Making Sense of Ritual Purity & Childbirth

“Unclean is not a term of psychological horror and disgust, it is a technical term for the cult…To import feelings into the translation falsifies, and creates more puzzles…Ritual impurity imposes God’s order on his creation.”

Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, p. 151

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ב) דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֺתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא׃ (ג) וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ׃ (ד) וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָהֳרָֽהּ׃ (ה) וְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָהֳרָֽה׃ (ו) וּבִמְלֹ֣את ׀ יְמֵ֣י טָהֳרָ֗הּ לְבֵן֮ א֣וֹ לְבַת֒ תָּבִ֞יא כֶּ֤בֶשׂ בֶּן־שְׁנָתוֹ֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה וּבֶן־יוֹנָ֥ה אוֹ־תֹ֖ר לְחַטָּ֑את אֶל־פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃ (ז) וְהִקְרִיב֞וֹ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ וְכִפֶּ֣ר עָלֶ֔יהָ וְטָהֲרָ֖ה מִמְּקֹ֣ר דָּמֶ֑יהָ זֹ֤את תּוֹרַת֙ הַיֹּלֶ֔דֶת לַזָּכָ֖ר א֥וֹ לַנְּקֵבָֽה׃ (ח) וְאִם־לֹ֨א תִמְצָ֣א יָדָהּ֮ דֵּ֣י שֶׂה֒ וְלָקְחָ֣ה שְׁתֵּֽי־תֹרִ֗ים א֤וֹ שְׁנֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יוֹנָ֔ה אֶחָ֥ד לְעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶחָ֣ד לְחַטָּ֑את וְכִפֶּ֥ר עָלֶ֛יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטָהֵֽרָה׃ (פ)

(1) Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: (2) Speak to the Israelites, saying, "Should a woman quicken with seed and bear a male, she shall be unclean seven days, as in the days of her menstrual unwellness she shall be unclean. (3) On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.— (4) And thirty days and three she shall stay in her blood purity. She shall touch no consecrated thing nor shall she come into the sanctuary till the days of her purity are completed. (5) And if she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation, and sixty days and six she shall stay over her blood purity. (6) And when the days of her purity are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for an offense offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest. (7) And he shall bring it forward before Adonai and atone for her, and she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the teaching about the childbearing woman, whether of a male or of a female. (8) And if her hand cannot manage enough for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for an offense offering, and the priest shall atone for her, and she shall be clean.

Robert Alter on Leviticus Chapter 12

2. she shall be unclean. The notion that the blood of childbirth rendered the parturient ritually impure was widespread in the ancient world, reflected in texts by the Hittites to the north of Israel and by the Greeks to the west. Jacob Milgrom notes that the ancients believed there was seed in the blood discharged by the childbearing woman, and so he proposes that this loss of blood was associated with death and hence conveyed impurity.

as in the days of her menstrual unwellness. The "in" is implied, for what is at issue is not the number of days but the nature of the condition of impurity.

4. thirty days she shall stay in her blood purity. The Hebrew, emphasizing the counting, says literally 1n thirty days and three days." When one adds the initial seven days, the total period during which the woman is to avoid contact with consecrated things (and also, evidently, refrain from marital relations) is the formulaic figure of forty days. The blood of the first seven days is considered impure. Afterward, her blood is deemed pure "her blood purity") but she must remain in this state for thirty-three days before she is free of the impurity contracted at childbirth.

5. if she bears a female...sixty days and six she shall stay. When one adds this number to the initial fourteen days, the total period of sequestration comes to eighty, or twice forty. No entirely satisfactory explanation has been offered for why a female child requires twice the length of time for the mother to be free of impurity, though one suspects a general predisposition of the culture to see the female as a potential source of impurity. Seminal emission also imparts ritual impurity, but the period for ridding oneself of the impurity imparted by menstrual discharge is much longer.

6. an offense offering. The present case is a strategic instance of why it is misleading to render the Hebrew hata'at, as almost all English versions do, as "sin offering." Surely the childbearing woman has done nothing that can be called a sin. The state of ritual impurity, however, imposed on her by biological circumstances makes her a potential source of violation of the sancta, which would be an offense to the cult and to its divine object, and so she is enjoined to present an offense offering that will mark the completion of her period of purification.

