Parashat Tazria: A Woman's Purity and Circumcision
Parashat Tazria opens with a command regarding a woman who has just given birth to a child:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman have conceived seed and born a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the sanctuary until the days of her purifying are fulfilled. But if she bear a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation, and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days.
And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt–offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin-offering to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest, who shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the Torah for her that has born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for the burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean. (Vayikra 12:1-8)
Two different tracks are described in this section. A woman who gives birth to a male child is impure for seven days, after which she continues “in the blood of her purifying” for thirty three days. In contrast, if she gives birth to a female child, she is impure for fourteen days, and then she continues in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days. Two questions will occupy us in this study. What is the meaning of the difference between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child? And what is the place of the command regarding circumcision (v. 3) in a section the subject of which is the mother's impurity and purification? We will read the verses and then examine the halakhic midrashim related to these laws. We will try to identify the difference between the plain sense of Scripture and the understanding of the rabbinic midrashim.
What is ritual impurity?
Let me preface my remarks with a few words about the concept of "ritual impurity." The chapters dealing with impurity in the book of Vayikra appear immediately after the dedication of the altar on the eighth day. They begin with prohibitions concerning foods that are described as being impure and continue with the impurity contracted through contact with the carcasses of certain animals (chap. 11). These laws conclude with the following words:
You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, neither shall you make yourselves unclean with them, that you should be defiled by them. For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy. Neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps on the earth. For I am the Lord that brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. This is the Torah of the beasts 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 unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten. (Vayikra 11:43-47)
With these words, Scripture sets the sanctification – "For I am holy" – and the bringing of Israel out of Egypt – "to be your God" – against the impurity that prevents a person from reaching this goal and does not allow him to enter the place to which God invites him.
The next sections deal with impurity that is not the result of contact with some external source of impurity, but rather the result of events taking place inside the person's body, his clothing, or his house. They begin with the impurity of a woman who has given birth (chap. 12), continue with the impurity of leprosy (chapters 13-14), and conclude with the impurity of a zav, one who emits semen, a nidda, and a zava (chap. 15). What is the nature of these impurities?
According to the plain sense of Scripture, the impurity of a woman who has given birth prevents the woman from entering the Sanctuary. When the days of her purification are fulfilled, she brings an offering to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and that offering puts her in the position of "before the Lord."
In the case of leprosy, already at the outset the leper is brought before Aharon or one of his sons:
When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy; then he shall be brought to Aharon the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. (Vayikra 13:2)
In the continuation, the priest is mentioned over and over again as the person before whom the leper is brought; the priest is the person who examines the plague and declares it pure or impure. What this means is that in a place where or at a time when there are no priests, there is no impurity. This fact sets leprosy in the context of a person appearing in the Sanctuary, being seen by Aharon and his sons, before whom they are brought. It should also be noted that as with a woman who gave birth, the leper also offers a sacrifice "before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting," and in his regard as well it is stated: "And the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean."
Finally there is a discussion of the impurity of a zav, one who emits semen, a nidda, and a zava, and with regard to them as well the issue is their appearance in the Sanctuary – "before the Lord":
And on the eighth day he shall take for himself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and come before the Lord to the door of the Tent of Meeting and give them to the priest. And the priest shall offer them, the one for a sin–offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord because of his issue. (15:14-15)
Regarding a woman:
And on the eighth day she shall take for herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the door of the Tent of Meeting. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin-offering and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness. (15:29-30)
And in the summation of the section we read: "Thus you shall separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness" (v. 31) – distancing Israel from these impurities in the context of God's dwelling among them. Thus far, the Torah relates to impurity as something that does not impair or restrict the existence of mundane life, but prevents a person from approaching and appearing in the Sanctuary.
What aspect of these phenomena distance a person from the holy and from the Sanctuary? It seems that we can view this as detachment from the source of life as a result of an encounter with death, or about life that loses its high standing and its elevated ethical and moral direction. As for a new mother, the impurity is connected to the process that she undergoes: "As in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean." Like a woman who experiences menstrual bleeding, which distances her and puts her in a position of sickness, the blood connected to the birthing of her child renders her impure. Her menstrual blood had ceased already before the new life was created, and the post-natal blood reflects another step – as one who has already created life. In the background lies the understanding regarding the involvement of the woman in whom the newborn was created as one who is not standing in a sterile position. The large amount of blood that was spilled is an expression of the price of the direction that she has lost in her body and in her soul.
