In the first of the two parshiot this week, Tazria, we read (12:2-6) “If a woman gives birth to a baby boy, she will become Tamay (impure) for seven days during which she cannot be intimate with her husband. On the eighth day, the baby shall be circumcised. If she gives birth to a girl, she is Tamay for two weeks”. There are a number of difficulties with this. First of all, why does the woman become Tamay from the act of childbirth? Given that having children is one of the most important Mitzvot we can do, why would it make someone Tamay? After all, a person does not become Tamay after giving charity, visiting the sick or keeping shabbat! And if something about childbirth causes Tumah (impurity), why isn’t the man deemed Tamay as well? In addition, why is the period of Tumah longer if it’s a girl?
Also interesting is the fact that the Rabbis tell us that after the one-week and two-week waiting periods, part of the mother’s Tumah is removed, so that she is permitted to be intimate with her husband again. This seems to imply that it was the Brit Milah (circumcision) that removed part of the woman’s Tumah if she had a boy. Why is that? And if that is the case, what removes the Tumah if she has a girl?
To address any of these questions we must first try to understand what Tumah really means. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Horeb, pg. 580) “The term ‘Tumah’ is often translated as ‘unclean’. This translation is entirely misleading because it suggests a physical, material quality. The term Tumah, however, is never used in Scripture in a material sense but always in a moral or metaphysical sense. For this reason, the view that the laws of Tumah and Taharah (purity) are of a sanitary or hygienic character is completely untenable. The effect may have been beneficial from the sanitary point of view, but that does not mean the motive of these laws is sanitary, hygienic or medical. The real meaning of this term can best be discovered by looking at the opposite term. We find that there are two terms which form an antithesis–namely, Kedushah and Tahara. This is no linguistic accident because there are two kinds of Tumah. One belongs to the sphere of morality, and its contrast is Kedushah; the other belongs to the sphere of metaphysics, and its contrast is Tahara. The first one (termed ‘concrete’ Tumah) has an affect on the moral character of man and comprises the spheres of idol-worship, dietary laws and sexual immorality. The second form of Tumah (termed ‘symbolic’ Tumah) is not concerned with man, but with the Sanctuary as representing the Divine Presence”.
R. Hirsch continues to say “Moral freedom is the central conception of Judaism. Man consists of body and soul; with his bodily existence he seems to be subject to the law of causality or the doctrine of necessity (i.e. lacks free-will). Anything that endangers or constricts his conviction of moral freedom is a danger to man’s inner harmony”. Rav Hirsch further explains that this is why contact with a dead body is considered the ultimate Tumah. Since a dead body has succumbed to the law of physical necessity and decay, it acts as a symbol to man that he merely belongs to physical nature and thus lacks moral freedom. Rav Hirsch continues, “Therefore, one who has touched a dead body cannot enter the Sanctuary–the living symbol of the Divine Presence which causes him to be morally free. As far as the concrete Tumah is concerned, that is created in us by committing acts of idol-worship, sexual immorality, etc., which undermine the character of man.”
When a woman gives birth, she is considered to have experienced a form of death, because that additional life-force which was in her (in the form of the child), has been discharged to the world, leaving her with less “life” inside. This is one reason as to why she becomes Tamay. It also answers the question of why the man does not become Tamay, because he really doesn’t experience this so-called “death” that the woman does. In addition, this helps us understand why the girl makes the mother Tamay longer than the boy. The girl is considered to have more life-force in her, because she too has the potential to give birth. Therefore, when the mother discharges the girl into the world, the amount of potential life inside her decreases to a greater degree than with a boy. The question remains however, why specifically one week for a boy and two weeks for a girl?
When you think about it, why is the Brit Milah done specifically on the eighth day? After all, if this is the ceremony that makes the baby part of the Jewish nation and also seems to release the mother from one level of Tumah, why not do it on the very first day that he is born? The commentary Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim Attar) says that it cannot be done before the eighth day because the child would not have the strength to endure it. But that seems strange. The child just endured birth, which is much more painful and traumatic than a Brit. If he can make it through that, why isn’t he strong enough for a Brit Milah? One might even argue that a baby does not build up much strength seven days after birth anyway. (In fact, most babies lose weight in the first few days after birth.) In addition, some would suggest that it would be better for the baby to have the Brit done right away so he can get all > the pain over with immediately.
R. Attar explains that we’re not talking about physical strength here. He quotes the Zohar which says that when Hashem finished creating the world in six days, though everything was complete, the world was still shaky and unsteady. Then, on the seventh day, Shabbat came along and strengthened everything so that all became firm and sturdy. As to how Shabbat did this, R. Attar notes that the world is comprised of many beautiful, physical things, but without a spiritual foundation, it’s all wobbly–i.e. without a sense of purpose. Shabbat added the spiritual aspect to the world, thus making it more than just physical. Since Hashem’s purpose in creating a world was to have His spirituality brought into it, Shabbat achieved this and therefore gave the world, and everything in it, a sense of purpose. In other words, Shabbat put the “finishing touch” on the rest of creation.
Why do we wait for a boy to be eight days old for his Brit? Because this makes the child at least a week old, and guarantees that he will have experienced a Shabbat. Experiencing a shabbat, adds spirituality to this child, who until then, is really just another physical being, as the baby’s main interests in the beginning are physical (eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.). After the baby is made more “spiritually” firm, having experienced Shabbat, he is then able to undergo a Brit Milah, which reinforces his spirituality and thus inducts him into the Jewish nation.
Why is his mother’s Tumah affected by this? According to what we said, Tumah inherently implies a blockage of spirituality. Conversely, the action of doing a Mitzvah adds spirituality to the world. After the mother gives birth, she does not really know if she has created a spiritual being who will be involved in doing Mitzvot and adding spirituality to the world, or whether it’s just another physical being who will only be involved in physical pursuits. Once the baby boy is circumcised however, the mother now knows that she has given birth to someone who has taken on the responsibilities of being a Jew and doing Mitzvot which will increase the level of spirituality in the world. In adding this spirituality to the world, the birth truly becomes a Mitzvah and therefore removes part of the Tumah from the mother, so she is permitted again to her husband.
What about the girl? What is it that inducts her into the Jewish nation Emet (the first Gerer Rebbe)–the girl waits two weeks, because in doing so, she experiences two Shabbatot. The fact is, a person can do anything once, without even having the intention of doing it–sometimes it’s inadvertent or a mistake. Even when it comes to keeping Shabbat, a person can do it once, maybe just to try it out, or even by accident. So keeping Shabbat once, does not really reflect a person’s intention in keeping Shabbat for the long-term. Once a person repeats something, it reinforces that action, it shows a certain consistency/intent on the person’s part. Therefore, when it comes to a baby girl’s experiencing Shabbat, the first one firms her up spiritually and strengthens her so that she is able to undergo a second Shabbat. Once she experiences two Shabbatot, we know it’s no accident. She is now committed to doing Mitzvot and thus becomes part of the Jewish people. Now the mother is assured that she has given birth to a spiritual being, not just a physical one, and part of her Tumah is removed so that she can be with her husband again.