TAZRIA METZORA

 

A WOMAN'S PURITY AND CIRCUMCISION

 

 

Introduction

 

Parashat Tazria opens with a command regarding a woman who has just given birth to a child:

 

And Yahweh spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman have conceived seed and born a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the sanctuary until the days of her purifying are fulfilled. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation, and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days.

And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt–offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin-offering to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest, who shall offer it before Yahweh and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the Torah for her that has born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for the burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean. (Vayikra 12:1-8)

 

Two different tracks are described in this section. A woman who gives birth to a male child is impure for seven days, after which she continues “in the blood of her purifying” for thirty three days. In contrast, if she gives birth to a female child, she is impure for fourteen days, and then she continues in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days. Two questions will occupy us in this study. What is the meaning of the difference between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child? And what is the place of the command regarding circumcision (v. 3) in a section the subject of which is the mother's impurity and purification?  We will read the verses and then examine the halakhic midrashim related to these laws. We will try to identify the difference between the plain sense of Scripture and the understanding of the rabbinic midrashim.

 

What is ritual impurity?

 

Let me preface my remarks with a few words about the concept of "ritual impurity." The chapters dealing with impurity in the book of Vayikra appear immediately after the dedication of the altar on the eighth day.  They begin with prohibitions concerning foods that are described as being impure and continue with the impurity contracted through contact with the carcasses of certain animals (chap. 11). These laws conclude with the following words:

 

You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, neither shall you make yourselves unclean with them, that you should be defiled by them. For I am Yahweh your Elohim; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be Set-apart, for I am Set-apart. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am Yahweh that brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your Elohim; you shall therefore be Set-apart, for I am Set-apart. This is the Torah of the beasts and of the birds, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth. To make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten. (Vayikra 11:43-47)

 

With these words, Scripture sets the sanctification – "For I am Set-apart" – and the bringing of Israel out of Egypt – "to be your Elohim" – against the impurity that prevents a person from reaching this goal and does not allow him to enter the place to which Yahweh invites him.

 

The next sections deal with impurity that is not the result of contact with some external source of impurity, but rather the result of events taking place inside the person's body, his clothing, or his house. They begin with the impurity of a woman who has given birth (chap. 12), continue with the impurity of leprosy (chapters 13-14), and conclude with the impurity of a zav, one who emits semen, a nidda, and a zava (chap. 15). What is the nature of these impurities?

 

According to the plain sense of Scripture, the impurity of a woman who has given birth prevents the woman from entering the Sanctuary.  When the days of her purification are fulfilled, she brings an offering to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and that offering puts her in the position of "before Yahweh." 

 

In the case of leprosy, already at the outset the leper is brought before Aharon or one of his sons:

 

When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought to Aharon the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra 13:2)

 

In the continuation, the priest is mentioned over and over again as the person before whom the leper is brought; the priest is the person who examines the plague and declares it pure or impure. What this means is that in a place where or at a time when there are no priests, there is no impurity. This fact sets leprosy in the context of a person appearing in the Sanctuary, being seen by Aharon and his sons, before whom they are brought. It should also be noted that as with a woman who gave birth, the leper also offers a sacrifice "before Yahweh at the door of the Tent of Meeting," and in his regard as well it is stated: "And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean."  

 

Finally there is a discussion of the impurity of a zav, one who emits semen, a nidda, and a zava, and with regard to them as well the issue is their appearance in the Sanctuary – "before Yahweh":

 

And on the eighth day he shall take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and come before Yahweh to the door of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest. And the priest shall offer them, the one for a sin–offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before Yahweh because of his issue. (15:14-15)

 

Regarding a woman:

 

And on the eighth day she shall take for herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the door of the Tent of Meeting. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before Yahweh for the issue of her uncleanness. (15:29-30)

 

And in the summation of the section we read: "Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness" (v. 31) – distancing Israel from these impurities in the context of Yahweh's dwelling among them. Thus far, the Torah relates to impurity as something that does not impair or restrict the existence of mundane life, but prevents a person from approaching and appearing in the Sanctuary.