What is the Difference between a male child and a female child?
In the following lines, we will conduct a comparison between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child. Scripture opens two verses with a description of a birth and of the impurity that accompanies it:
If a woman have conceived seed and gave birth to a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her menstrual sickness shall she be unclean. (v. 2)
But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for fourteen days, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty six days. (v. 5)
It stands to reason that there is a connection between the nature of the birth and its reflection in the ritual impurity that comes in its wake.
The accounts of the birth of a male child and of the birth of a female child are written in opposition to each other, and in fact each one tells a different story. In the account of the birth of the male child, the woman is the dominant character – starting with the fact that she is presented as the subject ("If a woman…"), continuing through the conception ("have conceived seed"), and ending with the active description of her giving birth to a male child ("and gave birth a male child"). The account of the birth of the female child is formulated in opposition to this: "But if she bears a female child" - the woman is not mentioned, there is no description of the conception, and the term "ve-im" ("but if") sets up an optional starting point. In addition, mentioning the female child before the birth: "Ve-im nekeva ("female child") teled ("she bear")," presents a birth whose connection to the woman is shaky, one that is associated with her only after the fact. What lies behind these differences?
It seems that the key to the answer lies in the words "zakhar" (male) and "nekeva" (female). The word "zakhar" is derived from the word "zikaron" (memory). It expresses presence and sustainability, and perhaps memory in the context of the continuity of generations that is named after the male. The word "nekeva" is derived from the word "nekev" (hole), a type of absence and vacuum. This gap points to a certain superiority of the male child, and thus explains why the woman contracts less impurity with his birth. In contrast, the female child embodies a certain deficiency, and thus adds to the mother's impurity and delays her return to the Temple.
This distinction has a context, and therefore also limits. The context is the words "male" and "female," which are used for the first time in the first chapter of Bereishit, in contrast to the formulation in the second chapter of that book, which uses the words "ish" (man) and "isha" (woman). There is a fundamental difference between the two sets of terms, and to understand it, we must under the contexts in those two chapters. In chapter 1, God creates the world, He is not located within it, and He stands apart from it. In chapter 2, God resides in the world, appears within it, and activates its various elements. Like God, man finds himself in two different positions in relation to the world. In chapter 1, he is created in the image and likeness of God, and as such, time and time again emphasis is placed on man's superiority in relationship to the other beings: "Be fruitful, and multiply, replenish the earth" - a kind of superiority; "and subdue it" – a clear expression of superiority; "and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" – man exercises dominion over all that lives in the sea, in the air, and on the earth. He who was created in the image of God is described as enjoying an advantage over all the other created beings; he subdues them, rules them, and exercises dominion over them. On the other hand, the man in chapter 2 is not supreme. He comes from the earth, and in this sense he is part and parcel of earthly life. At the same time, "a portion from God above" lies within him, and it may take him to different places, both deep and meaningful. This man tills and keeps the garden; he does not rule or exercise dominion. He assigns names and empowers those around him. He takes responsibility and makes it possible for things to happen.
Accordingly, in the field on which the first chapter is played out, the terms used are "male" and "female," which reflects the male's advantage. This advantage is expressed in the blessing and destiny that is directed in large measure to a male's traits: "Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth" – in the sense of proliferation and filling the world. "And subdue it" – a movement of subduing the world. "And have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" – a relationship of superiority that man enjoys with respect to all the other created beings. These are all actions suited for the world of the male, and they are mentioned in the chapter in which man is created in the image of God – similar to God, Creator of the world, high and almighty.
In contrast, in chapter 2, the terms used are "man" and "woman," and they are the tip of the iceberg of the additional conceptual system present in this chapter. In this chapter, the issue is not man's superiority over the rest of creation, but rather his movement as one who makes it possible for things to happen. It is a chapter of connections, and here the woman's lack of presence becomes an advantage. Her presence enables, and in large measure generates, the conceptual system found in this chapter.
