“If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male... she shall be remain unclean for 33 days... and if she gives birth to a female... she shall remain unclean for 66 days” Leviticus 12:2-5


Tazria contains passages I have long struggled with. As the mother of baby daughters, it is painful to read that childbirth is somehow contaminating and that the birth of daughters is twice as contaminating as sons. Others share my discomfort. Abarbanel states flatly that the new mother "has committed no sin", while Nechama Leibowitz describes this ruling as "most perplexing". Perhaps the solution lies in investigating the Hebrew terms used. The words tumah and taharah are traditionally rendered "unclean" and "clean". They clearly denote opposites, but is the only interpretation purity and the lack of it?

Rachel Adler suggests tumah results from confronting our own mortality. It occurs when we encounter, or are threatened with, death. She notes that mourners also adopt this state. By contrast, taharah is a re-affirmation of our immortality, what she calls "re-entry into the light", that results from encountering the Divine.

Others suggest the terms refer to the individual versus the communal. Tumah results from experiences which force us to concentrate solely on ourselves, such as bereavement and childbirth, while taharah is the state in which we can fully give ourselves to the community.

Tumah, then, follows an overwhelming, traumatic episode, and for many, childbirth is exactly that. It is reasonable to expect a period of private reflection before facing the world again. Perhaps this is why tumah lasts longer when a daughter is born. When we look at our newborn daughters, in the knowledge that these tiny, fragile babies might one day achieve this amazing feat themselves, perhaps we're justified in maintaining our solitary, private joy, for just a little longer.

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