Tazria 5784

Body and Soul

Parasha Tazria covers a broad swath of material related to issues of ritual purity and impurity. This week, we begin with the regulation concerning a woman who has given birth, whose state of ritual impurity is twice as long when she births a female instead of a male.  The remainder and bulk of the parasha describes a variety of disturbances erroneously considered together as “leprosy”- tzara’at in Hebrew. Tzara’at can affect not only skin but also contaminated fabrics and leather as well as plastered or mud-covered building stones. Whatever the ailment, all these passages demonstrate the Torah’s perspective that the physical and spiritual realms are one and interwoven.  

This physical/spiritual interface forms the rationale for the opening of the parasha concerning a woman’s ritual impurity in childbirth. “When a woman bears a male, she shall be ritually impure for seven days…she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete. If she bears a female she shall be ritually impure for two weeks… and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 66 days.” Why should a woman be in a state of ritual impurity after giving birth, a natural act? Why should this impure state last twice as long for giving birth to a female?  These verses are challenging and the traditional responses of the rabbis, connecting the sin of Eve with the mother’s impurity, not satisfying or meaningful in our times. 

Another perspective may provide insight and meaning.  According to rabbinic tradition, it takes 40 days for a foetus to form before it becomes a viable being. Rabbi Michael Graetz has written that this status of being a viable being requires the union of the physical body with the soul. He notes the kabbalistic tradition, apparently based on the Zohar, that 33 days are required for the soul to properly settle on the body. Seven is the standard number for the completion of a physical cycle. The two together give the 40 days in which the newborn develops as a physical/spiritual being, parallel to its first 40 foetal days making it a viable being according to Jewish tradition. 

Ideally, the newborn spends those first 40 days of its life with its mother whose nurturing helps with the spiritual development of her baby. According to tradition, her “ritual impurity” means she is outside the noisy camp, in a protective, supportive and nurturing place of women’s gathering. 

The doubling of the period for the female reinforces the nurturing role of the female.  By spending twice as long in this place of seclusion when she gives birth to a female indicates that this child too has the potential to bring life into the world, to nurture it with feminine energy.  One period of 40 days is for the mother of the baby; the other period is because this new baby girl carries within her the potential for being a mother, and the potential to create and nurture life. This contemporary interpretation combines insight from tradition, maintains the vital religious understanding that the spiritual infuses the material realm, and honours the feminine. It reminds us that just as our physical form continues to develop over our years, so too our soul – from birth, through adolescence and the period of bar/bat mitzvah and as we age and pass further milestones. Those milestones, from birth to beyond, help us cultivate our spiritual side as we age and grow.  

Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins OAM

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