“Challenging the Stereotypes: Purity and Impurity in Childbirth”
(edited and revised from Parashiot Tazria-Metzorah 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


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

The Torah informs us, in Leviticus 12:2, that G-d spoke to Moses saying: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֺתָהּ תִּטְמָא . 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, (even if she has a discharge of blood), 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 clarify why there is a difference in the mother’s status after bearing a male child, as opposed to a female child.

Some 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 best understand this most perplexing issue.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch maintains that women lose their spirituality during childbirth, since because of the intense pain of childbirth, mothers often pray that she or her child should die, and be put out of misery. Since of course, death is the greatest contaminator, the mother experiences a period of impurity, followed by a recovery period of purity.

A later German commentator, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman , claims almost the opposite, arguing that the entire ritual of birth is a reaffirmation of life, since birth ensures continuity and prosperity.

Ramban, 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,” suggesting that there are perhaps hormonal differences in a mother after the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child.

Some would argue that women are naturally more spiritual than men, resulting in a higher sense of spirituality when bearing a female child. Hence, a longer period of impurity and purity.

Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanotopsky, in his book A Night of Watching suggests that the ritual purity and impurity is related to a woman’s need to establish relationships with herself (that is her body), with her newborn child and with her husband. The period of impurity assures that after childbirth there is to be no sexual relationship between husband and wife, allowing the mother to come to terms with the trauma she has experienced, and allowing her to bond exclusively 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 newly born 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.

Although I personally do not find any of the explanations fully satisfying, we do see, whatever the answer, great wisdom and insight on the part of the Torah, reflecting a depth of understanding of the essence of human relationships that is rather extraordinary.