Tazria: Time to Learn, Part 1

How long does it take to learn something new?

For new information, it depends on the person’s intelligence, concentration, and memory. Smart children can read or hear something once and grasp it. Smart adults, when they are distracted by their own children or by fellow workers demanding attention, need to ask for a repetition or a clarification. And some very old intelligent people, like my mother, have such poor memories that they must read or be told new information dozens of times before it sinks in.

How long does it take to learn a new way of life?

I believe it depends partly on the person’s own flexibility—including willingness to adapt, practice at changing, and ability to observe both oneself and others. But it also depends on external inflexibility: rules and customs that you must comply with. In our world, it is easier to adapt to school, to the armed services, to many jobs, and to senior residence centers because there are set times for meals and other activities. At 8:00 you must be here, and at noon you must be somewhere else.

Less structured changes are harder. How do I handle a new baby? A new serious medical diagnosis?

Humans had to learn new skills and habits in biblical times as well as today. This week’s Torah portion in Leviticus, Tazria (“She conceives”), describes structured rules that helped people learn new ways of life in two situations that have no set rules today: caring for a new infant, and dealing with a new disability.

by Mary Cassat

New Baby

The life of all flesh is its blood … (Leviticus 17:14)

The blood, it is the life … (Deutereonomy 12:23)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the animating force of life (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal. Some of the religious rules in the book of Leviticus address the fears that go with blood loss—fears that today are addressed by medical information.

This week’s Torah portion begins by establishing periods of isolation following childbirth, which causes women to bleed.

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, then tamei-ah for seven days; titema as in the days of the regulation about her menstruation. And on the eighth day the skin of his foreskin will be circumcised. Then for 33 days she will stay in bloodshed of purification; she may not touch anything holy, and she may not come into the holy place, until her days of purification have been filled. (Leviticus 12:2-4)

tamei-ah (טָמְאָה) = she has become ritually impure, excluded from religious rituals, desanctified. (A kal form of the verb tamei, טָמֵא = become ritually impure, which may be derived from the noun tamei, טָמֵא = someone or something that is ritually impure, desanctified, unsuitable for normal contact; “unclean” in old translations.)

titema (תִּטְמָא) = she has incurred ritual impurity. (A hitpael form of the verb tamei.)

The mother’s vaginal discharge is her “bloodshed of purification”: the natural release of elements used to nourish the fetus that are no longer needed. The process of purification is the mother’s transition from the state of pregnancy to the state in which she can once again engage in the sacred rituals of her religion. The number of days the woman must stay away from the sanctuary and all other sacred things is arbitrary, like the seven days of ritual impurity that Leviticus decrees for a menstrual period—regardless of whether the woman stops bleeding sooner.1

The first clue that the rule in the portion Tazria is not just about post-partum discharge is that the number of days before the mother is no longer tamei is different if her baby is a girl.

And if she gives birth to a female, then tamei-ah as in her menstrual period for a pair of weeks, and for 66 days she must stay in her bloodshed of purification. (Leviticus 12:5)

Post-partum bleeding normally lasts for four to fourteen days (followed by a scanty white discharge for several more weeks). This timeline might fit the 7+33 day period for the mother of a boy, but it does not fit the 14+66 day period for the mother of a girl.

And when the days of her purification for a son or for a daughter are filled, she shall bring a yearling lamb for a rising-offering and a dove or a turtle-dove for a reparation-offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest. And he shall offer it in front of God and make atonement over her, and she will be purified from the source of her bloodshed. (Leviticus 12:6-7)

“Rising-offering” is my literal translation of olah, עֺלָה, in which the sacrificial animal is completely burned up into smoke. The usual purpose of a rising offering is to please God with the smell of the smoke; 2 it is required twice a day, to keep the smoke rising perpetually. Additional rising-offerings are made to observe holy days, and to bring individuals who have been isolated back into a normal relationship with God and their community—which is dedicated to perpetual service to God.

A “reparation-offering” or chatat, חַטָּאת, sometimes translated as a “sin-offering”, is usually brought to the altar in order to atone for unintentionally violating one of God’s rules.3 But giving birth is the opposite of a violation. After all, God keeps ordering humans to be fruitful and multiply!

However, the mother may feel guilty that for several weeks all her care and attention was focused on her newborn, rather than on God. A reparation-offering would reassure her that God pardons her for her period of distraction.

Perhaps the infant boy’s circumcision reminded the mother of her separation from her child, so she was prepared to return to her religious community sooner than if her baby was a girl. Either way, the Torah prescribes a fixed period of isolation from regular life, followed by a ceremony of reintegration.

In modern society the mothers—or other primary caregivers—of newborn infants have no rules for managing the transition to a new way of life, a life in which they must both care for a new person and maintain their previous roles in the community. It might be helpful today to establish a fixed time period when they are excused from all social obligations, followed by a ceremony of reentry.

Next week I will consider the Torah’s structure for dealing with a new diagnosis in Tazria & Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.

  1. Leviticus15:19-24.
  2. Leviticus 1:17. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  3. See Leviticus 4:27-31 and my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.


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