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A Woman at Childbirth and Circumcision
Dr. Yirmiyahu Malhi
Dept. of Talmud
The readings of Tazria and Metzora concern laws of impurity that affect a man or woman as a result of physiological functions such as discharge, various infections, childbirth, and menstruation. Perhaps our sense of esthetics makes us feel uncomfortable discussing such topics and their significance; in the Midrash the Rabbis lend expression to this same sentiment, yet they nevertheless encourage us to study these matters and to derive from them the lessons which the Torah sought to teach us.
In Leviticus Rabbah (19.3) they said: "'His locks are curled and black as a raven' (Song of Songs 5:11). Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac understood this as instructing us to read these sections of the Torah. Even though such passages as the laws of discharge, infections, menstruation and childbirth may appear sordid and black for discussing in public, the Holy One, blessed be He, said they are pleasing to Him, as it is said, 'Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord' (Mal. 3:4)." The gist of this derasha rests in the play on words shehorot ka-orev, 'black as a raven' and the word ve-areva, 'shall be pleasing to the Lord'.
In the light of this Midrash, we too shall discuss these matters. Parashat Tazria begins with the laws concerning a woman after childbirth: "When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days... --On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.--She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing" (Lev. 12:2-4). The verse, "On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised," is marked in the JPS translation as a parenthetical remark: it indeed appears to be out of place, for the verse before it and those after it all concern the unclean state of the woman and the process of her purification. Why then is the commandment to circumcise a son placed smack in the middle of the laws concerning the woman at childbirth?
Several answers to this perplexing question have been suggested:
An explanation which does not stray too far from the plain sense of the text can be found in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Targum Yerushalmi), who renders verse 4 thus: "And on the eighth day she shall be permitted to her husband and as for the son, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." That is to say, the eighth day, which is the day of circumcision, also marks the first day of the mother's 'clean' period, for as we know the thirty-three days that follow the seven unclean days in the case of the birth of a son [the seven days, as verse 12:2 makes clear, are equivalent to the seven days of ritual uncleanness in the menstrual period] are days of ritual "cleanness" during which marital relations are permitted. (So too the sixty-six days following fourteen unclean days after the birth of a daughter.) The Torah, according to the Targum, seeks to draw a connection between the mother's ritual purity and the commandment of circumcision, essentially saying as follows: On the eighth day, when the days of purity of the mother commence, on that very day the son shall be circumcised.
This was apparently how the Tanna R. Simeon bar Yohai understood the order of the verses, as we are told in the Talmud (Niddah 31b): "Disciples asked R. Simeon bar Yohai: Why does the Torah command circumcision on the eighth day? He said to them: so that not everyone be rejoicing while the mother and father are sad." Rashi explains that until seven days have elapsed, she is forbidden relations with her husband, but from the eighth day onward she is permitted. Hence the reason for circumcision on the eighth day is that this is the first day of the mother can resume relations with her husband.
A different approach, based on the symbolism of seven and eight, is taken by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. What is the connection between the mother's unclean state and the commandment of circumcision? The seven days of the mother's impurity as a result of birth symbolize the coercive force of the laws of nature ['seven' being the natural week], over which a person has no control and in which a person has no liberty or free choice. The commandment of circumcision, in contrast, is an expression of moral liberty and free choice. A person can rise above his natural being ['eight' symbolizing one above the natural] and by way of the commandment of circumcision can reach a higher state, supernatural as it were, thereby endowing himself with the sanctity of the Jewish people. Birth and its concomitant impurity thus relates to the commandment of circumcision as follows: the natural state of the mother, impure after childbirth, and of the son, as yet uncircumcised, are both "upgraded" and improved by circumcision on the eighth day.
Indeed, the Sages viewed the commandment of circumcision as bringing about perfection and improvement. Circumcision symbolized the obligation and ability of human beings to improve themselves and the world they live in. The following selection from Midrash Tanhuma on this week's reading (Parashat Tazria, § 5) makes that point:
Once the evil Tinneius Rufus asked R. Akiva, "Whose deeds are finer? Those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of flesh and blood?" He answered, "Of flesh and blood are finer." Tinneius Rufus said, "But can a human being make Heaven and Earth and the like?" R. Akiva responded, "Do not give me an illustration of something that is higher than the creatures and over which we have no control, but give an example of something that pertains to human beings." He said, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" R. Akiva answered, "I knew you would ask me about this particular thing, therefore I prefaced my words by telling you that the deeds of flesh and blood are finer than those of the Holy One, blessed be He." Tinneius Rufus said to him, "If He wished males to be circumcised, why do they not come from the womb that way?" R. Akiva responded, "As for your argument, why males are not born circumcised, the answer is that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave commandments to the Jews for no other reason than to refine them by means of their observance."
There is yet another way of looking at the connection between the laws concerning a woman after childbirth and the commandment of circumcision: the educational message. This is the approach taken by R. Phinehas Wolf in Diyyukim (Diyyukim on Leviticus, Parashat Tazria, pp. 248-249). He finds the message in another Midrash on this week's reading (Leviticus Rabbah 14.7):
"'When a woman at childbirth' (12:2)-- as it is written, 'Distribute portions to seven or even to eight' (Eccles. 11:2). 'Distribute portions to seven' refers to the seven days of menstrual impurity; 'and even to eight' refers to the eight days to circumcision. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: If you observe the laws of menstrual impurity, I shall give you a son, and you shall circumcise him on the eighth day."
In Rabbi Wolf's opinion, these words of the Sages convey more
than a simple connection of reward from G-d for observing the
laws of purity; they reflect a deeper intrinsic connection. Education
does not begin with the birth of a child, but even earlier. A
youngster can be taught values whose acquisition is based on traits
which are part of his being from the moment of his birth; these
traits are imparted to him by his mother. A Jewish mother who
conducts her life in sanctity and observes the laws of family
purity instills in her children these traits so that his education
will succeed from birth on. Thus, the texts in Scriptures are
related in the following way: "A woman at childbirth,..."
who "shall be unclean seven days" (Lev.12:2), that is,
who observes the seven days of impurity, is the very person whose
children, following her model, will be sanctified with the sanctity
of the Jewish people: "On the eighth day the flesh of his
foreskin shall be circumcised" (Ibid. 3)
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