“When the plague of tzara-at is in a man, he shall be brought to the priest” (Leviticus 12:9).
Parashat Tazria declares a woman who gives birth to be t’mei-a, ritually impure. She may not touch anything sacred nor enter the mikdash, or sanctuary. After completing a waiting period (forty days for a baby boy, eighty days for a baby girl), she must bring both a burnt offering and a sin offering. Only then does she regain her state of tahara, ritual purity (Lev. 12:1-7). These requirements are puzzling. Why does she become t’mei-a? And why is the waiting period doubled for the birth of a girl?
Childbirth in ancient times creates anxiety because the potential for death accompanies the potential for life for both the mother and newborn. That’s why Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926; prominent eastern European rabbi) claims the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28) applies only to men: the Torah doesn’t want to command women to put their lives in danger. Isolating the mother by proclaiming her t’mei-a becomes a way to protect her when she is most vulnerable (no moral judgement is applied). Rabbi Shai Held (1971- ; scholar, theologian and President of Machon Hadar) explains giving birth to a daughter means giving life to someone who, in the future, also may have to navigate the fraught boundary between life and death. Hence the doubling of the period of ritual impurity when a girl is born.
Advances in medical knowledge have made childbirth safer than ever, yet lack of access to quality medical care keeps childbirth risky for many women and their children. Tazria’s ritual may be outdated, but its appreciation of risk is a timely call to action.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom