Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tazria 5765/ April 9, 2005


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“When A Woman at Childbirth” … Ethiopian Customs *


 Yossie Ziv


Department of Talmud



This week’s reading begins with the laws concerning purification of a woman after childbirth.   The Ethiopian Jews have unique customs relating to impurity and purification, particularly with regard to the impurity of a woman after childbirth.  Below we shall briefly describe their customs. [1]

When labor commences the woman leaves her home and goes to the margam gudo (the house for impure women), [2] escorted by female relatives and neighbors to assist her at the birth.   In this hut, which is outside the village, she gives birth to her baby and remains until the end of the seventh day after the birth.  The margam gudo is a hut used jointly by women in menstruation and childbirth. 

The Water People

After the seventh day following the birth of a male, or the fourteenth day following the birth of a female, the mother moves to the aras gudo (the house for women after childbirth). [3]   In this hut, which is also outside the village, the circumcision ceremony takes place, [4] and there the woman stays until forty days after the birth of a male or eighty days after the birth of a female.  From dawn on the fortieth day following the birth of a male or the eightieth day following the birth of a female, the woman fasts [5] and goes down to the river, escorted by her female friends.   She spends the entire day by the river, washing her clothing and ritually immersing them, cutting and arranging her hair, trimming her fingernails, and washing in the river many hours, during which she frequently immerses herself.  The description of the Ethiopian Jews by their gentile neighbors as “the people with the smell of water,” [6] did not spring from nowhere, for it was their practice to immerse numerous times after any event associated with impurity (death, menstruation, parturition, ejaculation, contact with creeping creatures, carcasses, and any contact with a gentile or a gentiles dishes or food).  The newborn, too, is ritually immersed in the river the day the mother is purified. [7]  

As evening falls the woman after childbirth comes out of the water, dresses in her clothing that has been laundered and purified, and returns to her home in the village.   Near her house or the Masgid (House of Prayer) all the villagers await her at tables laden with every delight.  The Keis showers her and the infant with blessings and the woman brings the sacrificial offering of women after childbirth, and at this ceremony the infant is named.  The sacrifice is adjusted according to the economic ability of the family:   wealthy families bring a sheep; the middle-class, a bird; and the poor, baked bread.   When the economic condition of the Jews of Ethiopia deteriorated greatly, they made do with reciting prayers and reading from the book of ardaat. [8]

Blood of Purification

The main difference between the Ethiopian practice and the laws concerning a woman in childbirth lies in their different interpretation of the verses in this week’s reading, especially revolving around a long-standing difference of opinion regarding one small mapik sign (a dot in the letter heh, which indicates the feminine possessive).   Let us take a look at the relevant verses (Lev. 12:1-8):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  (2) Speak to the Israelite people thus:  When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. – (3) On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. –(4)  She shall remain in a state of blood purification (Heb. bi- demei toharah) for thirty-three days:  she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification (Heb. yemei toharah) is completed.  (5) If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.

(6) On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.  (7) He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood.  Such are the rituals concerning she who bears a child, male or female. (8) If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.   The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

The practices of the Ethiopian Jews reveal their close bond with Scripture and the absence of interpretation coming from the Oral Law.  A woman who bears a male is unclean for seven days as during menstruation (v. 2), and a woman who bears a female is unclean for two weeks as during menstruation (v. 5).  Indeed, their custom is that a woman goes to the house of the menstruating women for either one or two weeks.  The sacrifice is adjusted according to what the family of the woman who gave birth can afford (v.6-8). 

The dot in the heh

The main difference between their practices and the interpretation of the Sages stems from the meaning of the word ‘purification’ – toharah.   This word appears twice in verse 4.   The Sages held that the first occurrence of the word is without a mapik , and therefore the word toharah describes the previous word “blood” (“the blood of purification”, or “blood of cleanliness”). According to this reading, “She shall remain in a state of pure blood” means that the blood which a woman after childbirth sees from the seventh to the fortieth day after the birth of a male, and from the fourteenth to eightieth day after the birth of a female, is “pure” blood which does not prohibit her to her husband for marital relations. Rather, she is forbidden only from touching any consecrated thing or entering the sanctuary, as the continuation of the verse spells out.  Thus the Sages held that a woman who has born a male is unclean for seven days, as during her menstrual period; for the next thirty-three days, even if she sees blood, she is not forbidden to her husband, but only forbidden to eat consecrated offerings or to enter the Sanctuary.   A woman who has born a female is forbidden to her husband for two weeks, and forbidden to touch any consecrated thing for the next sixty-six days.  However, the second time toharah appears in the verse there is a mapik in the heh, so that the phrase means “she shall remain in the state of her purification regarding blood”: according to the Rabbis, until the period of her purification is concluded, she is ritually unclean for the Temple on account of her blood, after which time she may also enter the Sanctuary. [9]

