This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, delves further into causes of ritual impurity, not generally one’s favorite topic. At least it’s short. It concerns ritual impurity associated with childbirth and with tzara’at, a skin affliction, formerly incorrectly identified with leprosy (Hansen’s disease), that the rabbis associate with slander.
It’s also Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, so there’s a second scroll reading, Numbers 28:9-15, about the prescribed new moon sacrifices.
But wait – there’s more!
There’s a third reading, Exodus 12:1-20, for Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath of THE month, i.e., Nisan, which occurs on or right before (this year, on) Rosh Chodesh Nisan. It’s the 4th of the four special Shabbatot with special readings in preparation for Passover. The haftarah (Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, 45:18-46:13 for Sephardim), is a vision of Passover observance in messianic times.
That’s right, 3 readings from 3 books in 3 scrolls.
Back to Tazria an ritual purity. The word “pure” evokes such nice images (setting aside “racial purity” of course): freshness. cleanliness, innocence, simplicity, truth, a lack of contamination. Ritual purity and impurity mainly affect one’s ability to go to the sanctuary and to join the community in eating certain sacrifices. The ritual purity we deal with in the Torah is assumed. That is, the normal state is purity, until that is disturbed in specified ways. Further, Ritual impurity (tumah) is contracted by 1) contact with certain animal remains, 2) childbirth, 3) tzara’at, 4) genital discharges, and 5) contact with a human corpse. Tazria deals with 2) and 3).
Childbirth is dealt with in Chapter 12, a mere 8 verses. For seven days after the birth, a woman who has a boy cannot go to the sanctuary or have relations with her husband, and she makes objects impure by sitting or lying on them. On the eighth day, the boy is circumcised. After the first seven days, she is impure, but only with respect to the sanctuary, for an additional thirty-three days. Then she brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the sanctuary, the priest makes atonement for her, and she is declared “clean.” The process is the same if the baby is a girl, except there is no circumcision and the time is doubled from seven and thirty-three to fourteen and sixty-six, a total of eighty days.
It is unclear, even to the rabbinic commentators over the centuries, why the time of impurity is doubled for a girl. Baruch Levine in the JPS Commentary on Leviticus suggests that the doubling reflects the daughter’s potential fertility; the mother, who bleeds, has produced someone else who will eventually bleed and give birth. This seems to me the most reasonable explanation, though not entirely satisfactory. Levine also notes that requiring a sin offering doesn’t mean the woman is at fault, just impure. The sin offering then is to remove this impurity and restore her access to the sanctuary. The burnt offering is then her first act of worship on being restored fully to the community.
The tumah associated with childbirth leads to profound considerations of life and death. I wrote in 1997 (Sisterhood Shabbat 1997 Comments on Tazria), “In both the original text and the commentaries on this chapter, we find marked ambivalence. … The baby is ritually clean, and God has commanded that we be fruitful and multiply, and barrenness is regarded as a great sorrow. Yet the mother is considered impure enough to be ritually separated from the community for several weeks …. In Midrash Rabbah, the rabbis express awe at the miracles of conception, pregnancy, birth, and nursing and also disgust at what one rabbi refers to as nauseating substances that accompany the birth.” Childbirth, places in opposition miracle and filth, heaven and earthiness, purity (the baby) and impurity (the woman, as she recovers), life and death, resulting in the strongly positive and strongly negative vibes that come through in the rabbinical texts.
The rest of the portion deals with diagnosing tzara’at, which must be done by a priest. This concerns skin discoloration, odd white or yellow hairs, unexplained baldness, skin discolorations that are white or white streaked with red, and cloth or leather that has red or green streaks. Purification requirements are given in next week’s portion.
An early Shabbat shalom,
(This is being sent out early in the week for scheduling reasons.)
A member of the United States Senate, known for his hot temper and acid tongue, exploded one day in mid-session and began to shout, “Half of this Senate is made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!”
All the other Senators demanded that the angry member withdraw his statement or be removed from the remainder of the session.
After a long pause, the angry member acquiesced. “OK,” he said, “I withdraw what I said. Half of this Senate is NOT made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!”
Quotes about Purity
Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. Leonardo da Vinci
Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which man soars above the earth and all temporary nature. Thomas a Kempis
There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it. Unknown
An all-white space has a purity that is refreshing and serene. Mary Helen Bowers
It is astonishing what force, purity, and wisdom it requires for a human being to keep clear of falsehoods. Margaret Fuller