Parshat Tazria: The Impurity Contracted Upon Giving Birth

Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Conversion Institute for Spanish Speakers

Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum
Rony Nathan -Photographer - www.ronyn.co.il - 050-6932626

Our portion delves into the creation of life and opens with the laws of impurity following childbirth. The question arises: why does a birthing woman become impure? After all, in childbirth, there is an act of creating life, and impurity symbolizes death and a diminishment of life. Typically, we associate the act of birth with concepts like life, purity, and holiness, which are not usually associated with the concept of impurity.

More comprehensible is the impurity of a woman during her menstruation days, when blood flows from her body, symbolizing life that has not been realized.  However, when it comes to the blood of childbirth, new life bursts into the world, and therein lies an act of purity, not impurity. The transition between the realm of impurity and the realm of purity signifies a dynamic state that teaches us about the rich inner world of humanity. Impurity and purity are not conditions inherent in human genetics but rather in the human spirit. Unlike animals, which have a static state of pure or impure, a human being is a changing creature, with the potential to reach far.

This dilemma between the creation of life on earth and the status of impurity engages me both interpretively as well as personally, being a woman, and prompts me to delve deeper into the connection between my Jewish identity and faith, and my identity as a woman.

Furthermore, the question becomes more pressing since the birthing woman is required to bring a burnt offering and a sin offering after childbirth, and the reason for this is wanting some explanation. 

In the tractate of Niddah, our sages describe the life cycle of the fetus in its mother’s womb until the stage it emerges into the world. Of life in the womb, it is said: “There are no days in which a person is enveloped in greater goodness than those days” (Niddah 30b). Nourishment reaches the fetus through its umbilical cord, ensuring its protection and safety, shielded from harm, while simultaneously absorbing the entirety of Torah knowledge—a truly ideal state, both materially and spiritually. In utero, spiritual abundance and material abundance coalesce harmoniously.

When the newborn comes into the world, it descends “from the greatest heights to the lowest depth.”  At this momentous transition, the physical and spiritual dynamics of the fetus undergo a profound transformation: “And as soon as it enters the atmosphere of the world, an angel strikes it on its mouth, and it forgets the entire Torah” (Niddah 32b). Its previous spiritual realm fades into oblivion. Our sages depict a descent for the infant, both physically and spiritually. This reality begets impurity. The impurity arises from the soul of the newborn encountering the complexities of the material world. The impurity of childbirth stems from the juncture where the soul of the fetus meets the intricate realities of existence. Its origin is not a change within the mother but rather a transformation within the newborn.

The Talmud in Tractate Eruvin recounts a scholarly dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel that spanned two and a half years: “Is it better for a person to have been created, or not to have been created?” Beit Shammai contended that it would have been preferable for a person not to have been created, whereas Beit Hillel argued otherwise. “They took a vote and decided: It would have been better for a person not to have been created at all than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds” (Eruvin 13b).

This existential debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel revolves around the ideal state of humanity. Does the fetus in the mother’s womb symbolize the pinnacle of human existence, or does it lie with the infant after birth? The conclusion underscores the inherent tension and conflict between the individual and reality, elucidating the rationale behind the postpartum state of impurity.

However, the nature of childbirth imparts a sense of loss as well. Despite the joy of birth after the period of pregnancy, a woman also experiences a sense of loss. There is difficulty in parting from the fetus; the physical separation of the fetus from the maternal womb creates a personal and intimate sense of separation. Despite the joy of birth, a feeling of emptiness arises, leading to sadness and impurity. Birth engenders a profound sense of divine closeness, of miraculous wonder, and partnership with the Creator in creation when new life is formed. But after birth, the woman must process and perhaps mourn the separation from the fetus from her body. Throughout pregnancy, the fetus was “a part of its mother’s body”, to use a halakhic expression, integrated into the mother’s body and soul, but birth brings a kind of loss and detachment, and impurity marks the new reality.

The birthing process involves a profound and intense clash between physical sensations and spiritual feelings. The creation of the fetus entails a fusion of body and soul, a combination that is not simple. The birthing mother experiences this intense clash between the creation process and the birth process, a creation of life that involves partnership with the Creator but also significant physical challenges. At the moment of birth, there is a loss of control. The strong physical process takes over, pushing aside the dominance of the spirit in the body. This lack of completeness manifests in entry into the realm of impurity. Impurity accentuates the reversal of the fetus from its eternal realm with the Creator and the soul to the life of mortal man.

At the conclusion of the postpartum impurity period, the process of purification begins, marked by the woman’s offering of a burnt offering and a sin offering – a lamb and a dove – at the Temple (40 days after the birth of a son, and 80 days after the birth of a daughter). The necessity for bringing this sacrifice following childbirth is often explained as stemming from the ordeal of labor, as the woman declares her independence from her husband and her resolution to refrain from bearing more children.

The burnt offering is a voluntary sacrifice, entirely consumed by fire and not eaten. Typically, it is brought by one who feels spiritually distant, seeking to draw closer to the Creator. It is not a sin offering but rather a gesture of reconciliation and renewed connection with the Creator after a period of detachment. Therefore, after 40 days outside the Temple and the emotional upheaval she has undergone, the woman seeks to reestablish her bond with the Creator through this offering, not as an act of atonement but as an expression of profound personal faith.

The Torah is not merely concerned with the collective life of the Israelite community but also with the intimate, personal experiences of individuals, especially those of the woman giving birth, encompassing her emotional and spiritual journey. Moreover, the Torah is not a set of external rules, but the very essence of life itself, touching every aspect of existence – emotions, spirituality, actions, home, and family. The Torah seeks to imbue every facet of life with sanctity, transcending the realm of what is permissible and what is forbidden, and becoming a Torah of life. 

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