Some ancient sources disagreed with the Sages’ interpretation of the vocalization of the word toharah in its first occurrence in the verse, [10] and added a mapik to the word.   In other words, they interpreted the purification as applying not to the blood, but to the woman, who became purified forty days after the birth of a male, and eighty after a female (as we explained the second verse above according to the Rabbis).   In other words, only after sitting out the entire period of blood is the woman pure.  According to this approach, there is no such concept as demei tohar, “pure blood.”  The woman who gave birth is unclean seven days as in menstruation and another thirty-three days as a woman after childbirth, and only attains purification both for marital relations and for the Temple upon the conclusion of forty days after the birth of a male and eighty days after a female, even though her show of blood may have finished earlier. [11]

The latter more strict approach does not distinguish between the blood of menstruation and the blood of a woman after childbirth, and makes the woman forbidden to her husband for as long as eighty days after the birth of a female, even when her show of blood finished earlier. [12]

The Ethiopian Jews, who in any event tended to be extremely strict in matters of uncleanness and purification, and viewed their places of residence as sacred, [13] followed the stricter interpretation and forbade a woman after childbirth to return to her home until the entire period of purification was concluded. [14]

It is interesting that this ancient controversy has continued among those who rule on the Halakhah to our day.  It turns out that many communities followed the stricter interpretation, perhaps out of ignorance, and proclaimed the woman unclean for her husband and forbade her to enter the synagogue until the conclusion of forty/eighty days.  Let us examine several sources pertaining to this controversy.

Rabbinic Sources

Maimonides ( Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 11.15) strenuously objected to this strict interpretation:

In a few places and in the responsa of a few geonim one finds that after bearing a male the woman is forbidden intercourse until the end of the forty days, and after bearing a female, eighty days, even though she had no show of blood beyond the seven days.  This is not a valid practice; rather, it is a mistaken view in those responsa and a heretic practice in those places – something learned from the Sadducees.  It is a commandment to enforce [the correct view] in order to remove [this mistake] from their hearts and return them to the words of the Sages, that she count seven cleans days and no more, as we have explained.

In contrast, Ribash [15] was sympathetic towards those who take the harder line regarding the uncleanness of a woman after childbirth and forbade doing away with this strict interpretation (Resp. Ha-Ribash 40):

Regarding the practice of taking the strict line in counting the days of purification for a woman after childbirth, even if she does not see [any blood] on those days, I say that if this practice is observed as an added precaution or for abstinence, or for reasons of cleanliness, for reason of blood being found in her on those days, then they should be left to follow their practice and she should not be made permissible for them.  But if they follow this practice mistakenly, because they believe that the law forbids it, they should be told that they are mistaken and that this practice came to them from the Sadducees.

To this day halakhic experts disagree over this strict interpretation.  Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef [16] strenuously objects to the practice and views it as a stricture that leads to violation of the law, since its practical implication is that the woman is forbidden to her husband for close to three months.   On the other side, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu instructs those who follow this custom to continue in their practice (Darkhei Toharah, ch. 11, p. 114):  “In some places it is the custom not to go to the mikveh throughout the period of purification, ... and whoever wishes to be strict in this regard, and his intentions are for the sake of Heaven, may rely on a minority of the later rabbinic authorities (aharonim) who wrote that this practice is to be maintained.”

Thus we see that the practice of the Ethiopian Jews helps us understand an ancient controversy that existed among the Jews from the Second Temple period to the present day.


* I wish to thank my friend and neighbor, Rabbi Avigdor Shiloh, for the many important incites that he gave me for this article.

