What's Impure About Giving Birth?!
The Bible's Strange Laws Of Impurity After Childbirth
This parsha is chock-full of obscure laws about ritual impurity and purity (tumah and tahara in Hebrew). And as if ancient purity laws aren't confusing enough, the opening laws in this parsha are particularly confusing – and even kind of disturbing. They're about a mother's state of tumah caused by giving birth. What's impure about birth? Why would it cause tumah?
In this video, Ami explores this difficult set of laws, and discovers a surprising story hiding within the text. Seeing these laws in light of that story will help us understand what they're about, and what they still mean for us today. Come take a look!
Hi, I’m Ami Silver, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Tazria.
This parsha opens with laws related to childbirth. And something about these laws always bothered me. Because they’re not about how to shower a mother and newborn with support and love; or how to celebrate the birth of a new child. They’re about tumah. Ritual impurity.
Why Does the Bible Define Childbirth as Impure?That’s right; according to Biblical law, giving birth automatically puts a woman in a state of tumah. But why would giving birth render a woman impure? And what makes this all the more confusing, is that one common explanation of tumah is that it’s caused by coming into contact with death. The Rabbis refer to a human corpse as avi avot hatumah – the ultimate tameh object. And it follows that all other forms of tumah somehow derive from this, and also involve an encounter with death of one kind or another. But giving birth to a child is as far away from death as you can get. It’s literally creating new life! So why would it cause a mother to be in a state of tumah?
And, when we read through the verses that talk about the mother’s tumah, the questions only snowball. Come take a look and see what I mean.
The Bible's Laws of Purification After ChildbirthThe laws begin: אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר – if a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy – וטמאה שבעת ימים – she is temeah for seven days – כימי נדת דותה תטמא – similar to when she’s in niddah, which is commonly understood as menstruation. וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו – and on the eighth day, the boy is circumcised – ושלשים יום ושלשת ימים תשב בדמי טהרה – then, for the next thirty three days, the woman may continue to bleed as she recovers from giving birth, but that blood no longer causes her tumah. It is tahor, pure blood. ואם נקבה תלד – and if she gives birth to a girl – וטמאה שבעים כנדתה – the mother is temeah for two weeks, similar to when she’s in niddah – וששים יום וששת ימים תשב על דמי טהרה – and after those two weeks are up, she enters a period of tahara, of purity.
Okay, there’s a lot packed into these verses, and a lot of strange things here – starting with the very first words – a woman conceived and gave birth. Is this really necessary? Isn’t it obvious that the woman conceived before she gave birth? Would anything have been lost if it just said “if a woman gives birth”?
Next, we hear that if the woman has a boy, she’s temeah for seven days, and on the eighth day, her son gets circumcised. Again, this seems unnecessary, and off topic. These laws are about the mother’s tumah and tahara after giving birth, not circumcision! Why mention that here? But strangely enough, it seems like according to these verses, circumcision actually does relate to the mother’s tumah and tahara. Because right after the brit milah, the mother suddenly enters a period of tahara! A time when she’s still bleeding but no longer temeah! It almost seems like the circumcision on the eighth day is somehow the point of transition between tumah and tahara. And, what’s even weirder is, when a mother give birth to a girl, she’s temeah for two weeks, and then she enters yemei tahara. So, let me get this straight… for both a boy and a girl, something causes a change in the mother’s status, from tumah to tahara – for a boy, it’s the circumcision on day eight, and for a girl, it’s...an extra week of tumah? How are we supposed to understand any of this?
So it’s hard to get a grasp on these laws. The mother’s tumah after birth… her strange process of tahara. How can we make sense of all this? I think we might find some clues in the text itself. Because actually, there are words and concepts here that seem to carry echoes of an earlier, familiar story. And I think that understanding that story, and what it’s doing here in the laws of tumah and tahara, will hold the key to understanding the deeper purpose behind these laws. I even think we’ll discover that these laws are much more meaningful, and relevant than they appear.
Connections to Levitical Purity Laws for ChildbirthTo begin, let’s look at how the mother’s tumah is described here. It’s compared... to niddah, which generally refers to menstruation. And that’s really weird, because the mother’s obviously not menstruating, she’s bleeding because she just gave birth! But, let’s step back, and ask ourselves, what does the word niddah actually mean? Hint – not menstruation.
Many commentators explain that the root of the word niddah has to do with removal or displacement. A menstruating woman is said to be in niddah, because she is separated from her husband. They don’t have sexual relations, and in the ancient world women would oftentimes move into a separate tent during their period. So when the Torah says that a woman who just gave birth is in a state similar to niddah, it doesn’t mean she’s menstruating. It means that she’s separated, or displaced.
So let’s think about this for a second. Can you think of an earlier story, where there’s a birth, followed by an experience of niddah, of displacement? Think back, wayyy back, to the earliest birth story in the Torah. It’s a story we all know, the story of Cain.
Chapter 4 of the book of Genesis opens with Cain’s birth, and just a few verses later, Cain kills his brother Hevel. As a result, God tells him: נע ונד תהיה בארץ – you will constantly be on the move, you’ll live a life of wandering and displacement. That word – נד – shares a root with the word נדה.
Birth, and then displacement, niddah. Could it be that the laws of a mother’s tumah and tahara are somehow mirroring the events of the very first birth, the very first niddah like experience? Now, this may seem like a stretch. But the thing is, the connections don’t stop there. There’s more in common between the story of Cain and the laws of a mother who’s given birth.
For example, how long does the mother’s niddah-like state last? שבעת ימים – seven days. And how long was Cain na va’nad? Well, after giving Cain this punishment, God added: כל הרג קין שבעתים יקם. That’s a somewhat cryptic statement, but based on the verses that follow, the Rabbis explain that God was adding a term for Cain’s wandering, promising Cain that he’d wander for שִׁבְעָתַיִם, seven generations, and at that time – יֻקָּם – Cain will be murdered in venegeance for killing Hevel.
So here we have have two stories about the birth of a boy, followed by an experience of niddah or nad, that lasts for a period of time counted in sevens. But there’s even more. If we move back a bit in both of these texts, we actually find one more important similarity between them. [Okay, side note. We actually find a bunch more awesome connections, but you’ll need to watch the epilogue to hear about the rest of them.]
What the Bible Says About ChildbirthLet’s go back to those opening words in Tazria, אשה כי תזריע וילדה. A woman conceives and gives birth. We asked why the Torah uses the word tazria, to conceive. It seems unnecessary. But you know what? While תזריע does mean to conceive here, the literal meaning is to plant a seed, a zera. A more accurate reading of this phrase would be, “if a woman cultivates a seed... and gives birth.”
And now, let’s go a few verses back in Genesis. Right before the story of Cain’s birth, we’ve got the Tree of Knowledge story, and specifically, the consequences of eating from the Tree. If you remember, those consequences included punishments for both Adam and Eve. First, God told Eve – הרבה ארבה עצבונך והרנך – I will greatly increase your sorrow in pregnancy – בעצב תלדי בנים – you will give birth to children in sadness and pain. Then God told Adam – ארורה האדמה בעבורך – the earth will be cursed because of you – בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך – you will forever eat in sadness – וקוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך – and the earth will sprout thorns and thistles for you. These curses of Adam and Eve have to do with planting and giving birth. The same exact elements we find in the opening words of Tazria.
This is wild. Planting and birthing, followed by wandering, niddah; for a period of seven days, seven generations… Is it possible that these earlier stories in Genesis are serving as a kind of template for the laws of a mother’s tumah in Tazria? That the first birth story, is a kind of model for all subsequent births?
If this is the case, it seems that in order to understand the strange laws of a new mother, we need to look to that earlier story for answers. The curses, Eve giving birth, the story of Cain. What were those about? And what can they teach us about a mother who has just given birth?
Connecting Stories of Childbirth in the BibleLet’s start with Eve’s curse. God told her – you’ll give birth in sadness. And lo and behold, Eve indeed does give birth, and it results in pain and devastation. One of her children kills the other, and after a life of wandering he ends up being killed as well. Eve’s birth... led to pain, and death. In a sense, the story of Cain and Hevel is a prime example of how those curses played out.
And now what about a mother – any mother – who gives birth to a child? Does she experience something similar? Now, I’ve never given birth myself, and I’m fully aware that each and every birth experience is unique. But I think that on the whole, we can identify some traces of Eve’s experience in childbirth.
Giving birth can be both the most glorious, Godly experience; and at the same time, one of the most painful and harrowing ones. For a number of hours, the lives of the mother and child are hanging in the balance; fear, pain and uncertainty are there side by side with the power and promise of new life. It is a raw and primal encounter with mortality. As the mother is bringing life into the world, she is simultaneously staring death in the face.
And maybe this can finally help us understand why birth causes tumah. It’s not because there’s something fundamentally impure about birth. It’s because starting with Eve, and continuing with every birth that comes after, the process of creating life is accompanied by an acute encounter with death.
And it doesn’t fully end once the child is born. Even in the best of cases, when the mother is holding a healthy baby in her arms, the sense of fear still lingers. If the newborn baby shows a spike in temperature, everyone goes into a panic. If it’s not gaining weight, it causes extreme anxiety. Is my child gonna survive? Will it make it through its first day? Its first week? The preciousness of life is felt together with the fragility of life.
Maybe this is why the Torah uses the word niddah to describe these early days after birth. Because remember what niddah means? It’s about displacement, and instability. It carries an echo of Eve’s experience after the birth of her children. One child’s life ended too soon. And the other was forever na ve’nad, he was unsettled and never found stability. In this sense, niddah is fitting word to describe a mother’s state as she faces the uncertainties about her baby’s viability.
So more and more, we’re seeing how those early Genesis stories set the paradigm for the new mother’s tumah in Tazria. But there’s another side to this. Because the mother does become tehora. It happens after a boy’s brit milah on day eight, or or after waiting a second week for a girl. How does this process of tahara fit into this paradigm?
Why Does the Bible Define Impurity Differently for Boys and Girls?Let’s start with the brit. What is a brit milah about? Well, take a look at how God first introduces the brit milah to Abraham: ואתנה בריתי ביני ובינך – God says, I will place my covenant between Me and you – וארבה אותך במאד מאד – and I will increase you greatly. A core part of the brit, is God’s promise that Abraham will have children and a great lineage. And look at the word God uses: ארבה אותך. It’s the same word God used in Eve’s curse – הרבה ארבה עצבונך – only here, the meaning is inversed. Eve experienced great pain and sorrow through the birth of her children, and their lives were cut down. But God promises to make Abraham great through his children. He will have continuity. Life will produce more life, and his children will become a great nation.
It makes sense then, that the brit involves a mark on the baby boy’s reproductive organ. It connects the baby to that promise God made to Abraham, and highlights the baby’s own future potential to reproduce, and continue this legacy.
In this sense, this brit offers a powerful response to the fears that linger after birth. Yes, this baby is small and fragile right now, but not only is he viable, his body also contains an inherent potential to one day produce even more life. When the mother encounters her baby’s life-giving potential, it reinforces the message that this birth, this life, will lead to more life, and she transitions into a state of tahara.
And in the case of girl, perhaps by adding a second week to the mother’s tumah, a similar goal is achieved. Because if we think about how this girl’s life-giving potential will develop, it will begin when she starts to menstruate. When, years down the line, she will experience her own week of niddah. In a sense, these extra days may be a time for the mother to recognize her daughter’s potential to one day conceive and bear children. Like the brit milah for a boy, these additional seven days mark the mother’s transition point from tumah to tahara, from the death associated with birth, to a fuller encounter with life.
Defining the Bible's Meaning of Childbirth ImpuritySince the time of Eve, bringing life into the world is filled with conflicting realities – hope and anxiety, joy and pain, life and loss. These ancient rituals of tumah and tahara may actually be offering a framework for a mother to process this complex experience. In the first stage after birth, she’s in tumah. She’s given time to deal with the acute awareness of death and the fragile nature of life that she’s encountering. Then something shifts, when she’s given an opportunity to experience her child’s own potential to create life. It offers a degree of stability and confidence in the process of raising her new child, and she transitions into tahara.
Now, that’s not to say that parental fears disappear after day 7 or day 14. Parents will inevitably still check on their sleeping babies just to make sure they’re breathing; and they’ll still tell their kids, "call me when you get there,” well into adulthood. These concerns are part of parenthood.
But in those first delicate stages of life, the brit milah, and the second week of tumah, serve as a reminder, that despite the very legitimate fears that the mother may be facing, there is an equally powerful promise of hope. This child has the potential to continue the promise of life. And when this happens, the very same blood that was once tameh is now tahor. It reframes the experience of giving birth, and allows the mother to more fully embrace the life giving process that she is participating in.
Thanks for watching. I hope you enjoyed this video. There was even more here that we didn’t get to address. If you’re interested in hearing some mind-blowing connections between tumah and tahara and the story of Eden, check out the epilogue to this video. And please share with your friends!