“Childbirth and Ritual Impurity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Our latest grandchild, Yosef Yehudah Berger, was born to our children, Ayelet and Gavriel Berger, on Thursday, March 10th, the 4th of Adar II, only a few minutes before sunset.

The time of his birth was important, because it meant that his brit would take place a week later, on the Fast of Esther. Although there are different customs, the family followed a common custom of having the brit as early as possible in the morning. This meant that everyone except the Mohel, the father, the mother and the Sandek (the person honored with holding the child during the brit), would fast the entire day. Many family members and friends returned after nightfall for the Seudah, the festive meal. Certainly this child’s entry into the world was memorable.

Although we have Baruch Hashem, B’lee Ayin Harah, a respectable number of grandchildren (some people are superstitious about stating the exact number, to avoid the “evil eye”), this birth was particularly auspicious, because this was our daughter’s first child, and a Kohain.

I remember well, my wife, Aidel, pregnant with each of our four children. It was a most exciting and, at the same time, a nerve-wracking time. She carried beautifully, and fortunately, for the most part, had uneventful pregnancies. Holding one’s newborn child is certainly one of the most exhilarating spiritual moments a human being may experience.

But, it is also one of the most transformational experiences one can have. A year or two before, the new parents were a single man and woman, without many responsibilities or obligations to others. Then they married, learning to share and care beyond themselves, and now they have become parents. Although it is ethereal and exhilarating, it is even more transformational, because now they are, in many ways, at the child’s mercy. Their lives are not their own, their time is not their own, their waking hours and their sleeping hours are not their own. The little fellow or lady, for all practical purposes, owns them, and unless they are very callous, the new parents will always respond to their child’s frequent cries and calls.

Of all the people involved in the birth of the child it is, undoubtedly, the mother, the one who bears the child, who is most profoundly impacted. Will I ever feel rested again? Child rearing is a 24/7+ responsibility. Will I succeed in my attempts at breastfeeding? How many times can I be awakened in the middle of the night, and survive? Will my body ever return to normal? Yesterday, I was a beautiful bride, and now I have to work off the extra pounds I gained during pregnancy. What about my own life, my career, my relationship with my husband? Will my husband be there for me, and will I ever again be able to be there completely for him? Will I ever want to endure what I have just gone through in this recent childbirth?

A mother’s many concerns after childbirth are the reasons why, according to some rabbis, a woman who gives birth is declared to be in a state of ritual impurity. She needs to go through a purification process, so that she can return to the more balanced physical and spiritual state in which she lived before giving birth. The rabbis further speculate that, perhaps, during childbirth, the woman cursed the Al-mighty, and possibly even swore never to endure the pain of childbirth again.

Others argue, that the ritual impurity may result from stress and anxiety, the common feelings of depression, that often strike post-partum mothers. Certainly, a new mother needs private, quiet time, away from the eyes and ears of the community, away from the Temple and the synagogue. The new mother needs private time to bond with her child, time to reflect on her losses and gains. A few minutes, a few hours, a few days ago, this child was totally reliant on its mother for its breath, for its food, for its life! Now the child is independent, with a life of its own, and the mother has become a “mere nurturer.” This child will now continue to assert its independence until it forges its own life and personality, and a future of its own. Mother and child will never be bonded as closely together as they were during those special months of pregnancy.

But the “impurity” does not last. Every new mother is eventually required to “come out” of the depression and push away the fears, to thank G-d for the miracle of birth, offer a sacrifice and undergo the process of purification in the Mikveh waters.

To a great extent, childbirth is similar to bereavement, when immediately after the burial, the mourner is required to pronounce the Kaddish, exalting G-d’s name, no matter how one feels at the moment, no matter how heartbroken one is. It is a critical step toward returning to reality, returning to normalcy.

There is no greater miracle in life than childbirth. And yet, Scripture proclaims (Leviticus 12:2): “Eesha kee tazria v’yalda…v’tamah,” when a woman bears a child, she shall be impure. Every birth brings trauma, fear, lack of confidence. But when that period ends, there is re-entry and welcoming in the full sense, into the home, into the family, into the community and into the people. It is at this moment that parents must prepare for their next great challenge, the challenge of child rearing!

How amazing it is that our Bible, in just a few verses, anticipates and articulates so many of the complex and conflicting emotions that are so much part of the reality of the extraordinary human experience known as childbirth.

As we often see, there is much to be learned from the ancient Jewish texts and the attendant rituals.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20.1