that this objective does not preclude the inclusion of mitzvot that address health issues. Spiritual and ethical perfection cannot be separated from health. Our moods, energy, and attitudes are affected by our health. In turn, these factors influence our views and intellectual perceptions. A person who is depressed sees the world differently than a person who has a positive outlook. Different outlooks impact the manner in which individuals understand experiences – and even the manner in which they interpret information. In short, health is a valuable asset in the effort to advance oneself spiritually and ethically. Illness and poor health are obstacles in this endeavor.
Sefer HaChinuch’s message is more important than his specific interpretation of the commandments in our parasha. His interpretation of some of these commandments is based upon discredited medical theories. However, his basic assumption remains true and tested. Today, we have even more evidence of the close association between one’s health and one’s outlook, cognition, and perceptions. Sefer HaChinuch suggests that because this association is so important, the Torah actually legislates measures designed to assure health. Certainly, Sefer HaChinuch would insist that we give appropriate attention to our health and would admonish us against neglecting our health or engaging in habits that endanger our health.
It seems this view is not universally accepted in our era. It is notable that some individuals who are otherwise scrupulous in their observance of the Torah seem to feel that a healthy diet and regular exercise are unimportant. Some individuals seem to even express distain for these concerns – apparently regarding these issues as unworthy distractions from more important spiritual endeavors. However, this does not correspond with the position of Sefer HaChinuch and many other Sages.
Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that these mitzvot have other objectives in addition to the health benefits he identifies. He explains that the mitzvot prohibiting intimate relations with a niddah (a menstruating woman) and with a yoledet (a woman who has recently given birth) also foster closer ties between husband and wife. Let us focus on his comments regarding the prohibition of having relations with a niddah.
In order to fully understand his position an introduction is required. Conventional western religions sometimes seem to adopt a prudish attitude towards sexual intimacy. In these religions, sexual intimacy is viewed as something that is, at best, a shameful necessity. Preferably, it should be avoided and should certainly not be cultivated. Sefer HaChinuch maintains that sexual intimacy is an essential element of marriage. A healthy attitude towards intimacy fosters a stronger marriage. Based on the assumption that sexual intimacy is an essential and natural part of a wholesome marriage, it follows that enhancing this intimacy is a worthy objective for a mitzvah. However, before we can appreciate the Torah’s contribution to fostering strong marriages, we must recognize one of the most common obstacles faced by couples.
We tend to disdain – or at least take for granted – things that are readily and constantly available. We have all had the experience of deeply desiring some object. After finally securing the object of our desire, we become accustomed to it. Soon, we take it for granted. In time, we may discard the previously cherished possession and search for a replacement. This pattern is an expression of basic human nature. Marriages are intended to extend over decades. How can we prevent the members of this union from becoming bored with one other, taking the other for granted, and even eventually discarding his or her spouse?
The Torah prohibits intimate relations with a niddah. The result of this prohibition is that intimacy is regulated. During part of every month relations are permitted. During part of every month relations are prohibited. Husband and wife experience a period of separation each month and the excitement of reunion. Sefer HaChinuch suggests that a couple sharing this monthly experience has a greater appreciation of intimacy and of each other. The members of this union are less likely to become bored with one other.
In short, Sefer HaChinuch, in his interpretation of the mitzvot in our parasha, suggests that some mitzvot of the Torah reflect health concerns. Some mitzvot are also designed to strengthen marriage and to specifically enhance intimacy. Both of these objectives are noteworthy and reflect enlightened perspective. Furthermore, this perspective is sometimes sadly absent from today’s conventional views on the nature of piety and religiosity.
 Rav Yitzchak Arama, Akeydat Yitzchak on Sefer VaYikra, Parshat Shemini.  Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 166.  Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 166.