“The Conundrum of Childbirth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Again, because of the calendrical nuances, this week’s parashiot, Tazriah-Metzorah, are combined. While both parashiot deal almost exclusively with the laws of tzara’at–the biblical “leprosy,” parashat Tazria opens with a number of very complicated and challenging laws regarding childbirth and purification.

In Leviticus 12:2, G-d speaks to Moses and tells him: “Da’bayr el B’nay Yisrael lay’mor: Ee’shah kee tahz’ree’ah v’yahl’dah zachar, v’tahm’ah shiv’aht ya’meem kee’may nee’daht d’vo’tah tit’mah,” Speak to the Children of Israel and say: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she shall be “contaminated” for a seven day period, just as during the days of her menstrual separation shall she be ritually impure. In the verses that follow, the Torah informs us that the male child is circumcised on the eighth day, and that for the 33 days beyond the initial seven days of impurity, the mother of the male child is considered ritually pure. Despite being in this extended state of purification, the woman is not permitted to touch any of the sacred things, neither can she enter the sanctuary until the completion of her days of purification. However, if she gives birth to a female, the mother is declared to be in a state of ritual impurity for two weeks, and for 66 subsequent days she is in a state of ritual purity.

Two glaring questions are immediately apparent:
1. Why should a woman who gives birth to a child be designated as ritually impure?
2. Why are the periods of impurity and purification doubled after the birth of a female child?

Some of the commentators attribute the impurity that a woman experiences in childbirth to the sin of Adam and Eve. Had Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit or given it to Adam, childbirth would have been a pleasant, not a painful experience. The sacrifice that is brought by a woman who gives birth is meant to atone for that presumed “original sin.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) suggests that women lose their spirituality during childbirth. Because of the great pain that they experience, a woman in labor is likely to utter an oath to separate from her husband and to never bear children again. Through the purification rituals, the woman returns to her natural state, renounces any oaths made under duress, restoring her desire to bring children into this world.

Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanatopsky, commenting in his insightful volume A Night of Watching, suggests that the periods of purity and impurity are necessary because, after childbirth, a woman needs to restore many relationships, including her relationship with herself, her body, as well as her husband. Her primary need, however, is to bond with her newborn child. She therefore needs to separate, at least temporarily, from her husband, which accounts for the period of impurity.

Why then is there a double period of purity and impurity after the birth of a female child?

Judaism is a religion of balance that seeks to counterpoise conflicting ideas and needs. This accounts for Judaism’s attempts to balance individual and community needs, as well as the seemingly conflicting ideas of a transcendent G-d and an immanent G-d. Since a woman’s days of impurity are doubled to fourteen after the birth of a female child, the days of purity are also doubled to 66 days for a female child. So, it all balances out.

A number of other explanations have been suggested to account for the differences in the periods of purity and impurity following male and female births. Some argue that because the world places a greater “value” on a male child, the woman snaps out of her state of “uncleanliness” faster than she does after the birth of a female child. Others suggest that this transition from impurity to purity takes place more quickly with a male child because there is always a brit (circumcision) on the eighth day. The mother has no choice but to recover more quickly.

Nachmanides, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, and Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffman all suggest that the “natural” recovery time for a mother of a female child is unlike that of a male child. This may be reflected in some of the recent medical studies that indicate that the mother’s postpartum experience after the birth of a male child is different from the experience after the birth of a female child. Perhaps there are hormonal differences as well, after the birth of children of different genders.

One of my students once suggested that women are often depicted in rabbinic literature as having a naturally higher state of spirituality, thus having a higher level of sanctification. The period of impurity is therefore greater after the birth of one who will possess a greater natural sanctification. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has proposed in his Jerusalem Post column that “everything is doubled for the birth of a girl because the process of life and death will be repeated physiologically in the child’s own lifetime and within her own body.” Another of my students once suggested something that I believe has great validity, that a mother has greater responsibility to nurture a female child because she will serve as the daughter’s “role model.” Since the effort invested in the child’s nurturing will be greater, the days of impurity and purity are also greater.

Whatever the reason for the double days of impurity and purity, we see that there are more than few cogent theories that address this issue. While not all the answers will be satisfying to everyone, they do underscore that the Torah is quite aware of the inherent differences between males and females, differences that are coming more and more to light as we learn more about the divergent psychology and physiology of males and females.

I, personally, would not be surprised if scientific studies soon confirm what the Torah suggests about the significant differences in a mother’s disposition following the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child.

May you be blessed.