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Parashat Tazria-Metzora

April 11, 2013

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

Great joy resounded in the halls of modern science when the long-sought after “God particle”, the Higgs-boson element, was recently confirmed in the special, underground, womb-like fission testing chamber in Switzerland. While it is entirely wonderful to think that we can now have measurable evidence of how matter begins to be formed at the level of the smallest perceivable particles, yet there is nothing here emotionally or spiritually that can compare to the experience of giving birth to a child, a truly unforgettable spiritual event in our lives. Personally, I recall the birth of my children as a physically exhausting, but emotionally exhilarating time, where closeness of life AND death were tangibly experienced. During and immediately following my daughters’ births, I experienced a closeness to God like never before and which is hard to express in words. Because we are unable to remember our own birth or death, I believe that this is why the birthing experience is so filled with kedushah, with holiness, and yirat Shamayim, awe of the Divine, in our tradition.

The basis for childbirth rituals is found in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, in the opening section, Leviticus 12:1-8. While the childbearing woman is considered “temeah“, impure, with the flow of blood that ensues following birth, this is not meant as a physical or moral uncleanness, but rather a spiritual state; it creates a separation for her, similar to that of her menstrual state, so that she and the world around her can appreciate the power of life that is symbolized by our blood. Rashi understands the words “teishev be’edmei taharah“- “she shall remain in a state of blood purification” (Lev.12:4) to mean that the woman is thus allowed to let her body and her spirit recover from this tremendous experience. Fathers, too, get to spend time to appreciate the new life brought into this world, to spread the news to others, and to make the arrangements for the celebration of Brit Milah, circumcision, for a boy, or Brit Bat, a daughter’s entering the Covenant, for a girl. As England’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Saks explained in his article Holiness and Childbirth, “She [the mother] now knows what it is for a life to beget life and in the midst of mortality to be touched by intimations of immortality.”

While there is probably a strong desire to go to the synagogue to offer public prayers of thanks to God, replacing the olah and hattat sacrifices specified in Temple times, the Law tells us to wait even longer – 40 days after the birth of a boy and 80 days after the birth of a girl. Why?

First, because even though the initial danger of childbirth has passed, the halakhah deems an infant not “viable” until a minimum of 30 days after birth (Shabbat 135b). This respect for the fragility of life and the accompanying superstitions spawned many customs to protect both infant and mother during this first month. Amulets and charms with Biblical verses, garlic, and pieces of ivory or coral were hung around the bedroom; mothers in medieval Germany wore iron bracelets, since the Hebrew word for iron, barzel, was considered an acronym for Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah, the four wives of Jacob, whose spiritual presence is called upon this way. In Kurdistan, a mother was not to leave the house after sunset for the first forty days. (here) And far from being burdensome, there may be some related numerical significance to these numbers of resting days, especially when we recall other historical events such as the forty days of the Flood, the days Moses was on Mt. Sinai, the years of King David and Solomon’s reigns, etc. Most clearly, this is a time of deep bonding for parents with their newborn child, and parallels the lifetime care that God has for each of us. As Rabbi Lord Saks pointed out, “One who is caring for a newborn child is already engaged in a work of kedushah, of holiness, and has that closeness to God which others seek through prayers.” (“Holiness and Childbirth”, ibid.)

When the time to give thanks comes, it is to be honored and enjoyed communally, with blessings of Shehehiyanu, for preserving and keeping us alive, and  HaTov ve-ha-Meitiv, to the One Who Is Good and Brings Goodness into our lives. Whatever the scientific world may add to our knowledge, may we each preserve this spiritual awareness and awe of the preciousness of life that begins at birth, and do all we can as God’s creations to support and nurture all life in our world.


Rabbi Dorit Edut (’06) is the head of the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network and teaches at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue