Parshat Tazria opens with one of the strangest examples of biblical ritual “impurity”: tumat yoledet, tuma resulting from childbirth.
The Torah relates that, following the birth of a male child, a childbearing mother enters a seven-day period of tuma, while following the birth of a female child, a fourteen-day period of tuma is mandated. In each case, these days of tuma are then followed by much lengthier periods (thirty-three days after the birth of a male child and sixty-six days after the birth of a female child) of modified separation from sanctified objects.
Finally, at the close of each extended period, the mother brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Temple to mark her full reentry into society.
Bearing a child is clearly one of the most highly sanctified acts possible; the first divine blessing/commandment given to man while still in the Garden of Eden; the clearest demonstration of man’s partnership with God. Why, then, does a woman automatically incur a state of tuma as a result of childbirth?
What is the significance of the different separation periods mandated in response to the birth of a male and female child, respectively? Aren’t all children of equal value?
Finally, and most problematically, what is the significance of the korbanot brought by a yoledet, a childbearing mother? In particular, why does the Torah instruct a woman to bring a sin offering in the aftermath of childbirth? What possible “sin” could be associated with the glorious act of bringing a new life into the world?
A. The most basic, and in some ways the most problematic, approach to the perplexing issues surrounding the tumat yoledet is offered by a group of scholars including Rabbeinu Bachya and the Kli Yakar. These commentaries view both the tuma resulting from childbirth and the sin offering in its aftermath as a reflection of the primal sin of Chava, the first woman. In response to Chava’s role in the consumption of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God condemns her and her female progeny to the travails of childbirth.
While giving birth to a child is, therefore, a glorious mitzva, the pain and difficulty associated with the process is the product of sin.
This approach, however, gives rise to serious issues concerning the nature of divine reward and punishment. As we have noted before, Judaism clearly rejects the Christian notion of “original sin”. We are not guilty, in perpetuity, of the sin committed by Adam and Chava. On this issue the Torah is clear: “Fathers shall not die because of their children, nor shall children die because of their fathers. Each individual will die in his own sin.” We are each held culpable only for our own failings and not for the failings of others, past, present or future. How, then, can these scholars suggest that each childbearing woman across history must somehow atone for a crime committed by her ancestor, at the beginning of time?
The key to understanding this approach may well lie in a distinction that we have noted elsewhere. While Judaism absolutely rejects the Christian concept of “original sin,” we cannot deny the reality of “intergenerational reverberation.”
We are not responsible, in any way, for the transgression committed by Adam and Chava at the beginning of time. We are, however, affected by that sin’s ramifications. This is not a punishment, but a reality of life. Had Adam and Chava not sinned, we would now be living a very different existence in the Garden of Eden.
Similarly, we are all concretely connected to each other across the generations. Such overarching life issues as where we are born, to whom, into what environment – and, in fact, whether or not we are born at all – are determined not only by God, but also by our parents and by those who came before them as well. Even more importantly, our decisions and actions today will critically affect the lives of our children and their progeny tomorrow.
At the decisive moment of childbirth, therefore, the Torah graphically reminds the new parents, through a series of rituals, of the phenomenon of “intergenerational reverberation.” The mother’s state of tuma, her consequent period of physical separation from her husband, the offerings she brings in the aftermath of these events, all result from actions committed by her primal ancestor, millennia earlier. The Torah’s message could not be clearer: We are each partially a product of what came before. How careful, then, must new parents be with their own continuing decisions and actions – for those very decisions and actions will help shape the lives of generations to come.
B. An entirely different approach is suggested by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. This scholar notes that the Torah sets the stage for the passage describing tumat yoledet with the unusual phrase isha ki tazria, “when a woman yields seed…”
By choosing the verb lizroa, “to yield seed,” in describing human conception – as opposed to the usual biblical term, lit’hor, “to conceive” – the Torah stresses the universal, physical character of childbirth. This verb is used on only one other occasion in the text: in conjunction with the cre-ation of the earth’s vegetation, which is described as mazria zera l’mineihu, “yielding seed to its kind.
“The highest and noblest occupation,” says Hirsch, “on which the whole future of the human race is built…is of purely physical nature. Man originates, grows and exists like a plant…” At the moment of childbirth, the childbearing mother, involved in “the most sublime procedure of her earthly calling,” is forced to painfully submit to the laws of nature. As her child enters the world, she becomes one with all the other creatures of creation, governed by processes beyond her control.
Tellingly, the Torah specifically chooses this moment, the moment when a new soul’s arrival into the world is bounded by natural law, to underscore man’s unique ability to transcend that law. After childbirth, the childbearing mother confronts an immediate challenge. By deciding to follow Torah law, she embarks upon a conscious journey from tuma to tahara. Step-by-step, she is guided past the physical constraints of natural law towards a renewed awareness of her own spiritual potential. Her freely chosen journey towards complete religious involvement reminds all that man, once born, is a morally free agent.
C.An additional perspective on tumat yoledet can be suggested, based upon our prior observations concerning the general theme of tuma.
The state of tuma often seems to occur in response to an individual’s encounter with a profound event or experience. God does not want us to pass through life unaffected by what crosses our path. By mandating a ritually limited state following such encounters, the Torah creates a forced response. The period of tuma teaches us that something has changed, that we must be responsive to all experiences that touch our lives.
Few events are as potentially life altering as childbirth. The Torah therefore establishes a period of tuma to encourage the mother to assimilate the many complex truths with which she has come face-to-face: from the reality of her own mortality to her sublime partnership with God in creation, and finally to the responsibilities she now bears towards her newborn child.
The childbearing mother’s world has changed forever. The Torah insists that she recognize that fact.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.