Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel — The major subject of this week’s as well as next week’s Torah portion is ritual purity and impurity (tuma and tahara), to the modern mind one of the most esoteric and puzzling aspects of our Scriptures. What is even more disturbing is that, in the very midst of the Biblical discussion of a childbearer’s state of impurity comes the command of circumcision—a subject that has little to do with the matter at hand. Its proper placement belongs in the book of Genesis, when the Almighty entered into a covenant with Abraham through the ritual of circumcision. Yet the Bible here records: “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy, she shall be ritually impure for seven days, just as she is impure during the time of separation when she has her period. On the eighth day (the child’s) foreskin shall be circumcised, then, for thirty-three additional days, she shall sit on blood of purity.” (Lev. 12:2-4).
Why is the command of circumcision right between the impure and pure periods following childbirth? Our Sages specifically derive from this ordinance that the ritual of circumcision overrides the Sabbath: “On the eighth day, (the child’s) foreskin shall be circumcised—even if it falls out on the Sabbath” (B.T. Shabbat 132a). Why express this crucial significance of circumcision within the context of ritual impurity? Is there a connection?
Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel links the two issues by interpreting: “And on the eighth day, when (she) is permitted (to have sexual relations with her husband), on that (day) is (the baby) to be circumcised.” He is thereby citing the view of our Sages in the Talmud, who understand that the circumcision must be on the eighth day following the birth “so that everyone not be happy while the parents will be sad” if they cannot properly express their affection towards one another (B.T. Niddah 31b).
It seems to me that there is a more profound connection. When a woman is in a state of ritual impurity, she and her husband are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations until she immerses in a mikveh (ritual bath of rain or spring water). Obviously this restriction demands a great deal of self-control and inner discipline. The major symbol which graphically expresses the importance of mastering one’s physical instincts is the command of circumcision: even the sexual organ itself, the physical manifestation of the male potency and the unbridled id, must be tempered and sanctified by the stamp of the divine.
A well-known midrash takes this one step farther: “Turnus Rufus the wicked once asked Rabbi Akiva: Whose works are better, the works of G-d or the works of human beings? He answered him, the works of human beings… (Turnus Rufus) said to him, why do you circumcise? (Rabbi Akiva) said, I knew you were asking about that, and therefore I anticipated (the question) and told you that the works of human beings are better. Turnus Rufus said to him: But if G-d wants men to be circumcised, why does He not see to it that male babies are born already circumcised? Rabbi Akiva said to him…It is because the Holy One Blessed be He only gave the commandments to Israel so that we may be purified through them” (Midrash Tanhuma, Tazria 5).
Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (author of the Akedat Yitzhak Biblical Commentary) explains this to mean that there are no specific advantages or necessary rationalizations for doing the commandments; they are merely the will of G-d, and we must see that as being more than sufficient for justifying our performance of them.
It seems to me, however, that the words of the midrash as well as the context of the commandment reveals a very different message. The human being is part of the physical creation of the world, a world subject to scientific rules of health and illness, life and death. The most obvious and tragic expression of our physicality is that, in line with all creatures of the universe, we humans as well are doomed to be born, disintegrate and die. And therefore the most radical example of ritual impurity is a human corpse (avi avot hatuma); an animal carcass, a dead reptile, and the blood of the menstrual cycle (fall-out of the failed potential of fertilization) likewise cause ritual impurity. A woman in childbirth has a very close brush with death—both in terms of her own mortality and during the painful anguished period preceding the moment when she hears the cry of a healthy, living baby.
G-d’s gift to the human being created in the divine image, however, is that in addition to physicality there is also spirituality; in addition to death there is also life eternal; in addition to ritual impurity there is also ritual purity. Hence, the very human life which emerges from the mother’s womb brings in his wake not only the brush with death (tuma) but also the hope of new life (tahara)—and whereas the tuma lasts for seven days, the taharagoes on for thirty-three! The human being has the power to overcome his physical impediments and imperfections, to ennoble and sanctify his animal drives and instincts, to perfect human nature and redeem an imperfect world.
This was the message which Rabbi Akiva attempted to convey to Turnus Rufus the wicked. Yes, the world created by the Almighty is beautiful and magnificent, but it is also imperfect and incomplete. G-d has given the task of completion and redemption to the human being, who has the ability and capacity to circumcise himself, to sublimate his sub-gartelian (beneath the belt or gartel) drives, to sanctify society and to complete the cosmos. Indeed, the works of the human being are greater! And the command of circumcision belongs within the context of impurity and purity.
And this is also what our Sages were trying to convey when they taught that circumcision overrides the Sabbath. The Sabbath testifies to G-d’s creation of the world – impressive but imperfect, awesome but awful, terrific but tragic. Circumcision testifies to the human being’s challenge to redeem himself and perfect the world. Indeed, circumcision overrides the Sabbath.
Would you like to receive Rabbi Riskin’s weekly Parsha column and updates from OTS direct to your inbox?
Click here to subscribe to our mailing list