7. the flow of her blood. The literal sense of the Hebrew is "the source of her blood," the idiom exhibiting a common linguistic pattern in which there is an interchange between cause "source") and effect ("flow").

8. if her hand cannot manage. More literally, "her hand cannot find" (elsewhere, "her hand cannot attain"), with"hand" having its frequent biblical sense of capacity or power.

Baruch Levine, JPS Torah Commentary, The New Mother

The provisions of chapter 12 have long been a subject of intense discussion by modern scholars. It is difficult to explain why a new mother, after the awaited event of childbirth, should be considered impure, especially for such extended periods of time. There is also sex differentiation, whereby the birth of a male child obligates the mother to a less extended period of impurity than does the birth of a female.

Recent insights into the meaning of ritual make it possible to place the provisions of chapter 12 in proper perspective. The rituals prescribed in the Torah regularly utilize the category of impurity for dealing with conditions that are life-threatening. In ancient usage, “pure” and “impure” correspond to what in modern health care would be referred to as immune and susceptible, respectively. Although the new mother was a source of joy to the community, and her new child a blessing, she generated anxiety—as did all aspects of fertility and reproduction in ancient society. The childbearing mother was particularly vulnerable, and her child was in danger too, since infant mortality was widespread in premodern societies. By declaring the new mother impure, susceptible, the community sought to protect and shelter her.

In ancient times, concern for the welfare of the mother and child was most often expressed as the fear of destructive, demonic, or anti-life forces. This fear is evident in other ancient Near Eastern texts contemporaneous with the biblical period; they are replete with incantations and spells against demons and witches who were thought to kill newborn children and afflict their mothers. It is reasonable to assume that similar anxieties were current among the ancient Israelites as well. And although biblical religion certainly did not permit magical spells and the like as the proper means for overcoming these perceived threats to life, it did provide ritual means, as well as practical methods, to accomplish for the Israelite mother and her community what magic was supposed to accomplish for a pagan mother.

Thus, chapter 12 presents a seemingly paradoxical situation: new life but also a new threat to life. Going beyond the protection of mother and child, the legislation also aimed at safeguarding the purity of the sanctuary and the surrounding community from defilement. To this end, the new mother was barred from the sanctuary and from contact with sacred things, out of the apprehension that the antilife forces, which prey upon the newborn and the mother in her state of vulnerability, would be carried with her into the sanctuary. That, in turn, would cause divine displeasure in the same way that it was aroused by any other carrier of “impurity.”

In this connection, it is interesting to note the comment of the Sifra on 12:2: “‘When a woman at childbirth bears a male.’ What are you to conclude from this verse? Since it is stated (Lev. 15:31): ‘You shall put the Israelites on guard against [literally] their impurity, lest they die through [literally] their impurity by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them’—I understand that the Tabernacle might be defiled not only from the inside, but also by contact with its outer side. You are to learn therefore: ‘She shall not enter the sanctuary.’ Only through actual entry into the sanctuary does one defile it.” Although this statement seeks to limit the effects of the law, it expresses an awareness on the part of the rabbis that defilement involved a risk of death through divine wrath. The God of Israel, provoked by the proximity of impurity, punishes the community as a result.

This interpretation may provide a clue to the systematic distinction drawn between male and female children. Ramban tried to rationalize this distinction by referring to notions, current in his day, about bodily emissions. He insisted that the birth of a female caused a mother to sustain discharges for a longer period of time. It is more likely that the doubling of the initial period of impurity and the waiting period for a female had a different basis.

It may have reflected apprehension and anticipation regarding the infant daughter’s potential fertility, the expectation that she herself would someday become a new mother.

The regulations governing a new mother may also represent a strong response to the emphasis on fertility in ancient Near Eastern polytheism. By contrast, there could be no place in the Israelite sanctuary for the celebration of birth because such would promote a mythological attitude toward God Himself. We know from the literature of other ancient Near Eastern societies that, within the pagan temples, birth dramas were enacted and myths of birth were recited. Both dramatized the birth of gods and goddesses and their sexual union in celebrations that expressed the human drive for fertility. The biblical restrictions, which excluded the new mother from religious life until she and her child had survived childbirth, created a distance between the event of birth and the worship of God, for God rules over nature and grants the blessing of new life, but He is not, of course, subject to the natural processes of procreation.