Returning to our parasha: The context of our parasha is the book of Vayikra, which looks upon the world from God's perspective. God calls to Moshe and speaks to him from the Tent of Meeting. In this sense, the entire book radiates from the conceptual system of the first chapter of the book of Bereishit. Accordingly, the section dealing with a woman who gave birth sees in the newborn male child a measure of separation, and thus the mother's impurity lasts for seven days. In contrast, the female child is more firmly planted in the world, and in this context, the mother needs more time before she can appear once again in the Sanctuary.
From Impurity to circumcision
"And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." We already asked about the puzzling location of this law. Why is it inserted in a section the subject of which is the woman's impurity and purification? It seems that in continuation of the previous description of the process that a woman undergoes when she gives birth to a male child or a female child, another layer is added here. A woman gives birth to a male child, and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin is circumcised. He has a foreskin, it is removed, and he is called to a higher position, one of separation. This fact, which is embedded in the nature of the male, has consequences for the process experienced by his mother. She gives birth to a son whose foreskin is removed, and this fact has consequences for the length of her impurity.
It is difficult not to see a connection between the process described here of a transition from the seven days to the eighth day, and the parallel process relating to a bullock, sheep, or goat:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: When a bullock, or a sheep, or a goat, is brought forth, then it shall be seven days under its dam; and from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted for an offering made by fire to the Lord. (Vayikra 22:26-27)
Seven days is the time that the newborn animal remains under its mother; from the eighth day on, it becomes exposed to the separateness of life and it is acceptable as an offering to God.
Two questions were raised at the beginning of this study. What is the meaning of the difference between the birth of a male child and the birth of a female child? And what is the reason for commanding about circumcision (v. 3) in the middle of a section dealing with the mother's impurity and purification? Along the way we reached certain insights – the fact that purity is meant essentially to associate a person to the holy and to the Temple, and that impurity comes into the world through an encounter with death or with life that loses its high standing. Equipped with these insights, we approached the section dealing with a woman who gave birth and we put our finger on the terms "male" and "female." These terms are terms of the book of Vayikra – the book that is centered around the Temple. In this context, the birth of a male child distances the mother from the Temple only slightly, in contrast to the birth of a female child, which takes her to "the world of life" for a longer period. In this sense, circumcision serves as a kind of reflection of the fact that a male belongs to a world that is above life. Scripture draws a fascinating comparison between the circumcision of a male child on the eighth day and the birth of an animal which clings to its mother for seven days, and then from the eighth day on is accepted as an offering to God. This comparison points to a connection between circumcision and sacrifice, and it also points to a kind of detachment of the newborn from its mother that takes place after seven days – through his circumcision on the eighth day. In our context, this detachment frees the mother of the impurity resulting from her child's birth.
Beyond all this, in this study we were introduced to the existence of two conceptual systems that define the status of men and women in different ways, and the relationship between them. In this sense, a woman's deficiency in the context of impurity in the book of Vayikra may serve as an advantage elsewhere – in her added insight and in all the uniquely feminine characteristics.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 Another element of this question: What is the need for this command in light of the fact that the Torah already commanded about circumcision in the book of Bereishit (chap. 8)?
 It would seem that the structure of the first chapters of the book of Vayikra influenced R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi's arrangement of the Mishna, as he set the Order of Kodshim and then afterwards the Order of Taharot. The book of Vayikra opens with sacrifices (Kodshim) until chapter 7, continues with the dedication of the Mishkan, the focus of which is the sacrificial service, and this is followed – from chapter 11 to chapter 15 – with laws relating to purity and impurity (Taharot).
 "And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for thirty three days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come in to the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are fulfilled… And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin-offering, to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest" (vv. 4, 6).
 The woman brings a sacrifice and the priest offers it before God: "…the priest, who shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood" (v. 7).
 "And the priest that makes him clean shall present the man that is to be made clean and those things before the Lord, at the door of the Tent of Meeting. And the priest shall take one he lamb and offer it for a guilt-offering, and the lug of oil, and wave them for a wave–offering before the Lord. And he shall slaughter the lamb in the place where he shall slaughter the sin-offering and the burnt-offering, in the holy place. For as the sin–offering is the priest's, so is the guilt offering; it is most holy" (Vayikra 14:11-13). The expression, "before the Lord," is mentioned repeatedly over the course of the leper's purification (vv. 16, 18, 23, 24, 27, 29, and 31).
 The Rambam takes this principle to the extreme. In his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, he writes that there is no prohibition for a person to defile himself, and one is certainly not liable for flogging if he did defile himself. He argues that when a person is impure, he is obligated to leave the camp of the Shekhina, not to eat consecrated food and not to touch it. As he writes in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (mitzva 96): "I will preface with an introduction that you should remember in connection with everything that we shall say with regard to impurity… Becoming impure is optional. If one wishes, he may become impure; if he does not so desire, he should not become impure… The mitzva lies in that which was told to us regarding this matter that one who has touched this has become impure and he will be impure and he will be obligated to leave the camp of the Shekhina and not to eat consecrated food and not to touch it…"
 The connection between the concept of impurity and the concept of death or absence of life is clear, and it is found in most types of impurity: regarding impurity of the dead, which is the most severe of all impurities (Bamidbar 19); regarding the impurity of a carcass and of creeping things that impart impurity after they are dead (Vayikra 13); regarding the impurity of a woman who gave birth, who loses blood during childbirth; regarding the impurity of a leper, where the spots on his skin have lost their vitality; and regarding the impurity of a man who has had a seminal emission, where the semen which could potentially have created life is now lost. Similarly, regarding the impurity of a nidda, there was blood that was meant to receive life in the woman's womb, and now that her egg was not fertilized and life was not created, the blood goes to waste.
 Chapter 12 speaks of the impurity connected to the eating of animals. It would seem that the signs of permitted animals are connected to more delicate characteristics that are far from the characteristics of predatory animals. The Ramban writes regarding the birds that are forbidden to be eaten: "The great sign regarding birds is attacking, for any bird that attacks others is impure, because the Torah pushed it far away, seeing that its blood is heated by its cruelty… and it puts cruelty into the heart" (Ramban, Vayikra 11:13). And in Chazal: "The signs of birds were not stated, but the Sages said: Every attacking bird is impure" (Sifre Devarim, Parashat Re'eh 103). See at length R. Elchanan Samet in his study of Parashat Shemini in his second series of studies. The verses cited at the beginning of this section (Vayikra 11:43-47) illustrate the absence of direction that is found in the eating of the prohibited foods and in the touching of their carcasses.
Another impurity that lacks death is tzara'at of garments and tzara'at of houses. There too there is room to discuss the loss of the person's standing or direction in relation to his garments and his house.
 A verse is like a sentence. As in a sentence, which serves as a basic unit, all of whose parts are directly connected to each other, the parts of a verse are directly connected to each other. Many verses in Scripture seem to be comprised of a collection of facts that are not directly connected to one another. This exegetical "tool" enables us to become exposed to deep insights concealed within such verses.
 It would have been possible to formulate both accounts in the same way, so that the difference between them would be limited to the duration of the impurity – a week or two weeks. Placing them in opposition – "If a woman have conceived seed, and born a male child," as opposed to, "But if she bear a female child" - establishes a broad contrast that exists already in the course of the birth.
 Describing them as "male" and "female" is not self-evident. This is supported by the fact that later in the passage, when the topic is the sacrifice offered by the woman who gave birth, the terms used are "son" and "daughter," and not "male" and "female": "And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin-offering to the door of the Tent of Meeting." When the issue is the atonement, since the offering in both cases is the same, similar terms are used: "ben" (son) and "bat" (daughter). When the issue is the impurity, concerning which there is a difference between them, the formulation is "zakhar" (male) and "nekeva" (female), which reflect the essential gap between them.
 Examples of memory (zikaron) denoting existence and continuity: "But think of me when it shall be well with you, and show kindness, I pray you, to me, and make mention (vehizkartani) of me to Pharoah, and bring me out of this house" (Bereishit 40:14); "This is My name for ever, and this is My memorial [zikhri] to all generations" (Shemot 3:15); "The memory [zekher] of the just is blessed; but the name of the wicked shall rot" (Mishlei 10:7); "His rememberance [zikhro] shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street" (Iyyov 18:17).
