Childbirth, menstruation, and death called for apotropaic magic in most Ancient Near East cultures. The Torah addresses these disturbing events with social distancing and ritual purification.
This week Jews read a double Torah portion: Tazria (“she makes seed”) and Metzora (someone with the skin disease tzara-at). Both portions are about physical conditions that make people ritually impure and the procedures for purifying them. The most space is devoted to a skin disease that makes people so ritually impure that they are excluded from their camp or town, and must pitch their tents outside its boundaries until a priest pronounces them cured. (See my post last year, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.) But this week’s two portions also consider the ritual impurity of childbirth and menstruation, during which a woman can remain in her home, in a room set aside for her.
If a woman makes seed [conceives] and gives birth to a male, then she is temeiah for seven days: in the same way as in the days of her menstrual indisposition titema. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:2)
temeiah (טְמֵאָה) (feminine); tamei (טָמֵא) (masculine) = ritually impure.
titema (תִּטְמָא) = she becomes temeiah.
Near the end of Metzora, we read:
And if a woman is discharging blood … seven days she shall be in her menstrual separation, and whoever touches her yitema until evening. And whatever she lies on during her menstrual separation yitema, and whatever she sits on yitema. (Leviticus 15:19-20)
yitema (יִטְמָה) = he/it becomes tamei.
Any person or object that touches a menstruating woman must be immersed in water that day, and then becomes ritually pure again in the evening.1 The same rule applies to a man with an unhealthy genital discharge, and a woman with a discharge other than her monthly period.2
A human being who is tamei/temeiah is also forbidden to “touch the holy” by entering the precincts of the sanctuary or by eating any of the meat and bread from a wholeness-offering.3 A tamei/temeiah person in a priest’s household may not eat any of the food given to the priest.4
Seven days tamei and 33 days after = 40
The Torah portion Tazria assumes that if a woman gives birth to a son, her post-partum bleeding lasts for seven days. During that week she is temeiah, and anyone or anything that touches her becomes tamei until immersion and sunset.
And on the eighth day, the flesh of his [her son’s] foreskin shall be circumcised. Then for 33 days she shall stay in the bloodshed of taharah; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her taharah are completed. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3-4)
taharah (טָהֳרָה) = ritual purification process; ready for ritual purification.
titehar (תִּטְהָר) = she becomes tehorah.
tehorah (טְהוֹרָה) (feminine); tahor (טָהוֹר) (masculine) = ritually pure.
During the 33-day interim period of “purification bloodshed”, the mother of the son may still have some vaginal discharge, but she is considered tehorah only to the extent that a person or object that touches her does not become tamei. This would make it easier for her to receive visitors, and she could move around the house freely. The only things she cannot do during those 33 days are to approach the holy sanctuary or eat holy food.
What is the purpose of the 33-day interim period? A simple answer is that although the Torah is strict about abnormal vaginal discharges, it mercifully lessens the requirements for a woman who is experiencing the last traces of post-partum seepage.
Modern commentators give a psychological reason for the 33-day interim period. Expanding on a hint by 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 20th-century Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz wrote: “Although she is physically ready and ritually clean, mentally she is not yet geared to concentrate on the holy. Since the sacred demands kavanah, intent, she must wait until her thoughts are sufficiently predisposed to focus on the non-physical, namely, the spiritual and the holy.”5
I can remember my own single-minded absorption in my son when he was a newborn.
I believe that Israelite women would also have needed time to recover from fear of death. Without modern medicine, the mother or the infant often died shortly after childbirth. If both mother and son were healthy 40 days after the birth, it would be easier for the relieved mother to focus on other things.
Fourteen days tamei and 66 days after = 80
The post-partum time periods in Leviticus are longer when the woman has a daughter.
And if she gives birth to a female, then she shall be temeiah for a pair of weeks, in the same way as in her menstruation. And she shall stay 66 days over the bloodshed of taharah. (Leviticus 12:5)
The Talmud’s explanation of why the woman is temeiah twice as long for the birth of a daughter as for a son assumes that most women in labor swear they will never have sex again.6 It takes seven days for a woman who bore a son to repent of her oath, but fourteen days for a woman who bore a daughter to repent. Why? One theory in the Talmud is that her labor pains are twice as bad for a daughter, because:
Just as a male engages in intercourse facing downward, so too, it is born while facing down. And that one, a female fetus, emerges in the manner in which it engages in intercourse, i.e., facing upward. (Niddah 31a)7
This assumes that a couple uses the “missionary position”, and that only and all female infants are born face up. Obviously the rabbis did not ask any mothers or midwives about it. I can, however, attest that the final stage of delivery is especially long and painful when the baby emerges face up—like my son.
The Talmud gives a second theory, based on the assumption that everyone wants a boy more than a girl:
Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai answered them: When a woman gives birth to a male, over which everyone is happy, she regrets her oath that she will never again engage in intercourse with her husband, already seven days after giving birth. By contrast, after giving birth to a female, over which everyone is unhappy, she regrets her oath only fourteen days after giving birth. (Niddah 31b)
Neither the Torah nor the Talmud says why the interim period of taharah is 33 days for a son but 66 days for a daughter.
In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained it in terms of which parent would be the infant’s role model. The circumcision of a boy, he wrote, marks the beginning of the father’s duty to prepare his son to be an observant Jewish man. The mother no longer has full responsibility for her son, so her interim period is just 33 days, enough time to recover. For a daughter, the mother’s interim period is twice as long to “impress upon the mother the full solemnity and magnitude of her task—to be an example and role model for the Jewish woman of the future. … With sons, the crucial part of their education comes from the father, as the sons see in him a model for their own future male role. With daughters, however, the mother is both a role model and a molder of character.”8
Gender roles in the 19th century were strictly defined, just as they were when the Torah and Talmud were written.
Rigid gender roles still exist in some cultures today, but much of the world has adopted a more fluid approach. Modern liberal Jews recognize this when we hold a naming ceremony for a female baby on her eighth day, corresponding to a male infant’s circumcision; or a bat mitzvah for a pubescent girl because she is able, today, to take on the same adult religious responsibilities as a boy.
Now some congregations are also recognizing people whose gender is not simply male or female. The Talmud rules that a woman who gives birth to an infant of indeterminate gender follows the same count as a woman who gives birth to twins who are a girl and a boy: her initial period of being temeiah lasts 14 days, as in the birth of a daughter, but her interim period of taharah lasts 33 days, as in the birth of a son.9
Many countries now require employers to offer parental leave when a child is born or adopted. I think we should also offer parental leave from social expectations. After all, during a baby’s first few months the parents are usually exhausted from getting up during the night for feedings and diaper changes. They should not be expected to give their full attention to anything else.
Whether the primary care-giver of a fragile new human being should get a total of 40 or 80 days away from normal religious and social responsibilities depends on factors other than the gender of the infant!
- Intercourse with a menstruating woman is forbidden in Leviticus 18:19, and the penalty assigned in Leviticus 20:18 is that both partners are “cut off”, exiled from their community. Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem, strictly observant women have been sleeping separately from their husbands and abstaining from sexual intercourse during their periods and for seven to ten days afterward, then ending the period of abstinence with immersion in a ritual bath, a mikveh.
- Leviticus 15:2-11, 15:25-27.
- See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2 on how a shelamim or wholeness-offering was divided.
- Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), following the Talmud, Yevamot 75a.
- Obadiah Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. and footnotes by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993, footnote by Pelcovitz p. 539 on 12:8.
- The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org, Niddah 31b.
- All quotes from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org.
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Vol. 3, Leviticus, translated by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, Ltd., 1976, p. 380.
- The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org, Niddah 28a.