 

What aspect of these phenomena distance a person from the Set-apart and from the Sanctuary? It seems that we can view this as detachment from the source of life as a result of an encounter with death,  or about life that loses its high standing and its elevated ethical and moral direction.  As for a new mother, the impurity is connected to the process that she undergoes: "As in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean." Like a woman who experiences menstrual bleeding, which distances her and puts her in a position of sickness, the blood connected to the birthing of her child renders her impure. Her menstrual blood had ceased already before the new life was created, and the post-natal blood reflects another step – as one who has already created life. In the background lies the understanding regarding the involvement of the woman in whom the newborn was created as one who is not standing in a sterile position. The large amount of blood that was spilled is an expression of the price of the direction that she has lost in her body and in her soul.

 

What is the Difference between a male child and a female child?

 

In the following lines, we will conduct a comparison between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child. Scripture opens two verses with a description of a birth and of the impurity that accompanies it:

 

If a woman have conceived seed and gave birth to a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean. (v. 2)

 

But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for fourteen days, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days. (v. 5)

 

It stands to reason that there is a connection between the nature of the birth and its reflection in the ritual impurity that comes in its wake.

 

The accounts of the birth of a male child and of the birth of a female child are written in opposition to each other, and in fact each one tells a different story.  In the account of the birth of the male child, the woman is the dominant character – starting with the fact that she is presented as the subject ("If a woman…"), continuing through the conception ("have conceived seed"), and ending with the active description of her giving birth to a male child ("and gave birth a male child"). The account of the birth of the female child is formulated in opposition to this: "But if she bears a female child" - the woman is not mentioned, there is no description of the conception, and the term "ve-im" ("but if") sets up an optional starting point. In addition, mentioning the female child before the birth: "Ve-im nekeva ("female child") teled ("she bear")," presents a birth whose connection to the woman is shaky, one that is associated with her only after the fact. What lies behind these differences?

 

It seems that the key to the answer lies in the words "zakhar" (male) and "nekeva" (female).  The word "zakhar" is derived from the word "zikaron" (memory). It expresses presence and sustainability, and perhaps memory in the context of the continuity of generations that is named after the male.  The word "nekeva" is derived from the word "nekev" (hole), a type of absence and vacuum. This gap points to a certain superiority of the male child, and thus explains why the woman contracts less impurity with his birth. In contrast, the female child embodies a certain deficiency, and thus adds to the mother's impurity and delays her return to the Temple.

 

This distinction has a context, and therefore also limits. The context is the words "male" and "female," which are used for the first time in the first chapter of Bereshit, in contrast to the formulation in the second chapter of that book, which uses the words "ish" (man) and "isha" (woman). There is a fundamental difference between the two sets of terms, and to understand it, we must under the contexts in those two chapters. In chapter 1, Yahweh creates the world, He is not located within it, and He stands apart from it.  In chapter 2, Yahweh resides in the world, appears within it, and activates its various elements.  Like Yahweh, man finds himself in two different positions in relation to the world. In chapter 1, he is created in the image and likeness of Yahweh, and as such, time and time again emphasis is placed on man's superiority in relationship to the other beings: "Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth" -  a kind of superiority; "and subdue it" – a clear expression of superiority; "and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" – man exercises dominion over all that lives in the sea, in the air, and on the earth. He who was created in the image of Yahweh is described as enjoying an advantage over all the other created beings; he subdues them, rules them, and exercises dominion over them. On the other hand, the man in chapter 2 is not supreme. He comes from the earth, and in this sense he is part and parcel of earthly life. At the same time, "a portion from Yahweh above" lies within him, and it may take him to different places, both deep and meaningful. This man tills and keeps the garden; he does not rule or exercise dominion. He assigns names and empowers those around him.  He takes responsibility and makes it possible for things to happen.

 

Accordingly, in the field on which the first chapter is played out, the terms used are "male" and "female," which reflects the male's advantage. This advantage is expressed in the blessing and destiny that is directed in large measure to a male's traits: "Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth" – in the sense of proliferation and filling the world.  "And subdue it" – a movement of subduing the world. "And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" – a relationship of superiority that man enjoys with respect to all the other created beings. These are all actions suited for the world of the male, and they are mentioned in the chapter in which man is created in the image of Yahweh – similar to Elohim, Creator of the world, high and almighty.

 

In contrast, in chapter 2, the terms used are "man" and "woman," and they are the tip of the iceberg of the additional conceptual system present in this chapter. In this chapter, the issue is not man's superiority over the rest of creation, but rather his movement as one who makes it possible for things to happen. It is a chapter of connections, and here the woman's lack of presence becomes an advantage. Her presence enables,  and in large measure generates, the conceptual system found in this chapter.

 

Returning to our parashat: The context of our parashat is the book of Vayikra, which looks upon the world from Yahweh's perspective. Yahweh calls to Moshe and speaks to him from the Tent of Meeting. In this sense, the entire book radiates from the conceptual system of the first chapter of the book of Bereshit.  Accordingly, the section dealing with a woman who gave birth sees in the newborn male child a measure of separation, and thus the mother's impurity lasts for seven days. In contrast, the female child is more firmly planted in the world,  and in this context, the mother needs more time before she can appear once again in the Sanctuary.

 

From Impurity to circumcision

 

"And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." We already asked about the puzzling location of this law. Why is it inserted in a section the subject of which is the woman's impurity and purification? It seems that in continuation of the previous description of the process that a woman undergoes when she gives birth to a male child or a female child, another layer is added here. A woman gives birth to a male child, and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin is circumcised. He has a foreskin, it is removed, and he is called to a higher position, one of separation.  This fact, which is embedded in the nature of the male, has consequences for the process experienced by his mother. She gives birth to a son whose foreskin is removed, and this fact has consequences for the length of her impurity.

 

It is difficult not to see a connection between the process described here of a transition from the seven days to the eighth day, and the parallel process relating to a bullock, sheep, or goat:

 

And Yahweh spoke to Moshe, saying: When a bullock, or a sheep, or a goat, is brought forth, then it shall be seven days under its dam; and from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted for an offering made by fire to Yahweh. (Vayikra 22:26-27)

 

Seven days is the time that the newborn animal remains under its mother; from the eighth day on, it becomes exposed to the separateness of life and it is acceptable as an offering to Yahweh.

 

Epilogue

 

Two questions were raised at the beginning of this study. What is the meaning of the difference between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child? And what is the reason for commanding about circumcision (v. 3) in the middle of a section dealing with the mother's impurity and purification? Along the way we reached certain insights – the fact that purity is meant essentially to associate a person to the Set-apart and to the Temple, and that impurity comes into the world through an encounter with death or with life that loses its high standing. Equipped with these insights, we approached the section dealing with a woman who gave birth and we put our finger on the terms "male" and "female." These terms are terms of the book of Vayikra – the book that is centered around the Temple. In this context, the birth of a male child distances the mother from the Temple only slightly, in contrast to the birth of a female child, which takes her to "the world of life" for a longer period. In this sense, circumcision serves as a kind of reflection of the fact that a male belongs to a world that is above life. Scripture draws a fascinating comparison between the circumcision of a male child on the eighth day and the birth of an animal which clings to its mother for seven days, and then from the eighth day on is accepted as an offering to Yahweh. This comparison points to a connection between circumcision and sacrifice, and it also points to a kind of detachment of the newborn from its mother that takes place after seven days – through his circumcision on the eighth day. In our context, this detachment frees the mother of the impurity resulting from her child's birth.

 

Beyond all this, in this study we were introduced to the existence of two conceptual systems that define the status of men and women in different ways, and the relationship between them. In this sense, a woman's deficiency in the context of impurity in the book of Vayikra may serve as an advantage elsewhere – in her added insight and in all the uniquely feminine characteristics.