“If a Woman Has Conceived Seed”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Yishai Jeselsohn

Translated by Kaeren Fish

The Divine kindness of pregnancy and childbirth

“And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: If a woman has conceived seed, and born a male [child], then she shall be impure seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be impure. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Vayikra 12:1-2)

We usually read these verses without paying attention to the wonder and Divine kindness concealed in them. “If a woman has conceived seed…” – seemingly, this is a self-evident natural process, but what a tremendous kindness on God’s part, when the joining of husband and wife brings new life into the world.

The phenomenon of infertility is known to us from the time of the forefathers. Sara, Rivka, and Rachel all struggled with inability to conceive. Thank God, most couples are able to have a child within a year or two, but there are many instances where this is not the case, and it takes many years and huge personal, medical, financial, and psychological effort to achieve a pregnancy.

Yitzchak and Rivka lived through twenty years of suffering, weeping and prayer, as Rashi describes at the beginning of parashat Toldot: “He would stand in one corner and pray, while she would stand in the other corner and pray” (Bereishit 21:21). Rachel pleaded with Yaakov in desperation, “Give me children, or else I die!” (Bereishit 30:1). The miracle and Divine kindness of new life should not be lost on us.

In our parasha, the continuation of the verse is likewise, at first glance, nothing out of the ordinary: “and born a male child.” Childbirth is perhaps the greatest miracle in the human experience. What starts off as nothing more than a fusion of a sperm cell and an ovule develops into a human being with intellect, character traits, interests and hobbies; a person who experiences joy and sorrow.

The midrashim at the beginning of our parasha elaborate at length on the great Divine benevolence of pregnancy and birth. Aside from the actual formation and development of the embryo in the mother’s uterus, there is the further kindness of the birth process itself.

Throughout Jewish history, the attitude towards a pregnant woman – and even more so towards a woman in childbirth – has been one of extreme caution, belonging to the category of life-threatening situations. In earlier times, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth; the Torah records that Rachel died while giving birth to Binyamin. Today, with the progress of medical knowledge and technology, the danger associated with childbirth has been largely forgotten.

All in all, a process that to most of us today seems quite natural and self-evident, is in fact a series of miracles and Divine favors, for which we should give praise and thanks.

The ‘torah’ of animals and the ‘torah’ of man

Having mentioned the miracles leading up to the birth, let us now consider the greatness of man, and the commandment that presents itself following the birth – circumcision. The final verses of parashat Shemini read,

“This is the torah [teaching] of the animals, and of the birds, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth; to make a distinction between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten.” (Vayikra 11:46-47)

The ‘torah of the animals’ in fact began at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra: “This is the teaching of the burnt offering,” “the teaching of the sin offering;” “the teaching of the peace offering,” etc.

We might have thought that the series of different ‘torahs’ (teachings) pertained only to animals, but in our parasha and the next we find several additional ‘torahs’: The ‘teaching pertaining to the birthing mother,’ the ‘teaching pertaining to one in whom is the plague of tzara’at,’ the ‘teaching of the metzora on the day of his purification,’ and more, culminating with the concluding verses of chapter 14:

“This is the teaching for all manner of the plague of tzara’at, and the patch, and for the tzara’at of a garment, and of a house, and for a swelling, and for a scab, and for a bright spot; to teaching when it is impure, and when it is pure; this is the teaching of tzara’at.” (Vayikra 14:54-57)

Thus, contrary to what we might have expected, the ‘torah of man’ – pertaining to human beings, the pinnacle of creation – is placed after the ‘torah of animals.’ The Torah reminds us that man, with all his greatness, is still a physical being, a part of the natural world. And indeed, our parasha and the next deal with plagues and sores, seminal issue and menstrual bleeding, pregnancy and birth.

Rather than highlighting the difference between man and animals, these situations emphasize the shared world of natural, bodily phenomena and processes, and their source in the ‘teaching of the animals.’ But man is governed by more than just the ‘teaching of the animals’: he is unique in that the ‘torah of man,’ too, is part of his world. The powers the intellect, emotion, speech, and more distinguish man from the rest of the animal kingdom and award him his special status.

“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised”

The Torah sets down the commandment of circumcision in two different places. One is in our parasha; the other is in Sefer Bereishit:

“And God said to Avraham, You shall keep My covenant therefore – you and your seed after you in their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Bereishit 17:9-11)

The context and orientation of the command is quite different in each case. In Sefer Bereishit, God is forging a covenant with Avraham: “This is My covenant…” – the covenant of circumcision, setting Avraham and his descendants apart from other nations.

In our parasha, the command concerning circumcision follows immediately after the ‘torah of the animals,’ along with other commands relating to the physical body. A well-known midrash records an exchange between R. Akiva and Turnus Rufus:

“The wicked Turnus Rufus once asked R. Akiva, ‘Whose works are finer – those of God or those of mortals?’ He answered him, ‘Those of mortals.’ Turnus Rufus argued, ‘Behold the heavens and the earth – can man create anything like these?’ R. Akiva answered, ‘Do not speak of matters that are above man’s ability and out of his control; rather, speak of matters that are within the human grasp.’

[Turnus Rufus] then asked, ‘Why do you [Jews] practice circumcision?’ He answered, ‘I knew that that was what you were asking about, and for that reason I said at the outset that man’s works are finer than those of God.’

R. Akiva brought him sheaves of wheat and fresh-baked rolls, and said: ‘These are God’s works, and those are man’s. Are those not better than these?

Turnus Rufus asked him, ‘If God wants circumcision, why does a newborn not emerge from the womb already circumcised?’

R. Akiva answered, ‘And why is he still attached at the navel to the umbilical cord, such that the mother needs to cut it? [With reference to] your question as to why he is not born already circumcised – it is because God gave Israel the commandments in order that they might purify themselves through their performance, as David declares (Tehillim 18), ‘God’s word is pure.’” (Midrash Tanchuma, Tazria 5:5)

The baked rolls are indeed finer – but there is no denying that they come from wheat, from nature. Likewise, the special status awarded to man distinguishes him from the animal kingdom, and the covenant forged with the Jewish People distinguishes Jews from other nations, but man nevertheless has his source in nature. One who devotes himself to the study of Torah and observance of its commandments fulfills and combines the ‘torah of animals’ and the ‘torah of man.’