“Challenging the Stereotypes: Purity and Impurity in Childbirth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of the this coming week’s double parashiot, Tazria-Mezorah, we encounter one of the most perplexing laws found in the Five Books of Moses.

The Torah informs us, in Leviticus 12:2 that G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Daber el B’nai Yisr’ael lay’mor: I’shah ki tazria v’yalda zachar, v’tam’ah shivat yamim, kiy’may ni’dat d’vota tit’mah.” Speak to the children of Israel and say: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be impure for a seven day period, as during the days of her menstrual separation, shall she be impure. The Torah then states that on the eighth day, the child should be circumcised. For a subsequent thirty-three day period, the mother of the male child will be pure. However, if she gives birth to a female child, she’ll be impure for two weeks, and for sixty-six days she shall remain pure.

In effect, the Torah tells us that everything is doubled for the mother upon the birth of a female child. The period of impurity upon the birth of a male is one week, and upon the birth of a female two weeks. The period of purity for the male child is thirty-three days, yet sixty-six days for the female child.

Nowhere does the Torah account for the difference in the mother’s status after bearing a male child, as opposed to a female child. Some of the contemporary commentators see the doubling of the woman’s period of impurity simply due to the fact that the ancient world placed a much greater emphasis and value on the birth of a male child. There are, however, a host of commentators who offer a variety of additional answers. Perhaps the aggregate of these opinions will provide us with a clue on how to understand this very perplexing issue.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (German commentator 1808-1888) maintains that women lose their spirituality during childbirth, arguing that because of the pain of childbirth, the mother often prays that she or her child should die and be put out of misery. Since, of course, death is the great contaminator, the mother experiences a period of impurity, followed by a period of purity.

A later German commentator, Dovid Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), claims almost the opposite, arguing that the entire ritual of birth is a reaffirmation of life, since birth insures continuity and prosperity. Nachmanides (1194-1270), the great classical commentator who was also a physician, suggests that the natural recovery time for the mother is different after the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child. This is interesting because it might reflect on what contemporary researchers call postpartum depression, and it suggests that there are perhaps hormonal differences in the mother after the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child.

Some would argue that a woman is naturally more spiritual than a man; consequently, she would have a naturally higher sense of spirituality when bearing a female child. Hence, a longer period of purity.

Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopski in his book A Night of Watching suggests that our ritual deals with the woman’s need to reestablish relationships: with herself (that is her body), with her child and with her husband. The period of impurity assures that there is to be no immediate sexual bodily contact between husband and wife, allowing the mother to come to terms with the trauma she has experienced, and allowing her to bond with the child, which is most vital.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has suggested that everything is doubled for the birth of a female child because the process of life and death will be repeated physiologically in the female’s own lifetime and within her own body. Also, perhaps because the mother has a greater responsibility to serve as the role model for the female child, everything is doubled reflecting twice the necessary effort.

Whatever the answer, and I don’t believe that any of the answers are entirely satisfying, what we do see is great wisdom and insight on the part of the Torah, reflecting an extraordinary depth of understanding of the essence of human relationships.

May you be blessed.