 In Bereishit 1, God is not present in the expanse. He is described as Creator of the world, who brings the world into being through speech and remains separate from it. Words like "He said" and "He made" are used to describe His actions, which are not accompanied by involvement.
 In Bereishit 2, God is described as being present in the world, residing within it, and using its tools: "And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet grown, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Bereishit 2:5-9). God causes it to rain, He breathes the breath of life into the man's nostrils, and He plants trees in the garden. These are marvelous descriptions, and they relate to God as being present in the expanse.
 In the second chapter, the plants and herbs wait for man (Bereishit 2:5). When the time comes, he will work the land and allow them to grow. "And He put him into the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it" (v. 15) – man keeps the garden, serves the created world, and maintains it. "And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field" (v. 20) – man assigns names and gives meaning.
 The mishna in Yevamot exempts a woman from this mitzva: " A man is commanded concerning the duty of propagation, but not a woman. R. Yochanan ben Beroka says: Concerning both of them it is said: 'And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply.'" And in the gemara: "From where is this derived? R. Il'a said in the name of R. Elazar son of R. Shimon: The verse says: "And replenish the earth and subdue it.' It is the nature of man to subdue, but it is not the nature of a woman to subdue" (Yevamot 65b). R. Elazar combines the two commands and sees in both of them actions that are fitting for a man, but not for a woman.
 Examples: The woman serves as an answer to the unsatisfactory position in which the man finds himself: "And the Lord God said: It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help to match him" (v. 18). She is created from an internal part of the man: "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept. And He took one of his sides, and closed up the flesh in its place, and of the side which the Lord God had taken from the man, He made a woman, and brought her to the man" (vv. 21-22). When the woman is brought to man, he is exceedingly happy: "And the man said: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man" (v. 23). And in the end, the man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife: "That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (v. 24).
 See our study relating to Parashat Bamidbar.
 There are a few distinctions made between men and women. These distinctions do not stand up to the test of reality, which is essentially complex, and we should relate to them in the more conceptual sense as "masculine" characteristics and "feminine" characteristics. The Kabbala attributes wisdom to the man and understanding to the woman. Wisdom relates to the pattern or framework; understanding relates to connections, "understanding one thing from another." As a rule, a man's world is linear, whereas a woman's world is circular. A man is more connected to reason as it is, and he looks upon the world as if from the outside. A woman is connected to her feelings; she perceives reality with internal attention, feelings of life, intuitions, immanence. Basically, a man's leadership involves leading, motivating, or managing frameworks. A woman radiates onto reality from within herself, through inspiration. A man has physical strength that allows him to get things moving. A woman has little physical strength, and she moves others with speech, inner connections, and communication. A man moves easily from one world to the next, whereas a woman experiences things from within them, dwells in them, and is less attached to their framework. The Kabbala says nine sefirot are reflected in man, and that he lacks the sefira of malkhut. This sefira is reflected in a woman's world. Malkhut is the final sefira, which meets reality and allows it to exist. What is unique about it is that it relates to each of the separate sefirot and allows them to join together. In fact, the realization of all the sefirot depends on the sefira of malkhut.
 Circumcision ("mila") is related to speech, to communication: "Now these are the last words of David… The spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and his word ("mila") is on my tongue" (II Shemuel 23:1-2). The foreskin ("orla"), in contrast, symbolizes inpenetrability, the lack of connection. A person with an uncircumcised heart is a person who does not feel another person's heart. The term "orla" is elsewhere used in connection with the ear: "To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot hearken. Behold, the word of the Lord is unto them a reproach; they have no delight in it" (Yirmeyahu 6:10). In this verse, Yirmeyahu relates to the people's inability to listen, and he describes them as having uncircumcised ears. The foreskin is a covering, a barrier between a person and that which is outside of him. This barrier allows him to live his life, to exist within his own world, with no obligations to anything beyond himself. The use of the term "orla" embodies the detachment, the insensitivity towards anything other than the person, where there is a demand or at least an option for communication. Scripture offers a unique description of the people's return to their land and to themselves: "And the Lord will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Devarim 30:6). This circumcision is circumcision of the heart, in the wake of which man opens himself up to love. The love described here is the love of God, with all one's heart and with all one's soul, "that you may live." Circumcision adds life and connections.