אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָֽלְדָה…
Isha ki tazri’a v’yaldah …
When a woman conceives and give birth … (Leviticus 12:2).
Our portion begins with a chapter that, at eight verses, happens to be the shortest chapter in the Torah. Chapter 12 describes the extended period after childbirth, during which a woman is considered ritually impure.
I know that many of us have an immediate and negative reaction to this instruction: Sexist! How could childbirth make a woman impure? And furthermore, the Torah tells us that while a woman must remain in this condition of impurity for 40 days for a male child, if she bears a daughter, she must endure 80 days. Is she being punished for bearing a female child? While our contemporary understanding of the workings of sexism in human culture is revolutionary and transformative, our assumptions can also cloud our analysis. The culture of ancient Israel was radically different from our own, and it behooves us to seek to understand that culture on its own terms.
In the Torah, it is not gender that makes one ritually impure; it is the presence of blood. Blood is the life force made visible. Blood is powerful and dangerous. Blood, as the life force, comes from God and therefore is holy and belongs to God.
When an animal is slaughtered, whether for ritual sacrifice or for ordinary consumption, the Torah is unequivocal in its demand that the blood belongs to God and cannot be consumed:
כִּי הַדָּם הוּא הַנָּפֶשׁ וְלֹא־תֹאכַל הַנֶּפֶשׁ עִם־הַבָּשָֽׂר Ki ha’dam hu ha’nefesh, v’lo tokhal ha’nefesh im ha’basar — “For the blood is the soul, the life force; you are forbidden from eating the soul with the flesh.” (Deuteronomy 12:23, one of many such instructions in the Torah. This is why to this day kosher meat must have the blood drained from the flesh.)
When an animal is slaughtered, the Torah instructs that the blood (דָּם dam) must be poured backed into the earth (אֲדָמָה adamah). The connected sound of these two Hebrew words, dam and adamah, is not accidental. After Cain slays his brother, Abel, God adjures Cain: קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן־הָאֲדָמָה Kol d’mei akhikha tzo’akim eilai min ha’adamah — “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth” (Genesis 4:10). I should also note that the Hebrew word for “human being” is אָדַם adam; when God creates Adam, the Torah tells us, “and God took earth — adamah — and made the adam. In God’s likeness and image was the adam created.” Thus, we see the linguistic connection that makes the earth, human beings and blood all sacred to the Creator: dam, adam and adamah.
When blood pours out of the body, therefore, one enters a liminal, dangerous zone; the sacred life force is exposed and must be treated with the greatest deference and care. Childbirth and women’s menstrual cycles are included in this category. The menstrual cycle is especially awesome and mysterious — linked to the moon, which itself cycles between appearance and disappearance; blood flowing, and yet a sign of life and not death; and the cycle ceasing during gestation as life grows within. It is self-evident that women have a unique connection to the Source of Life.
The Torah’s term for the category I translated above as “ritually impure” is טָמֵא tamei, and this is how tamei is usually rendered. Tamei is also often translated as “defiled.” The problem with these translations is that, for contemporary readers, they evoke moral categories. “Impure” and “defiled” bring up images of moral failings and harsh judgments. That is not the intention of the biblical Hebrew. Therefore, Baruch Levine, in his commentary on Leviticus, suggests that we translate tamei as “susceptible.” The mother and her newborn are susceptible, in a danger zone, and need time to recuperate — not just physically, but spiritually — before being reintegrated into the community, before being able to re-enter the holy precinct of the Sanctuary.
Rather than a punishment for being female, what if in the mindset of ancient Israel, this time of “susceptibility” was a protection for being female, for being the gender that opens their body and brings forth new life, an ability that in the ancient world was not only awe-inspiring and miraculous, but also often fatal. Without mothers, the community would obviously not survive; still, pregnancy and childbirth were like walking a high-wire with no net — the odds of disaster were terribly high. Every birth was also a brush with death.
So the Torah set a lengthy period of time during which the new mother was considered to be in a state of טֻמְאָה tum’ah, “susceptibility.” For a male child, the period was 40 days, and for a female child, 80 days. At the end of that period, the mother would bring an offering to the Tent of Meeting, and the priest would declare her once again to be in a state of טָהֲרָה tahara, ritual purity. The woman — with a healthy, growing baby in her arms — would now fully re-enter the life of the community.
But I have always wondered, why the number “40”? We know it well: the rains of Noah’s flood fall 40 days and 40 nights; Moses stays on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights; and most famously, the Children of Israel are made to wander 40 years in the Wilderness before they can enter the Promised Land. There are many other examples in the Torah. Given the primarily symbolic use of numbers throughout the Hebrew Bible, 40 is meant to represent something. But what?
A pregnancy. A due date was and still is calculated as 40 weeks from the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period. Even though we now know that conception takes place about two weeks after the onset of the last period, the observable start date is that last period itself. And from that day, the average duration until the child is born is 40 weeks.
So, 40 represents a time of conception, gestation and maturation until a new being is ready to be born. It is a time of metamorphosis. It is a hidden miracle unfolding. As the due date approaches, it’s also a time of constriction, struggle and convulsive pain, followed by liberation. No wonder the Children of Israel must wander for 40 years before they can pass through the Jordan River (birth canal?) into the Promised Land. They must shed their identity as Pharaoh’s slaves and instead be reconceived, gestate and grow over a full term before they can be born anew as a free people in their own land. And the labor pains are tremendous — just read the travails in the book of Numbers!
This would explain why a new mother is restricted (or perhaps protected) for 40 days after the birth of a son: one day for each week of pregnancy, a symbolic correlation during which she becomes reintegrated into the life of the community. The question remains, however, why the period is doubled to 80 days when the baby is a girl? Although we might initially think that this is a punitive measure, what if instead it is an acknowledgment of the life-giving power of women? In this case, a birth-giver has given birth to a future birth-giver. The new baby girl will mature and one day enter that same intimate relationship with blood, the essence of life, and she will gain the ability to be a life-giver herself. And today, we know that baby girls are born with all of their future eggs already nestled in their ovaries. Future life is already contained in the newborn girl.
Perhaps, then, the double period of 80 days mandated after the birth of a girl-child is not punitive, but rather an acknowledgement that a new life-giver has been born, and 40 additional days of waiting might help to “inoculate” this baby against the dangers she will one day navigate as she brings the next generation into the world. For women are indeed God-like in their ability to bring forth new life. They bear a mysterious, awesome and dangerous power. Men and women both are intimate with the life-sapping potential of blood flowing from our bodies, and the Torah requires both men and women to go through a period of susceptibility, and then reintegration when they contact the realm that might lead to death. But only women become intimate with the life-giving potential of the blood that flows from their bodies. When that flow temporarily ceases for 40 weeks, the miracle of a new soul grows in their womb. Women have the capacity to be intimate with YHVH, Life Unfolding, in a way that men will never experience or understand.