[1] The Ethiopian Jews do not have books on their Halakhah, and the only way one can be acquainted  with their religious practices prior to their immigration to Israel is by means of conversations and interviews with the religious leaders of the community.

[2] The literal translation of the word margam is curse, although margam gudo is the term used to refer to a place of impurity.

[3] In some of the villages, apparently the smaller ones, there was no special hut for women after childbirth, and so they would remain with the women who were menstruating until the end of their period of impurity.

[4] For further reading on the Ethiopians practices of circumcision see Yossi Ziv, Bar-Ilan Web Parasha Page (Hebrew edition) Lekh Lekha 2004.

[5] The Ethiopian Jews always fast on the day that they do ritual immersion.

[6] Reuven Kashani, Ha-FalashimKorot, Masorot u- Minhagim, Jerusalem 1976, p. 18.

[7] The ritual immersion of the women would be considered of no consequence without ritual immersion of the newborn, since the newborn would make his mother impure when he nursed.   Hence, immersion of the infant along with the mother is for the purposes of purification and is not a Christian custom, as many mistakenly believe.

[8] The book of prayers and benedictions used by the Ethiopian Jews, especially for recitation and prayer at rites of birth and purification.  The same book can also be found in the Ethiopian Church and apparently came to the Jewish community from there.  The book, with an introduction, notes and Hebrew translation, was published by Mordechai Wormbrand   in 1964.

[9] Targum Onkelos, the Jerusalem Talmud and the Peshitta all take care to translate the “purification” at the beginning of the verse as pertaining to the blood and at the end of the verse as pertaining to the woman.   For a summary of the laws concerning a woman after childbirth according to the Sages, see Maimonides, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 4.5; 11.5-7.

[10] The following translations:  Septuagint, Vulgate, Samaritan, and the translation of the Torah to  Ge’ez, an Ethiopian language.

[11] This approach was also taken by the Karaites (Sefer ha-Mitzvot le-Anan ha-Nasi, Harkabi edition, p. 51) and the Samaritans. We do not have an extant book of Samaritan Halakhah.   I learned of the Samaritan practices from Benjamim Tzedaka, and the same was written by Aaron Ze’ev Eshkoli, Sefer ha-Falashim, Jerusalem 1973, pp. 44-45, without any source cited).

[12] The pronouncement by Rabbi Ze’ira (Babylonian Talmud, Nidah 66a), “The women of Israel were very strict with themselves, and even if they saw a drop of blood as large as a mustard [seed], they would wait for seven clean days after that,” somewhat reduced the difference of opinion, since he drew no distinction between the blood of menstruation and the blood of a woman after childbirth, and a woman was forbidden to her husband whenever any show of blood occurred.  Nevertheless, the disagreement remained regarding the period from the end of any show of blood after childbirth until the completion of forty/eighty days.

[13] From the fact that they used to remove all the impure persons from the village and offer sacrifices at every masgid, I conclude that they viewed their village as a sanctuary-city and themselves as ministering in the sacred worship.  A similar pattern of behavior was found among the Qumran sect, cf. Megillat ha-Mikdash, p. 45, l. 17, Yadin edition, vol. 2, p. 136.

[14] Rabbi Shiloh informed me that according to the practices of the Ethiopian Jews there is no distinction between the first seven days and the subsequent thirty-three days after the birth of a male, the first fourteen days and subsequent sixty-six days after the birth of a female; whereas the Bible distinguishes explicitly between menstrual impurity of a woman after childbirth and the impurity of a woman after childbirth.  In several instances, when I attempted to ask Keisses  about the contradiction between their practices and the plain sense of Scripture, I did not receive a satisfactory response.  They simply answered, “This is what is done, and that is that.”  It would be well to make a separate investigation into the relationship between their practices and the plain sense of Scripture in order to examine in greater depth whether they developed their customs on the basis of the plain sense of Scripture or whether they preserved various oral traditions even when these did not match Scriptural verses.  I am inclined towards the latter hypothesis.

[15] Rabbi Isaac son of Rav Sheshet, Spain-Algiers, late fourteenth century.

[16] Toharat ha-Bayit, vol. 2, pp. 27-46, in great detail, especially page 28 and page 33, sect. 5.