Tazria: Babies Versus Religion

March 25, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Posted in Tazria | 1 Comment

Wedged between the dietary rules at the end of last week’s Torah portion, and the rules about skin disease that occupy the rest of this week’s Torah portion, the Torah gives us brief instructions concerning a more important physical process:  childbirth.  Thus this week’s portion is called Tazria (“she makes seed”).

When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of the niddah of her menstruation she is ritually impure.  On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.  And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of taharah; she shall not touch anything holy, and she not come into the holy place, until the days of taharah are completed. And if she gives birth to a female, then there shall be ritual impurity for a pair of weeks, as in her niddah, and she shall stay 46 days over the bloodshed of taharah.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:2-5)

niddah (נִדַּה= menstruation; exclusion, separation, setting apart

taharah  (טָהֳרָה) = ritual purification process; ritual purity.

Blood has deep religious meaning in the Torah.  The blood of an animal is its nefesh, its animating soul; Israelites must not eat blood, because the blood of a slain animal belongs to God.  Soldiers must go through a purifying ritual after human blood is shed in battle.  The rituals of the portable sanctuary and the temple in Jerusalem include splashing and daubing animal blood on new priests, on the bronze altar, and even on the curtains around the ark—in order to sanctify them. Another ritual is required after menstruation.

Childbirth is also  a bloody business, and until recently it was also frighteningly dangerous.  Without modern medicine, the mother or the infant often died during or shortly after childbirth.

"Mother Rose Looking Down at her Sleeping Baby" by Mary Cassat

by Mary Cassat

Modern commentators point out that a woman who has just given birth is totally absorbed in her baby, and cannot yet switch to the state of mind appropriate for public worship (which at that time meant bringing offerings to the altar at the “holy place” or sanctuary).  I can vouch for the single-minded absorption from my own experience.

But Israelite women would also have needed time to recover from fear of death.

I wonder how women expressed their immediate relief and gratitude to God when both mother and child lived through the birth process, and the mother held her new child for the first time?  Perhaps women invented a new prayer for that time, a prayer that is not recorded.

The ritual responses in the Torah begin seven days after the birth of a son, fourteen days after the birth of a daughter. The Torah distinguishes between an initial period of ritual impurity, when the mother is bleeding as her womb heals (one week for a son, two weeks for a daughter), and a longer period of abstention from community worship (33 days for a son, 46 days for a daughter) in which her “bloodshed” (if any) is considered purifying.  These additional days of separation may refer to symbolic blood.  Since the Torah equates an animal’s blood with its life or nefesh (animating soul), maybe the purifying “bloodshed” is a symbolic reference to the mother’s total absorption in the nefesh of her infant for the first few months.

But why is the mother given twice as long for a baby girl as for a boy?  Many commentators have  noted that a girl is destined to become a child-bearing woman, repeating the life-or-death moment of birth.  I think it’s more significant that a girl will someday menstruate, so every month she will shed blood from a genital organ–while a boy does it only once, at circumcision.  Both circumcision and menstruation are reminders to be fruitful and multiply, but menstruation is a repeated ordeal.  Maybe the different length of the mother’s sequestration reflects this.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived in 19th-century Germany, wrote that when a boy is circumcised at eight days, the father is impressed with his mission of being a role-model to his new son.  Since a girl is not circumcised, her longer seclusion with her mother impresses the mother with her mission of being a role-model to her new daughter.  Gender roles in the 19th century were strictly defined, just as they were when the Torah was written, and Hirsch viewed motherhood as a woman’s assigned calling.  Each mother must train her daughter to be a good mother.  Each father must train his son to walk with God while walking in the world.

Designated gender roles still exist in some cultures today, but much of the world has adopted a more fluid approach.  Modern Jews recognize this when we hold a naming ceremony for a female baby on her eighth day, or a bat mitzvah for a pubescent girl who is able, these days, to take on the same adult religious responsibilities as a boy.

But we no longer have a ritual for bringing the primary care-givers of newborn children back into the community.  Some countries now require employers to offer parental leave when a child is born or adopted—an excellent step.  I think it’s time to establish new social and religious customs as well.  (Whether a primary care-giver should get a total of 40 or 60 days away from normal religious and social responsibilities will depend on factors other than the sex of the infant!)

When parents do rejoin their community, the new ritual will certainly not include an animal sacrifice.  Parents today need a different symbolic way to dedicate themselves to serving the spiritual, as well as the animal, needs of their new children.

Any ideas?


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  1. […] sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my earlier post, Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God (until their […]

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